What is Arthritis
Arthritis is a general term for abnormal changes in a joint. It can arise from joint tissue destruction due to infection, congenital defects, and stress and trauma to joint surfaces and supporting structures. Occasionally, disorders of the immune system will also lead to joint tissue inflammation and degeneration.
As a result of arthritis, motion becomes more and more restricted due to the joint degeneration, and the discomfort and pain prompts the dog to reduce the use of the joint. Unfortunately, the reduced use further compounds the problems associated with arthritis because the dog then gains weight, and continued disuse further limits joint mobility (1).
How do I know if my dog has arthritis?
Arthritis is one of the most common ailments seen in middle-aged to older pets. Even younger dogs, under the right circumstances, can suffer from arthritic changes. Arthritis causes changes within affected joints that are painful for the affected pet. This pain is responsible for many of the signs associated with arthritis. Here are seven of those common signs.
1. Limping: You may see your pet limping or favouring one or more of his legs, depending on which legs and which joints are arthritic. In some cases, the limp may seem worse when your pet first rises and may become less noticeable as your pet 'warms up' by moving around.
2. Difficulty Moving: Your pet may also become reluctant to do things that were previously easy for him/her to accomplish. For instance, your dog may find it difficult to get into and out of the car or may have difficulty going up and down stairs that were previously easily manageable.
3. Spinal Issues: Arthritic changes can occur not only in the legs but also in the various parts of the spine. These changes may result in a sore neck, an abnormal posture with a 'hunch' in the back, or lameness of one or both hind legs.
4. Tiredness: Your pet may tire more easily. For dogs, this may mean that walks become shorter and more painful for your pet. Your pet may spend more time sleeping and/or resting.
5. Irritability: Arthritic animals may become irritable. They may snap and/or bite when approached or handled, particularly if the petting or handling takes place in a manner that increases their pain.
6. Muscle Atrophy: Arthritic pets often develop muscle atrophy or dying of the muscle tissue due to inactivity and decreased use of the muscles. A pet with atrophied muscles in their legs will have a leg which looks thinner than a normal leg.
7. Licking, Chewing & Biting: Pets affected with arthritis may also begin to lick at, chew or bite at body areas that are painful. This may even reach the point of causing inflamed skin and hair loss over affected areas (2).
Alleviating the Discomfort of Arthritis
Although arthritis cannot be cured, there are various remedies and procedures that can help ease the pain for your pet. Consult your veterinarian for advice if you believe your dog is suffering from arthritis.
There are anti-inflammatory medications that can be prescribed to dogs that are safe and effective. However, you need to talk to your veterinarian to discuss the pros and cons of any medication your dog is taking, especially those being taken on a continuing basis.
Immediately discontinue use of any medication, and contact your veterinarian, as soon as a suspected adverse reaction occurs. Reactions can be variable, subtle, severe, or unusual; individual attention to each medication's potential adverse effects should be discussed with your veterinarian (1).
How to Manage a Dog with Arthritis
Keeping excess body weight to a minimum is a very important aspect of managing arthritis in dogs. Often, simply reducing the dog's weight to a reasonable level will effect noticeable changes in the dog's activity and mobility.
Exercise is important to entice the dog to maintain and improve joint movement and flexibility. A hardwood floor of a living room or doghouse will not serve the dog well in alleviating joint stiffness. Placing yoga mats or carpets on hardwood floors helps with mobility. Also, keep your dog on the main floor to avoid stairs, by using a baby gate (this is house proofing your senior dog instead of puppy). Massage therapy, swimming, or water therapy offered at some clinics can also help.
One last word of caution. Some medications that humans commonly take to subdue arthritic discomfort are totally inappropriate for use in dogs. Acetaminophen, for example, has been associated with liver damage in dogs and Ibuprofen has been reported to cause gastro-intestinal bleeding.
Your veterinarian will help you decide which course of action is best for your pet. It is very important not to try treating your pet with any type of product, nutraceutical or NSAID, without consulting your veterinarian. It is also important to use products approved for animals rather than a product made for humans (1).
1. T.J. Dunn, Jr., DVM, Arthritis: How to Recognize and Manage the Condition, PetMD.com
2. Lorie Huston, DVM, 7 Signs Your Dog or Cat May be Suffering from Arthritis, PetMD.com