Osteoarthritis is a painful joint disease that can cause your dog to appear stiff and sore. A dog with arthritis may slow down and restrict his typical activities. He may be less willing to jump up into the car or climb stairs readily. He may stop playing and may have a reduced appetite or depressed attitude.
Osteoarthritis is defined as a disease of cartilage destruction. Another type of arthritis is an inflammatory disease involving an abnormal immune system. It is also called rheumatoid arthritis and is much less common in dogs. In this article I use the general term arthritis to mean osteoarthritis. Treatments for immune-mediated (rheumatoid) arthritis are different than treatment for the common form of arthritis.
Although arthritis is technically non-inflammatory compared to the immune-mediated form of the disease, there is some inflammation involved in arthritis. Inflammation is simply defined as the body’s response to injury or infection. In the common form of canine arthritis, there is damage to joint cartilage. So the inflammation arises as a response to the damage. It is an attempt to heal the cartilage. But if the cause isn’t removed, the damage and therefore inflammation, followed by pain, will continue.
The cause of cartilage damage may be from excess force on the joints. Obesity is a very common cause of chronic trauma. The excess weight causes joints to be overused and more likely to break down. If the dog can lose weight in the early stages of arthritis, the disease may actually be stopped. Unfortunately early cartilage damage does not cause pain, so early detection is difficult. By the time an overweight dog acts arthritic, the condition has probably been present for some time.
Another common cause is malformed joint disease such as hip dysplasia or “wobbler’s” disease of the cervical vertebrae. There are some surgical options that can improve these conditions. But even after surgery, eventually these dogs will become arthritic. Knee damage—usually to the cruciate ligaments—is another very common cause of canine arthritis.
Arthritis is considered a degenerative condition. This means there is no cure and it will inevitably progress. But there are many treatment options than can relieve pain, and may slow progression.
I will share with you a brief list of the most commonly successful treatments that I use in my practice when patients are diagnosed with arthritis.
- Weight loss! This may involve calorie restriction, change in dog food brand, increase in exercise, or a combination of all of the above.
- Fish oil supplementation. This can be a very cost effective treatment that has other health benefits in addition to improving joint function.
- A healthy diet. This is the foundation of your dog’s health! My clients have had success using diets that are minimally processed with limited grains. A fresh food meat based diet works best for most arthritic dogs.
- Supplements specifically for joint health such as chondroitin and glucosamine. I also use herbal formulations such a tumeric based supplements.
- Zeel. This is an herbal/homeopathic combination medication that is available over the counter and is very cost effective! There is limited research on dogs and studies on humans that have shown this to be a good arthritis treatment. There is also an injectable form. I inject the medication into acupuncture points (a process called biopuncture). In some cases this works as well or better than Adequan and it is much more cost effective for large dogs.
- Chiropractic. When a dog has joint pain, they alter weight bearing and restrict joint motion, both of which create abnormal function in other joints too, most commonly the neck and back. Chiropractic evaluation identifies area of the dog’s spine with abnormal motion. Treatment aims at restoring mobility. This can reduce pain and get your dog moving much more comfortably.
- Acupuncture. Similar to chiropractic, acupuncture can increase joint mobility. The insertion of needles improves blood flow to tight muscles. Relieving muscle tension permits joints to move better. Acupuncture also works as a pain control method, allowing reduced doses of other drugs or supplements.
- Laser therapy. Also called “low level laser”, this is light at specific frequencies absorbed by the cells. Laser therapy has similar benefits and mechanisms of action to acupuncture. It can reduce pain, relieve muscle spasm, and improve joint motion.
- Hydrotherapy. Getting your dog in the water will allow joints to move more freely! This is a great non-drug way to improve mobility and relieve pain. Depending on your dog’s preferences and specific problems, free swimming may work great, or you may get better results with water treadmill exercise. It can also be a great way to help your dog lose weight.
- Physical therapy. Water therapy is part of physical therapy but there is also the “floor exercises” part. A certified canine physical therapist can evaluate your dog’s joint mobility and design a treatment plan that includes stretching and exercises, some of which you can do at home with your dog.
- Massage. Most dogs love a massage! Done by a certified practitioner this is much more than just good scratch and belly rub. In some patients massage can actually accomplish the same results as chiropractic or acupuncture.
- Modifying the living environment. You might get a ramp for your dog to get in and out of the car, or to avoid steps. You can lay down runner carpet over hard wood floors to reduce those slip’n’slide moves that sometimes happen to older dogs with weaker hind ends. Or you can try booties on the dog. That will allow the feet to grip better on all surfaces. Some dogs appreciate a softer bed, or a raised canvas bed. A good bedding area is important so the dog can find a comfortable position for restful sleep. For post-surgical cases or if your dog needs a booster lift to get up, be sure to protect your own joints! Try using a towel or harness with a handle specially designed to help prevent injuries to owners who need to lift their dogs.
The above list is a place to start. Your veterinarian or homeopath may have additional suggestions or offer other procedures to treat arthritis. I want every client to know how to evaluate a treatment or new supplement. Try one thing at a time so you know what is working or is not working. When making dietary changes or adding supplements, do it gradually! If trying acupuncture, chiropractic or the other physical modalities, make sure the practitioner tells you what to expect and watch for. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend to find out if something is worth continuing. Treating arthritis can be an ongoing cost. So for your dog’s best interest, you want to find the most affordable treatment. There is no treatment that is guaranteed to work. In medicine nothing works on every patient. Treatment starts with a therapeutic trial. You need a practical way to assess if your dog is being well served for the cost of the treatment.
No one wants to see their dog getting older or being in pain. But don’t despair if your canine friend has arthritis! There are many ways to help relieve pain, improve function, and extend quality of life for your beloved pets.
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