Written by: Alexa Waltz
Do you have a creaky joint or two that makes you think twice about making certain movements? Perhaps an old injury that prevents you from playing sports or freely climbing stairs? Believe it or not, you and your dog may have joint pain in common! Dogs are frequently affected by arthritis, especially as our best buddies get old! Just like us, they may start to slow down, move stiffly, and avoid some previously-loved activities.
To diagnose arthritis in dogs, your veterinarian will take into account what you see happening at home, run through some exam points and evaluate your pup’s joint movements, and order x-rays to check for common arthritic joint changes — possibly concluding with a diagnosis of arthritis. So, now that your precious pooch has been diagnosed with arthritis, what can be done?
As a review, there are several causes of arthritis in dogs but they all ultimately result in that smooth gliding joint surface becoming roughened, unstable, inflamed, and damaged. Arthritic joints also lose flexibility due to the inflammation, cartilage wear, and bony changes that happen with this disease. Why do our pups walk stiffly and hesitate to do certain movements when they have arthritis? The answer is simple: because it hurts!
Unfortunately, once joint damage and long-term inflammation have set in, these changes are permanent and will likely continue to progress as time passes, resulting in more and more discomfort and limitation as your dog ages. Arthritis cannot be cured, but instead, we focus on management of the pain and slowing the progression of further degeneration. Maximizing your dog’s comfort and longevity are the goals of any arthritis management program!
If your pup has already been diagnosed with arthritis, or if you merely suspect that she is an arthritis sufferer, here are the most common approaches that your veterinarian may recommend for addressing your dog’s issue. Keep in mind that your vet’s goals are twofold: SLOWING the progression of arthritic changes in your dog’s joints, and MANAGING her discomfort. By focusing on these two objectives, you and your veterinarian work together to provide your dog the highest quality of life for as long as possible! Often, vets will combine available options together to create a multifaceted treatment plan for your canine companion.
Weight Management and Nutrition
If your dog has been struggling with her weight, it’s time to really focus on losing those extra pounds! Hungry, overweight dogs can be considered quite cute, but unfortunately the extra pounds exert lots of unnecessary stress on joints. Obesity often contributes to the development and worsening of arthritis. Keeping dogs within their ideal weight range and maintaining a healthy body condition for the length of their lives can decrease the development of canine arthritis. If your dog happens to be chubby at the time the diagnosis of arthritis is made, losing weight can also help manage the discomfort and slow down arthritis progression, too!
When determining what to do if your dog is overweight, your vet may recommend a weight loss plan using a lower calorie diet and discuss a low-impact exercise regimen that will work for your dog’s current physical ability and condition. Also, remember that extra treats may be adding to the pounds too, so do your best to limit those! Lower calorie treats can help keep weight loss fun, too.
Also, check with your AskVet veterinarian that you are feeding an appropriate diet for your dog’s age and condition. Senior dogs (8+ years for large breed, and 10+ small breed) often benefit from a diet designed specifically to manage common age-related changes, like arthritis!
Anti-inflammatories and Pain Medication
One of the first medications that your arthritic dog may receive is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (“NSAID”). You may recognize these names for common NSAIDS prescribed for dogs by veterinarians: Carprofen/Rimadyl, Metacam/Meloxicam, Galliprant, Deramaxx, Previcox, Onsior, etc. Depending on your dog’s pain level, these medications may be given on an as-needed basis just for the flare-ups or on especially active days (like trips to the dog park). They may also be given every day on a regular schedule if your pup’s arthritis is advanced enough to cause daily mobility struggles. These medications work to decrease both your dog’s pain as well as target the inflammation in the joint itself. If you are helping your dog lose weight, these medications can also aid in making them comfortable for longer sessions of exercise and calorie-burning.
These NSAIDS can be very helpful and improve your pup’s quality of life for an extended period of time! The benefits of this class of drugs are twofold: they slow down joint damage by reducing inflammation, and provide pain relief for your dog. With long-term usage, your veterinarian may want to perform blood testing every 6-12 months to be sure the kidney and liver are happy and functioning well while metabolizing this medication.
AskVet Tip: Pet parents often ask if human over-the-counter NSAIDS, and anti-inflammatories are safe and effective in dogs … and unfortunately the answer is NO! Human medications like Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Naproxen, etc should not be used in dogs and can cause severe gastrointestinal and kidney disease. Unfortunately, human over-the-counter medication is neither safe nor effective for dogs. If given, these drugs can also greatly affect the treatments your vet can use … so stay away from human medications and seek a vet exam first if you feel your pup needs treatment!
