Older dogs (like people!) are very much prone to arthritis – but what is this condition? And does it mean no more walks for our elderly companions?
What actually is arthritis?
Arthritis simply means inflammation of a joint. This area gets really confusing, because there are so many different types – and a lot of people mix up the different types…
â— Septic Arthritis – this is where a joint gets infected. It is, fortunately, rare in dogs, although it may be seen in young puppies who were born in dirty conditions; or dogs who suffer a deep wound over a joint.
â— Immune Mediated Arthritis – this is a condition where the joints are damaged by an overactive or over-enthusiastic immune system. It can be due to a primary autoimmune disease (where the immune system goes haywire and starts attacking healthy tissues), or, more often, as a side effect of the immune system attacking a bacterium or virus. In humans, rheumatoid arthritis is an example of immune-mediated arthritis; in dogs, these conditions are often termed “polyarthritis”.
â— Osteoarthritis – this is the type weâ’re most interested in, and it is the most common form in dogs. It is caused by wear and tear on the joints, and is most commonly seen in old age, or in dogs with existing joint problems.
So, what causes osteoarthritis?
Essentially, it is caused by wear on the joint. On the inside surface of each of your dogâ’s joints is a “non-stick” lining made of cartilage – a sort of “biological teflon” if you like! This allows the bones to glide easily over each other, without catching or grating. In osteoarthritis, this cartilage becomes worn and damaged, leading to changes in the composition of the joint fluid (the liquid lubricant), inflammation and ultimately pain and a reduced range of motion. There are three basic causes for the development of osteoarthritis:
â— Normal loading on an abnormal joint – this is why osteoarthritis develops in young in dogs with hip or elbow dysplasia. These joints are deformed, so even the normal “load” (i.e. carrying the dogâ’s weight as they walk and run) causes excessive wear on that inner cartilage.
â— Abnormal loading on a normal joint – a dog carrying excess weight will be putting more load, more work, on their (otherwise healthy) joints. This is why obesity leads to early onset arthritis: more weight = more load on their joints = more wear and tear.
â— Normal loading on a normal joint for an abnormally long time – ultimately, old age! With dogs living longer and longer, we are inevitably seeing more arthritic dogs hobbling into the surgery.
What are the symptoms?
A dog with arthritis may just appear to be “stiff” or “slowing down”. However, in fact they are suffering from quite marked joint pain (itâ’s amazing how many clients, after their dog starts on painkillers, say how much younger they seem). Typical symptoms include:
â— Reduced desire for exercise
â— Slow to get going in the morning
â— Unwilling to jump up or climb steps
â— Abnormal “shuffling” or sometimes “bunnyhopping” gait (especially with hip arthritis)
â— Reduced range of motion in the affected joint(s)
â— Increased “tiredness”
â— Limping in severe cases.
Usually, symptoms are worst when the dog first gets up and then wear off as they do more; and in most cases, symptoms are worsened a day or two after strenuous exercise.
How can it best be managed?
Just remember PAWS!
- Most dogs with arthritis will need some medication, sooner or later.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (“NSAIDs”, such as meloxicam or carprofen) are the mainstay of managing osteoarthritis, by reducing the inflammation and the pain.
- We also sometimes use morphine-based medicines – these are not animal licensed medicines but are widely used in human medicine. Where NSAIDs are not working well or if an animal cannot take NSAIDs for some reason we might add in these products with care
- Polysulphated glycosaminoglycans (thereâ’s a mouthful!) are a family of drugs that work the same way as glucosamine, but are injected, bypassing any problems with the digestive tract.
- In some cases, anti-inflammatory steroids may be needed – but these have a potential for some side effects so tend to be reserved for dogs who are not responding to other medicines.
Activity and exercise regimes
- Many people think that their arthritic dog shouldnâ’t be exercised, because it will make their condition worse – this is not true! Exercise has a huge number of benefits
- Exercise help keep joints supple and will help extend their life – because a dogâ’s joint tissues do not get their nutrition directly from the bloodstream, but through the joint fluid inside. By regularly moving the joints, you actually maximise joint health!
- Weight loss – a dog (or a person!) who doesnâ’t exercise will be prone to weight gain – and excess weight puts more load on already sore joints.
- Mental health – a dog cooped up inside isnâ’t a happy dog. The same applies to us – going out with our pets gives both us and them a massive boost!
- You do need to take care though. The best rule for exercising an arthritic dog is little and often. So several regular short walks throughout the day are so much better than one long walk a day. And just one long walk a week can often makes things much worse.
- And at the end of the day it is amazing how much difference it can make if you ensure your dog has a well-padded, warm, dry bed to sleep in.
- And at the end of your walk then using ramps to make sure they can easily climb steps, or get into the car can be really helpful
Weight control and diet changes
- Weight loss is really important – some studies suggest that the loss of 1 body condition score is as effective at managing arthritis as a dose of painkillers!
- Joint supplements: these are sometimes called “nutraceuticals”, and they are really just specially formulated foodstuffs. They are made of products containing the “building blocks” that the dog needs to make good quality cartilage. Most contain glucosamine and/or chondroitin. Some patients do really well, others donâ’t seem to gain any benefit but they can be well worth a try. You can also try products with an altered balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, designed to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Many “joint diets” are specially formulated for keeping weight and providing nutrition that will help with arthritic joints. We recommend Hills JD – joint diet or Hills Metabolic + motility for extra weight control. But remember, if the dog gets lots of other food, the effect will be reduced.
If you think your dog may have arthritis, make an appointment to get them checked over by one of our vets or our clinic nurses!