Arthritis is a common condition in older dogs that can significantly impact their quality of life. This joint disorder can severely hinder your dog’s daily activities and cause a lot of pain. In this blog post, I want to discuss the causes, symptoms, diagnostics, and treatment.

What is Arthritis? Understanding joint health

Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis (OA), is a condition where joint cartilage gradually breaks down. This cartilage normally acts as a cushioning layer between the bones in a joint, but in arthritis, it becomes thinner and less elastic. As a result, the bones in a joint can no longer slide over each other smoothly. And that hurts! There’s more going on though: an inflammatory reaction occurs. This doesn’t mean that bacteria are involved, but that the body uses various measures to try and mitigate the problem. Unfortunately, usually this does not succeed, leading to a chronic, painful process.

Causes of osteoarthritis: not just wear and tear

In humans, arthritis is seen as a wear-and-tear process: as we age, the structure of the cartilage deteriorates. In dogs, it’s not quite the same though, as there’s more at play than just the cartilage wearing out. With our canines, we actually can see two ways OA develops:

  1. Abnormal movements of a normal joint
    Normal movements of an abnormal joint.

What do I mean by that?

Normal Joint
If  an essentially normal joint is overused and overstretched, this can lead to microtrauma: tiny tears in the joint capsule, or in the joint cartilage. 80% of the stability of a joint comes from the muscles surrounding that joint. If those muscles are overworked and become fatigued, they can no longer keep the joint stable. When could this occur? A major culprit, unfortunately happening quite often, is endless ball play, where the dog repeatedly chases after the ball at high speed. Running is not the main issue, but braking and twisting to catch the ball are often the moments when damage occurs. The dog is often so excited about the game that he’s unaware of any damage occurring. This usually becomes apparent later, often after he has rested for a while.

Abnormal Joint
What should we think of with an abnormal joint? This is a joint that does not have a normal anatomical structure, either congenital or due to something that happened later in life. Think, for example, of the breeds with short muzzles and curved legs: some short-legged terriers, for instance, have “Charlie Chaplin” feet. Then, there is, among other things, an abnormal angulation in the wrists, causing the forefeet to point outwards instead of forwards. Curved front legs (bow legs) also cause an abnormal angle in the joints. A joint like that is under much more stress than a normal joint.

If a joint has undergone surgery, it is no longer normal. Surgery can be unavoidable sometimes and can bring much-needed relief for certain conditions. However, we also know that there is a significantly increased chance of developing arthritis later in life after surgery.

Because of these two ways of developing osteoarthritis, it is not uncommon for OA to arise at a relatively young age, even as early as two or three years old. Unfortunately, it is often not recognized because we don’t really expect it as a diagnosis in a young dog.

Early signs: recognizing symptoms of pain and discomfort

Arthritis hurts, even in its early stages. That’s why recognizing pain, especially subtle pain, is so important. A dog seldom says “ouch”: whimpering in pain is really rare!

The signs can vary greatly, but common symptoms include stiffness after resting periods, difficulty getting up or lying down, reduced activity or hesitation to perform activities that were no problem before, and a change in walking pattern. If a dog is clearly lame, we no longer call it subtle: that is a very clear signal that something is wrong. However, if a dog has arthritis in two legs, you sometimes don’t see any lameness because both legs hurt.

Another symptom, which is sometimes missed or misinterpreted, is persistent licking of a particular joint. This is often considered to be a symptom of an allergy, but licking of, for example, the wrists or elbows is rarely a signal of an allergic reaction. It is much more often a sign of pain. If you notice these or similar symptoms or behaviors, you want to have your dog checked by a veterinarian.

How Do We Diagnose?

First of all, a thorough examination by a veterinarian is necessary. This can include a physical exam where the vet assesses your dog’s joints for signs of pain, swelling, or limited movement. In addition, X-rays may be needed to confirm a suspicion of OA. Sometimes more diagnostic tests are needed to identify or rule out other conditions that can also cause painful joints.

Treatment options

Although arthritis cannot be cured, there are various treatment options available to alleviate symptoms and ensure your dog’s well-being.

The first step is usually pain medications. I know people are often a bit hesitant to use these, but I believe it is often a necessary first step. By the time we have determined that there is indeed arthritis, it has probably been going on for quite a while. We simply often miss the beginning of the problem because dogs often do not show the very first symptoms. Then I feel we need pain relief really quickly, and in my experience, the quickest way is still the use of conventional painkillers. However, that does not necessarily mean your dog must be on them for the rest of his life! Especially if other interventions are used alongside conventional pain medication, it is very often possible to reduce the dosage after a while or even discontinue completely.

Physiotherapy can be extremely valuable in the treatment of arthritis. With physiotherapy, muscles can be strengthened, making the joints more stable. In certain cases, the underwater treadmill can be very effective. A physical therapist can also give you exercises for your dog to do at home.

The pain-relieving effect of acupuncture never ceases to amaze me! The effect on the dog’s overall well-being is often quite substantial. Most dogs accept the needles without any problem, especially once they have experienced how much better they feel after a treatment.

Healthy Weight
It is often a touchy subject, but it is crucial that your dog has a healthy weight and is not too heavy. In the past, we thought excess body fat had mainly a mechanical effect. The idea was that joints had to work harder because of the greater load. That is certainly true, but nowadays, we also know that body fat is what is called “metabolically active”: it produces substances that make it difficult to lose the extra weight, but also enzymes that directly contribute to the inflammatory reaction in the joint. Moreover, tendons and ligaments are also weaker if there is excess body fat: the extra fat is found in all tissues, also in tendons and ligaments, lessening their strength and resilience.

 Supplements etc
Various supplements can be helpful. Homeopathy and essential oils can also often be used successfully. Usually, it is best to consult with a holistic veterinarian to create a personalized plan for your specific dog.

Home Care for comfort and safety
In addition to medical treatment, there are various measures you can take at home to make life easier for your dog. The most important thing here is to ensure a good non-slip surface to walk on. Walking over slippery floors is very difficult for arthritic joints, and frequent slipping and sliding can significantly worsen the problem. The slogan of the English website Canine Arthritis Management is therefore: More rugs, less drugs! Making sure your dog has a comfortable bed, that is easy to get in and out of, is also vital.

And if there are maybe younger, boisterous dogs, or if there are children in the home, please make sure there is a place where the dog with arthritis can retreat to and be left alone, if all the business becomes too much.

Supporting your dog’s emotional wellbeing

We need to support not only the physical but also the emotional needs of a dog who is dealing with osteoarthritis. Pain affects emotions, and pain can make you depressed. That applies to us humans, and also to our dogs. Sometimes, favorite games or sports activities need to be stopped, and the dog may miss them. It is then important to look at other options, and to look for other activities that make the dog happy and that keep his brain busy and satisfied without taxing his joints.  Tracking, nose work, and brain games can be very good alternatives, with the added benefit of  further strengthening the bond with your dog.

In conclusion

Osteoarthritis in dogs is a common, complex condition that can significantly impact your sweet friend’s quality of life. There is rarely one simple solution, most patients need more than one treatment option to maintain good quality of life. By understanding the causes, symptoms, exploring treatment options, and working with your vet to develop a personalized, multimodal treatment plan, you can ensure that your dog gets the best care and support he deserves during his golden years.

This is just scratching the surface of what there is to know about osteoarthritis. In my online course, The Gold in Gray, there will be an entire module on osteoarthritis, which goes into much more detail.  In addition to this, several other modules will give you plenty of tools to ensure that your dog can enjoy a great quality of life for as long as possible. And your bond will become all the more deeper in the process <3

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