Does your dog appear to be slowing down? Maybe not playing or running as robustly as he or she once did? It may be due to a common joint problem that also affects people: Your dog or cat may be suffering from arthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease. Fortunately, there are very successful treatments that will allow your companion to maintain a pain-free, active life. Arthritis is a condition in which the smooth cartilage that covers the bone in a joint is broken down. This causes the cartilage to erode away and the exposed bone becomes painful and inflamed. Over time, this “wear and tear” causes joint pain and reduced mobility. There are many reasons and conditions that can lead to an arthritic joint. Some are more common than others, such as obesity and normal aging. Obesity increases the stress that the joint endures while performing its normal function, which leads to disruption of the cartilage. Aging also causes gradual wear of the cartilage, which leads to erosion. Larger-breed dogs will have more degenerative effects due to the normal stress placed on their joints. Other conditions that may occur over a dog’s lifetime can also influence or cause the degenerative process. These include trauma to the joint, such as a joint dislocation, a ligament or tendon rupture or an inherited condition such as hip dysplasia. All of these conditions cause an abnormal motion of the joint and cause the cartilage to be disrupted. In some cases, these conditions can be corrected and the process of degeneration can be halted or at least minimized. Other potential causes of arthritis are less common but include an infection of the joint (septic arthritis), or other immune system-related disease (Immune mediated polyarthritis). These diseases, if treated early, can minimize the long-lasting effects of true degenerative joint disease. So what are the signs of arthritis in our canine companions? Many dogs will be hesitant to jump, run or climb stairs. Others may appear to walk stiffly, particularly in the back legs. Observe your dog for difficulty getting up from a lying position or if he appears stiff when rising. They may be painful when touched in certain areas of their limbs, or appear to have swollen or sore joints. Or the signs may be more subtle, and they may seem to have lost some flexibility in the joints. Perhaps the most important factor in the treatment of degenerative joint disease is prevention. In some breeds, particularly the larger breeds, this can greatly help their quality of life as they age. Proper exercise and nutrition are the most easily controlled factors that affect joint health in canines. By giving enough low-impact exercise, such as swimming, and monitoring their caloric intake, you can minimize your dog’s risk of obesity. And because obesity is a major risk factor in the development of joint disease, your dog will be less likely to develop arthritis at an early age. You should consult with your veterinarian to formulate a diet and exercise plan tailored for your pet. For dogs who have already started to develop arthritis, there are treatments that can help minimize the inflammation and pain. These include anti-inflammatory medications, such as Rimadyl or Dermaxx. Both of the medications are formulated for dogs and do not have significant GI side effects that you would see with a medication such as Aspirin. There are also products available that can help restore and replenish the cartilage, such as Glycoflex and Cosequin. These products contain Glucosamine, which helps hydrate the joint and provide improved cushioning. Usually, a combination of anti-inflammatory and a Glucosamine supplement are given to help improve the dog’s quality of life and let them regain their natural mobility. And, if necessary, a weight-control program with physical therapy may be needed to further enhance their activity. For the dog who is being treated with arthritis, there are a few things you can do at home to help them and minimize their pain and discomfort. Provide them with soft or orthopedic types of bedding. Feed them from a low table or raised feeder so they do not place a lot of strain in their neck and spine. Groom them in areas that may be hard for them to reach. They may need a boost to access areas that have stairs or places they would normally jump up on such as a couch or chair. And when playing, be sure it’s gentle and low-impact. Arthritis is one of the most common conditions that occurs in our canine companions, but, if noticed early, it can be treated very effectively. Please consult with your veterinarian if you see any of the signs of arthritis that were described above. Early intervention can make all the difference in your pet’s health and quality of life.
Stephen Meister, VMD, is an associate veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, visit societyhillvets.com or call 215-627-5955.