Other medications, such as amantadine and gabapentin, may also be prescribed if chronic nerve pain is contributing to your pup’sarthritis discomfort. Gabapentin and amantadine can safely be given alongside an NSAID. Mild sedation from these medications may be noted in your dog, so be on the lookout and report any noticeable negative changes and unwanted side effects to your vet. These medications do NOT act to slow the progression of arthritis, but they help your dog move more freely by controlling their pain and discomfort.
AskVet Tip: When your dog is prescribed any medication, do your best to follow the directions for use on the drug label, store the bottle in a safe place high from curious-counter-surfing dogs and their 2 and 4-legged siblings, and do not share medications between dogs in the home. It is also important to check with your veterinarian before giving multiple medications at the same time to be sure the combination is safe. Combining some medications can cause severe health problems (for example an NSAID and steroid, like prednisone, given together can cause severe stomach and intestinal ulcerations, and mixing 2 different NSAIDS simultaneously can cause intestinal and kidney damage).
Joint Supplements and Nutraceuticals
To complement your dog’s prescription medication and to address the pain and inflammation that accompanies arthritis from as many angles as possible, your veterinarian will likely recommend starting a joint supplement or nutraceutical too!
AskVet Tip: What is a “nutraceutical” you ask? Nutraceuticals include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and extracts that are considered to have health benefits. They are not reviewed or approved by the FDA, but some research has shown certain ingredients to be helpful in supporting damaged and arthritic joints. These supplements may help support the existing joint cartilage by slowing the breakdown of joint tissue, providing the basic components for rebuilding healthy cells, and preventing joint degradation. They can also provide some anti-inflammatory effects of their own, too. Your veterinarian will likely have their favorite joint support supplement products to recommend, that have likely been tested for efficacy, nutritional content, absorption, and bioavailability by an independent lab.
Some animals will show great benefit from nutraceuticals and others may not exhibit much of a change, but it is worth a try! Some of these supplements are oral, like Glucosamine Chondroitin, and some are formulated to be injected into the muscle, like Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycans (“Adequan”). Also, dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids (“fish oil”) are recommended as they can help reduce joint inflammation too.
In our quest for discovery of better treatments for arthritis, ongoing research is always in process. Products like green-lipped mussel supplements, MSM, vitamin-E, and CBD are still under investigation as to their efficacy and safety for animals.
AskVet Tip: While a pet owner may be tempted to use their own joint
supplements for their older dogs, consult your veterinarian first! The optimal ratios of
glucosamine to chondroitin, and of certain fatty acid chain lengths, is DIFFERENT in dogs
than for people–so before you reach into your own medicine cabinet, ask your veterinarian about dog-specific supplements.
Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation and Acupuncture
In addition to medications and supplements, your vet may recommend physical therapy and other treatment modalities to preserve your dog’s muscle mass and the range of motion of those precious joints. These approaches can help keep our arthritic sore dogs more comfortable, and sometimes result in regaining some strength and mobility, too!
Low-impact exercise like swimming and physical therapy with an underwater treadmill can provide some gentle resistance to help strengthen muscles, lose weight, and increase joint motion. Balance and range of motion exercises can help support stretching, flexibility, and increase muscle strength too. Some veterinarians are certified in rehabilitation, and so check this resource to find locations for rehab centers near you http://www.rehabvets.org/!
Acupuncture is another treatment option that some pets will greatly benefit from. Acupuncture consists of inserting tiny needles at specific points on the body that may result in a physiologic response to decrease muscle spasms, soothe pain, and increase circulation. Not all veterinarians are trained in acupuncture, as it is a special certification process. Your vet likely knows of a local colleague who provides acupuncture consultations if you would like to try that route.
In addition, some veterinarians offer other therapeutic modalities to help their patients with arthritis such ase therapeutic laser (providing pain relief and stimulating tissue growth and remodeling), transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (“TENS”, stimulate nerves), and extracorporeal shockwave therapy (improve healing, decrease pain). Ongoing research and development for these types of treatments are always in process.
At home, there is always the tried-and-true cryotherapy (cold compress) and thermotherapy (warm compress) option, too! Placing a cold compress over a painful area for 15 minutes is meant to decrease inflammation after acute injury or flare-up, and will decrease blood flow as well as temporarily numb pain. Using a warm compress can help to reduce muscle spasms, increase blood flow and also provide a soothing sensation.
