Arthritis is a degenerative and incurable disease of a dog’s joints. It is a condition that is painful and debilitating, and one that in some cases requires prolonged medical intervention.
However, there are ways to treat arthritis in dogs and to prevent the illness worsening. Learn how to spot the early signs of arthritis and find out what treatments are available for dogs with the disease.
What is 'arthritis'?
The joints of any mammal are supposed to move freely. In a healthy dog, the ends of the bones that meet at a joint are covered in smooth articular cartilage and are separated by a small balloon of synovial fluid.
The presence of the cartilage and the fluid encourages the smooth movement of the joint. Of dogs (and people) in the early stages of arthritis, the cartilage begins to rub away, which leads to a friction between the epiphyses (the end) of each bone.
The friction between each epiphysis will increase if the dog is untreated and will cause the animal worsening pain; a secondary outcome of the wearing away of the bone is a stiffness of the joints and limited movement, which are caused by a build-up of additional bone.
Generally speaking, arthritis is seen more often in old dogs; after years of running and jumping their joints begin to deteriorate. However, arthritis is not a disease that is confined to the senior years.
Obesity can play a huge part in the premature onset of arthritis, and some breeds are more susceptible to the condition than others.
Symptoms of arthritis in dogs
Your dog can live with arthritis for years. In fact you may only take notice of her failing health when the illness begins to inhibit her mobility. She may be in a lot of pain after a long rest (for instance in the morning) and won’t want to walk or jump as much as she did.
If she is coaxed to exercise the pain and stiffness will ease but that is not to say that the problem has gone away. You may notice your dog is preoccupied with licking the fur over her the joints of her hips and legs. A dog with arthritis will also have a difficulty of motion, will be lethargic and may have muscle wastage.
When to visit your vet
If you suspect your dog has arthritis you should contact your local vet to arrange an appointment. After their initial physical examination and manipulation of the joints and limbs the vet should be able to tell which joints have been affected most.
However, a vet will want to be sure of their diagnosis and will suggest your dog undergoes additional tests such as a radiographic scan.
A scan of an arthritic dog will reveal a breakdown of the articular cartilage and inflammation of the joints.
To be certain that your dog is not suffering with something more akin to a joint infection your vet may also take some samples of blood and even perform an arthrocentesis: a simple procedure during which a small amount of synovial fluid from a joint space is removed and tested.
Are some breeds of dog more prone to arthritis than others?
The more active a dog is in her youth the more likely she is to become arthritic in her old age. However, some breeds of dog are known to be more susceptible to the condition than others, regardless of their age.
Breeds that are likely candidates for chronic arthritis include the following:
- Labrador Retriever
- German Shepherd
- Golden Retriever
- Great Dane
What treatment is there for arthritis in dogs?
Arthritis treatments usually centre on management of the symptoms rather than a treatment of the disorder. Arthritis cannot be cured like a bug or a skin infection (even though some drugs have been known to encourage the partial repair of joint structures).
Your vet will want to match a treatment of your dog with the underlying causes of the arthritis. If your dog has developed arthritis because she is overweight, you will be advised to look more carefully at what you are feeding her and urged to exercise her more regularly. A healthier regimen will be recommended and regular weigh-ins will be arranged.
Most vets are proponents of the value of weight management during the treatment of arthritis. With less weight to carry, the impact on a dog's joints is considerably less.
Anti-inflammatory medicines called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) may be prescribed in an attempt to control your dog’s pain. However, your vet will be reluctant to prescribe NSAIDs for a long period of time because they have some nasty side effects.
Your vet may recommend a course of a drug called a cartilage protector. This drug is believed to be more effective than most when it comes to the prevention of further decay of the cartilage. The vet may also suggest holistic supplements providing they believe that a course of such medicines is safe to be used alongside conventional prescribed medicines.
Can anything be done to prevent arthritis in dogs?
As we have already learned, ensuring your dog is not overweight is one of the best ways to prevent an untimely onset of arthritis. Weight management of our dogs is not something that we focus as owners, but failing to invest in such an important element of their care can lead to more than just arthritic joints: a dog that is overweight is also likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and disorders of the lung.