Dogs and Arthritis

Categories: Dog Health Care
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Charles Hurty, DVM

Grove Veterinary Clinic

Newport, Oregon

Arthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic pain in our canine companions.  Arthritis is a form of joint disorder that involves inflammation within one or more joints.  The most common form of arthritis that we encounter in veterinary medicine is osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, that is a result of trauma, genetics, or age.  The most common clinical manifestation of arthritis is joint pain.  This pain is due to the inflammation that occurs in and around the joint.  Additionally, pain can originate from muscle strains that are caused by forceful movements against stiff painful joints.

How do you know if your canine companion has arthritis?  Since your dog can’t explain what is wrong, it is important to “listen” to and recognize his non-verbal cues.  These non-verbal cues can be extremely subtle changes, such as lethargy, or more dramatic clinical signs, such as the inability to use a limb.  Many people think that dogs will express their joint pains by vocalizing or yelping.  In fact, most canines with chronic arthritic pain do not vocalize or dramatically yelp at all; typically their clinical signs are much more subtle.  These less recognizable signs (which are also the most common clinical signs) of arthritis-based pain include weight gain, reluctance to play or run or jump, diminished alertness, and increased sleepiness.

Sometimes, a dog with arthritis favors a limb and actually limps; these clinical signs may worsen after play or after a long period of recumbency or sleep.  It is very common for a client to tell me that their dog limps but is not in pain, because their companion is not vocalizing or yelping.  It is important to remember that most canines do not express their pain in this dramatic fashion.  Limping implies pain.  Limping is the development of asymmetry in the gait and a loss of proper limb function due to an underlying disease process (injury, inflammation, etc.).  It is a compensatory action to avoid pain.  If your dog is limping, he or she is in pain and needs to be evaluated by your veterinarian to discern the underlying reason for this serious clinical sign.

Typically, arthritis can be diagnosed by getting a good and thorough physical exam by your veterinarian.  There may be a need for blood tests to evaluate for infectious or other causes of joint pain.  X-rays, or radiographs, may be necessary to figure out the source of your canine companion’s joint pain.

Chronic arthritis can be managed in most dogs.  Feeding a healthy diet and following an exercise regime to maintain a proper ideal body weight are essential components of an arthritis management plan.  Many dogs with arthritis are overweight or obese; we now know that obesity significantly increases a dog’s risk of arthritis and worsens the severity of existing arthritis.  The clinical signs of arthritis (limping, loss of function, stiffness) in an overweight dog can be dramatically improved by weight loss alone.   Some studies suggest that these clinical signs can be improved by as much as 75%.

There are many supplements that have been shown to improve the clinical signs of arthritis in dogs.  The use of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) has shown the most promise in relieving the painful inflammation in arthritic joints.  These omega-3 fatty acids come in various preparations and from various sources.  The animal-based sources (whitefish, salmon oil) of the omega-3 fatty acids have proven to be more effective than plant-based sources (flaxseed) of omega-3 fatty acids in dogs.  You can also find many commercially available canine diets supplemented with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.  There are many sources and preparations of omega-3 fatty acids; I would recommend you discuss any omega-3 fatty acid supplement with your veterinarian to make sure it is safe and effective for you pet.

Sometimes medications are prescribed by your dog’s veterinarian to manage arthritis pain and to help slow the progression of arthritis.  These medications may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) or even opiate-like drugs, such as tramadol.  These medications can be extremely effective in managing the day-to-day pain of arthritis.  Dosage guidelines need to be followed closely to prevent misuse and overdose of the medications.  Your veterinarian may want to run some blood tests to make sure that the medication will be safe and effective for your dog.

It is extremely important to consult your veterinarian before starting your canine companion on any supplement or medication.  Some human medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil), are extremely toxic to dogs.  Ingestion of some of these common human medications can result in the death of your dog, so please do not give your loved companion any medication or supplement without consulting your dog’s veterinarian.

There are some alternative ways to help manage chronic arthritic pain.  Acupuncture and massage can be utilized to help manage pain.  We have offered acupuncture at the clinic for a couple of years and have seen some extremely positive results with this specialized form of pain management.   It has proven to be especially useful for those dogs that are unable to tolerate medications and supplements.

The management of arthritis can be a challenge, but there are many options available to owners and their dogs.  Discussion with your veterinarian to get a diagnosis and treatment plan in place is critical to successful management of this painful and chronic condition.