Surgery can be considered both as a means of preventing certain types of arthritis and a “treatment”! On the prevention side, immediately addressing certain injuries and joint conditions with surgery can create a more stable joint, minimizing the damaging inflammation that could result in arthritis if the joint is left unstable for a long period of time. Injuries like a cranial cruciate ligament rupture, meniscus tear, medial luxating patella, and some types of joint fractures should be surgically stabilized in the short-term for better long-term results. How do you know if your pup has these? Injuries involving joints as well as persistent limping with no improvement should be evaluated by your veterinarian. They will determine if surgery is recommended in order to fend off the development of arthritis.
Some dogs will be born with badly shaped and malformed joints, like hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Another condition called “osteochondritis dessicans” may result in early cartilage damage in some dogs, especially rapidly growing large breed puppies. Some of these conditions have surgical treatment options as well, with the goals of helping the joint to become a healthier shape while the bones are still forming, and giving the joint cartilage the best chance at normalcy.
In the “treatment” realm,surgery may also be recommended in severe cases of arthritis as a salvage procedure for dogs that are good candidates. For example, in dogs with chronic pain from hip dysplasia and the severe arthritis that can follow, a “Femoral Head and Neck Osteotomy” (FHO) will trim off the ball of the hip joint and just allow the hip muscles to operate the leg movement and support the body, resulting in better mobility and less pain! Some patients are also good candidates for a full hip replacement surgery, although the cost can be limiting for many pet parents. Joint fusions for certain severely arthritic joints (the carpus/wrist, and tarsus/ankle) can also relieve some pain.
Depending on your dog’s condition and response to their treatment plan, your veterinarian can discuss the possibility of surgery having any benefit in the management of arthritis progression, and pain.
There are some adaptations to try at home to make the space you share with your arthritic pup more accessible and comfortable. Since impact and movement can often exacerbate the arthritis pain and lead to more joint degeneration, limiting some of the high-impact activities like jumping and climbing are recommended. Your dog also may have experienced some muscle atrophy and weakness associated with arthritis too; all things to consider when looking to adapt their environment and make it more arthritis-friendly.
Here are a few more helpful suggestions to support your arthritic pup:
– Supply a ramp for walking in and out of the car and a set of padded doggy stairs to get up and down from furniture
– Add more throw rugs over slippery floors for a non-skid floor surface
– Invest in some dog booties, paw pad applicators, or anti-slip toe grips to help provide better floor grip and more stable standing
– Supply amply-sized soft bedding for your pup to sleep on in their favorite areas of the house
– Limit movement between levels of the home (and rooms if necessary) with baby gates so your dog is not tempted to faithfully bound up the stairs after you
– Unfortunately, joint braces do not help as well in dogs like they do people, but consult your vet should they recommend an option for your pup
– Any dog that can walk should, but doggie strollers and wagons can help some severely limited dogs to get that much-needed mental stimulation outside of the house! Be sure to let them get out of the stroller routinely and cruise around to sniff. Keeping their brain healthy is just as important!
– And of course, be compliant with recommendations for exercise and weight loss and adjust food, activity, and play
Is it possible to help a dog avoid the pain and limitations of arthritis altogether? Yes! If you are puppy-shopping and looking into a specific breed that may commonly fall victim to arthritis (Labs, Goldens, German Shepherds, etc), search for a breeder responsibly testing breeding pairs and looking to improve the health of the breed! When it comes to feeding your new puppy, be sure to feed an appropriate and high-quality nutrition formulated specifically for growth. Work on maintaining an optimal body condition through proper diet and exercise for the length of your dog’s life. Consult with your vet for the use of nutraceuticals and supplements as a protective measure in some breeds that are predisposed to joint issues, or if your pup has been diagnosed with hip or elbow dysplasia, or cartilage issues as a youngster. Sometimes though, even with all of these safeguards, as they grow older the signs of arthritis may still creep in but perhaps to a lesser and more manageable degree.
Comfort is the Goal
Arthritis can severely limit your dog’s comfort and happiness, and unfortunately cannot be reversed once it is present. Using a multimodal approach that combines various elements of the above options will result in reaching a steady plane of comfort for the longest time possible! Every dog will respond differently, so each case will be treated individually. Recheck appointments and yearly vet exams are valuable too, as your pup’s needs may change periodically as arthritis progresses or even shows improvement! Patience and compliance at home are key to helping support your best buddy in keeping them as comfortable as possible for the length of their lives!
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Alexa Waltz, DVM
Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!