By: James St.Clair, DVM
At some point in your dog’s life your veterinarian has probably mentioned the words arthritis, osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease. If not, then they should have, because statistics show that one in every five adult dogs in the United States is suffering from some degree of arthritis. Most of us just pass it off as a normal part of aging or breed predisposed condition. Either way, the problem is that we never truly understand what arthritis really is. Why does it occur? What is going on? How is it affecting my dog? And most of all, what can I do to help?
If animals could only speak! Every day, in some way, veterinarians wish that their patients could talk to them. It would definitely make diagnosing certain ailments much easier. But as you and I already know, they do talk to us. The problem is when it comes to arthritis in its early stages, they are only whispering very quietly.
It is important to first understand that arthritis is a very complex disease. Don’t let this scare you, because even though the process is complex, it is simple to explain. Arthritis is most commonly diagnosed in older animals, yet it can occur at any age. Yes, it is true that some breeds of dogs are more likely to develop arthritis than others, i.e. larger breed dogs, German Shepards, Retrievers, etc., but we must not overlook the little ones who can be affected as well. It is also important to note that cats have an equal potential to suffer from arthritis, but for the purpose of this article, the focus will only be on dogs. Sorry meows!!
Ok, let’s start with the hard part. Why and how does arthritis occur? At the end of each bone is a smooth covering called cartilage that helps protect the bone in a movable joint. Within that joint, there is also a substance called synovial fluid. This essential fluid helps to lubricate the cartilage by keeping it soft and smooth. For some reason, this smooth protectant cartilage gets damaged. This can be due to a developmental deformity, obesity that increases the stress on a normal joint, lifestyle (i.e. athletic dogs are more prone to injury), or incidental trauma. As a result of that damage, the body responds with a process called inflammation. It is important to note that there are both good and bad forms of inflammation. In this case, it is the latter. This bad inflammation is painful and very destructive to the cartilage. As the cartilage begins to deteriorate, it creates more instability in the joint. The body, which is always trying to repair itself, responds to the situation by laying down new bones. This is horrible for the joint and is only the beginning of a vicious progressive downward spiral. The dog begins to move around less due to increasing pain and swelling and this disuse over time leads to muscle atrophy. If you don’t use it, you lose it! As more muscle is lost, more stress is placed on the bones and joints and the cycle goes on and on and on. You get the picture! It’s a progressive disease.
Now, this is what to look for. As mentioned previously, in the early stages of arthritis, signs of pain or discomfort are very subtle. Often the muscles of the body compensate for a painful joint by redistributing weight to other areas, which then puts increased stress on other joints. Soon, these joints follow with arthritic changes. Remember, arthritis can affect any joint, but those most commonly affected are the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders.
Most common signs to look for:
2. Slow to get up
3. Reluctance to exercise
4. Reluctance to climb stairs or hills
6. Slower on walks
8. Change in behavior i.e. irritability
9. Licking at a joint
If you notice any of the above changes in your dog’s lifestyle it is important to call your veterinarian and have a thorough orthopedic evaluation. This includes a physical examination and x-rays of affected joints. Your veterinarian can also help guide you as to medication, supplements, and exercise programs that will drastically improve the quality of life of your dog. Now that you know how it works and what to look for, the last question is what can you do to help? It is important to understand that there is no cure for arthritis. There are, however, many things that you can do to slow its progression.
Here is a brief review of therapies and medications that exist. Remember that bad inflammation? Over the last few years, several pharmaceutical companies have developed medications that help treat inflammation. These medications help to alleviate much of the pain associated with arthritis. This class of drugs is known as NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs). In most circumstances, these medications are quite safe, but mild side effects such as loss of appetite or vomiting/diarrhea can occur.
Your veterinarian may recommend checking your dog’s liver enzymes to be sure the medications can be processed properly. There are also a number of natural anti-inflammatory supplements available, such as the Omega Fatty Acids, Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Cetyl Esters. Vitamin C in proper amounts has also been shown to be an effective anti-inflammatory and is an important component of normal cartilage development. A substance called MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane), a natural anti-oxidant has proven to effectively limit joint degradation and inflammation. More is not always better even with natural supplements; therefore it is imperative to consult your veterinarian before starting.
Now, what about that cartilage damage? The medical field has proven the benefits of incorporating glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate into the diet of a variety of animals from the family dog to the racing thoroughbred. Like Vitamin C, these are important building blocks that help the body lay down new and healthy cartilage. Again consult your veterinarian.
Lastly, how can you address the muscle loss that is occurring? Most of the time this muscle loss goes unnoticed due to the hair coat that effectively hides any subtle changes. It is important to actually feel the muscles of your dog on a regular basis in order to detect any decrease in muscle size. Regular exercise is extremely important in the management of arthritis. This can range from daily walks around the neighborhood, to leisurely swimming, to the more focused strengthening programs available at animal rehabilitation and fitness facilities. Connecticut has a handful of facilities that offer exercise as an excellent solution for muscle building. This exciting new field in veterinary medicine is making huge waves in post-operative recovery, obesity management, and arthritis therapy. Most of the facilities utilize water therapy in the form of an underwater treadmill. Many also have large pools available for controlled swimming. Since the animal is exercising in water, the stress on the joints is decreased and the focus is on building muscle. Water also provides superior resistance necessary for muscle growth.
Please note that weight management is an intricate and controllable part of this complex puzzle. Though we think they look cute on the chubby side it really is unhealthy and causes unnecessary stress on the rest of the body.
Now that you have a better understanding of the why’s, what’s, and how’s of arthritis, keep your radar on in order to help your animal prevent and fight this awful disease.