This post provides an overview of canine arthritis, including its prevalence, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments. It also emphasizes the importance of lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and physical therapy, in managing this condition and improving the quality of life for affected dogs.
Written by Guest Expert Jo Cuddy – Zen Canine Therapy
80% of dogs over eight years old and 20% of dogs over one-year-old have arthritis. (Source: Canine Arthritis Management)
Canine arthritis is thought of as an old dog’s disease, but it isn’t.
It is estimated that 35% of all dogs in the UK have arthritis and it is one of the commonest causes of elective euthanasia. 24.5% of Labradors are euthanised due to musculoskeletal disorders (source: Canine Arthritis Management).
Arthritis is often hard to diagnose or slow to be diagnosed. This is no criticism of vets or owners. There are several reasons for this including:
- It is an insidious disease
- Dogs are stoical
- Arthritis waxes and wanes
- Symptoms can be very mild, to begin with as well as intermittent or indicative of something else.
Symptoms of arthritis can include: –
- Slowing down a little
- Less keen to go on walks
- Less tolerant of other dogs
- Sleeping more
- Not settling at night
- Struggling to lie down or sit
- Hesitant jumping into or off something
- Spending more time alone
- Changes in muscle mass
- Unable to stretch fully
- Unable to shake fully
- Not wagging their tail fully
- Licking paws
- Sensitive when touched
A diagnosis of arthritis is not the end as there is much we can do to help our dogs continue to live a good life however it can take a while to come to terms with the diagnosis and your life with your dog will have to change which is where support groups such as the LWDG can help.
Arthritis (sometimes referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease) can be classified as normal forces on abnormal joints or abnormal forces on normal joints.
The cause can be primary – wear and tear – or secondary to diseases such as hip dysplasia, as a result of a trauma/surgery or from inappropriate use.
There is no cure but progression can be slowed with therapies and lifestyle/environment adaptations and pain can be effectively managed.
A multimodal approach is the gold standard for the treatment of arthritis and this requires the veterinary team, the owner and the therapists to work together. As arthritis is a disease that waxes and wanes the effectiveness of treatments and medications may change as the disease goes through its natural cycle.
Pharmaceutical treatment options include analgesics and injections to provide pain relief and reduce inflammation.
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) are commonly prescribed analgesics and whilst not suitable for dogs with kidney, liver or gastrointestinal issues are very effective in managing pain and inflammation for many dogs.
NSAIDs block the effects of special enzymes — specifically Cox-1 and Cox-2 enzymes. Pain signals are electrical messages sent from the nerves to the brain telling the body that something hurts. Pain levels are increased by prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are released by damaged tissue and cox enzymes play a key role in the production of prostaglandins. By blocking the cox enzymes, NSAIDs stop the body from making as many prostaglandins resulting in less inflammation and less pain.
Librela is the new injectable for the relief of pain caused by arthritis having been on the market since March 2021. Librela works by blocking pain signals and it is an antibody rather than a drug. Librela is administered monthly and this is also a great opportunity for the vet to monitor and assess the dog on a regular basis.
Dogs with severe arthritis may well receive injectables and NSAIDs and other forms of pain relief such as paracetamol (or the veterinary version Pardale V). Paracetamol offers pain relief but does not reduce inflammation.
There is some evidence that supplements such as Yu Move improve mobility and joint health however not many studies have been done and the market is unregulated, unlike the pharmaceutical market.
I am not a vet so this is just an overview of some of the medications available – your vet will advise on the best treatment options for your dog.
One thing everyone agrees upon is that weight loss is one of the best things we can do for our arthritic dogs. Overweight dogs will be putting extra stress on already painful joints and, in addition, fat is known to increase inflammation in joints. In some cases, dogs that have lost weight have been able to stop pain relief medication (only stop medication on the advice of your vet).
It is harder to manage weight when the dog is less mobile but there are lower calorie foods available, reducing snacks (however sad those eyes are!) and shorter but more frequent walks can all help. Hydrotherapy is a great way to exercise a dog whilst reducing the impact on painful joints.
Therapies For Arthritis
How can a physical therapist help?
- They use the tools available to them to help slow the progression of the disease by maintaining or improving the dog’s mobility and retaining/rebuilding as much muscle mass as possible
- To restore movement and function or maintain and improve mobility (dependent on the stage of the disease)
- Help prevent compensatory issues by building/treating compensatory issues
- Reduce pain levels
Tools they may use include:
- Hydrotherapy, if this is an option as not everyone has a centre nearby, to maintain mobility and muscle mass. Hydrotherapy also allows the dog to move with reduced pressure on their limbs encouraging the placement of all four limbs and improved range of motion. Hydrotherapy is a great way to aid weight loss.
- Massage and myofascial release to treat compensatory issues which are a major cause of pain and mobility issues in an arthritic dog.
- Massage balances the nervous system relaxing the mind as well as the body. Being in pain causes the fight or flight part of the nervous system to predominate and the dog will be in a constant state of stress, this is why the pain often brings about behavioural changes.
- Exercises to build core and postural supportive muscles and aid proprioception. Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense movement, action and location. Proprioception is one of the first things lost with diseases such as arthritis and loss of proprioception will mean the dog does not have as much awareness of the location of their limbs leading to stumbling, loss of traction, paw knuckling all of which will aggravate already painful joints, strain muscles and disrupt fascia so good proprioception is important.
- Functional exercises including passive range of motion exercises which aid proprioception; aid mobility by “reminding” the joint of its capabilities and gently encouraging the dog to use it (as arthritis waxes and wanes there will be times when the dog has good mobility but the joint may be locked down by the body’s protective mechanisms); replication of joint movement is thought to encourage the formation of synovial fluid which can help prevent cartilage erosion caused by arthritis.
There are several small and low-cost changes that will positively impact your dog’s quality of life such as using a ramp for the car, reducing stair usage, and putting non-slip mats on hard flooring.
- Pain scores charts- we often don’t notice changes in our own dog but completing a pain scale will help identify changes in behaviour, coat, posture, mood, sleep patterns etc.
- A Good Day / Bad Day Diary (link here) is useful to take to your vet consult as it’s easy to forget when they’ve had good or bad days.
- Monthly photographs will highlight any postural changes and coat changes both good and bad and are a very useful aid for your therapist.
- Videos – This allows your vet to see the dog moving which they can’t always do in the clinic also the dog may be having a good day that day so this allows the vet to see them on a bad day.
As well as your vet, vet nurse and therapist, Canine Arthritis Management is an excellent resource: –
This is just an overview and in no way meant to replace veterinary advice. If you have any concerns regarding your dog’s health, please contact your vet.
Other articles by Jo Cuddy
Protecting Your Dog from Injury: Focus On Jumping
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