The earlier your dog’s arthritis or stiff joints is treated the longer and more comfortable life they will lead” – Sara Capesciotti (author of this piece)
Before we tackle the question how to spot and care for arthritis in dogs, lets first understand what arthritis is. Arthritis is inflammation of joints mainly caused by degenerative changes due to developmental problems, age or overuse of joints/muscles. Notably, osteoarthritis is often the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs.
All dogs regardless of age or breed can be affected by arthritis, although certain factors increase a dog’s risk. Large breeds such as Labrador, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are more prone to arthritis, while obese dogs are more likely to develop it. Additionally, older dogs are prone to arthritis because of the years of wear and tear of their joints.
How to spot arthritis in dogs?
Let’s go through some questions first. While responding to these questions, think about your dog’s activities this week.
- Does s/he have difficulties to stand up after sitting/lying down for a while?
- Is s/he hesitant to jump or to use stairs?
- Does s/he ever limp after exercises?
- Does s/he walk look stiff?
- Is s/he slower than usual during walks?
If the answer is yes to some or even one of these questions your dog might have arthritis. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage protecting the bones of the joint are destroyed. The joint loses its cushion, causing friction between bones, leading to pain and decreased mobility in affected joints.
Pain, stiffness, reluctance to walk upstairs, run, jump or play, lethargy, loss of muscle mass are the most common symptoms of arthritis. Although any joint in a dog’s body can be affected by arthritis, the most affected joints are hips, elbows, lower back, knees and wrists.
It’s important to understand that osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition which cannot be cured and will progress with time. But it is a manageable condition with treatment options aimed at managing the symptoms.
Caring for arthritic dogs
There are different treatments you can opt for in collaboration with your veterinarian and physiotherapist to help pets with arthritis manage their pain and improve their joint health.
The first recommendation is to pet proof the home environment to allow your pet to move independently while protected from accidental harm. For example, you can cover the slippery floor to prevent them from sliding, restrict the access to the stairs with a baby gate or barrier.
A good bed is also important. It should be both supportive and conforming, ensuring that the pet can change their position without difficulty. If your dog shares the sofa with you, make sure they will not jump up and down by provide a ramp.
Never forget to support your arthritic pet getting in and out of the car lifting them or using a ramp can make car access much easier.
Another important topic is their diet, which plays an important role in arthritis. If your dog is overweight, this puts added stress on joints, causing greater joint damage and more severe arthritis. Helping your dog lose weight will help minimise further joint damage improving lameness and mobility. For example, if your pet is overweight, losing 10% of their body weight results in 50% improvement in pain. In contrast, traditional anti-inflammatory medications only improve pain from osteoarthritis by 30%.
Effectiveness of animal physiotherapy
Animal physiotherapy has shown amazing results in this scenario often enhancing pets’ quality of life. Physiotherapy includes a range of techniques and modalities from laser therapy, massage and therapeutic exercises.
The main goals are of physiotherapy include:
- Relieve joint pain using laser and magnetic field are great for reducing inflammation and relieving associated pain.
- Relieve muscular tension through massage can be used to address areas of muscular tension.
- Maintain joint range of movement by stretching helps to keep joints as mobile as possible.
- Muscle building/strengthening through therapeutic exercises target specific muscle groups to enable the pet to be capable of completing functional activities such as walking, sitting and relieving themselves.
- Hydrotherapy, depending on the height and buoyancy of the water will provide varying levels of support for dogs who are weak or in pain.
- Weight loss, if necessary, by incorporating an appropriate exercise plan can be effective.
Treatment plan for arthritis must be multimodal
It is worth remembering that the best approach to treat arthritis is multimodal, which means both medical and non-medical aspects are a must to create an effective treatment plan. The most effective arthritis management plans include different aspects including medication, physiotherapy, exercise modification, home adaptations, weight loss and joint supplements.
Anti-inflammatories might be prescribed by your vet to treat the pain caused by arthritis. Due to side-effects associated with the use of anti-inflammatories, the vet may recommend blood tests to ensure that the liver and kidneys of your dog are in working order before initiating this treatment. If the patient cannot have any medication, physiotherapy would be the best option along with a good quality joint supplement.
Joint supplements are one of the most common long-term, safe treatments recommended to help reduce inflammation and pain, improve function and reduce the progression of joint damage and arthritis. Supplements for humans and dogs commonly include glucosamine and chondroitin, as well as green-lipped mussel (GLM).
In the worst-case scenario if your dog’s joints become severely damaged or if the pain is intense, your veterinarian may recommend surgery to reduce pain and improve movement and function.
In conclusion, the earlier your dog’s arthritis or stiff joints is treated the longer and more comfortable life they will lead.
By Sara Capesciotti, Physiotherapist for Small Animals, Blue Oasis Veterinary Clinic, Dubai
Sara Capesciotti has been with Blue Oasis Veterinary Clinic in Dubai since 2018. In 2013 she graduated in Animal Welfare in Italy. In 2015 she obtained a diploma for “Advanced Practical Course in Veterinary Physiotherapy by SCIVAC (Italian Companion Animal Veterinary Association). Sara keeps herself up to date with newest methods and treatments in physiotherapy, following University of Tennessee’s ongoing education VAHL: Physiotherapy, Rehabilitation & Sports medicine in Animals. She has gained professional experience with patients through neurological, orthopaedic and post-surgical problems while working in “CVRS” one of Italy’s most advanced referral animal hospitals for neurology. In 2018 Sara started working in collaboration with Asalaser Veterinary, an innovative therapeutic technique patented in the US and Italy for effectively treating complaints that commonly affect household pets.