Any arthritis sufferer will tell you that the cold, wet winter months bring with them more aches and pains. Unfortunately, our canine friends face a similar battle. Kristie Bradfield discovers how we can help ease the pain.
Winston, a 15-year-old Pug/Brussels Griffon mix, won the lottery when he came home with Sarah Enid Connor and her family. While they knew that Winston had health problems when they rescued him, it’s only been recently that the arthritis in Winston’s spine and back legs has become a significant issue. “He still plays and follows me everywhere,” says Connor. “He even makes it out of a ramped dog door to the backyard.”
With its cold temperatures, freezing wind and wet weather, winter only brings more pain for the estimated one in five Australian dogs who, like Winston, suffer from arthritis. So how can you tell if your dog is one of them?
What is arthritis?
Arthritis in dogs, also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a painful inflammatory condition that affects the joints. In order to work properly, joints depend on a smooth, slick cartilage coating that acts as a cushion between bones. The smooth surface is important because it, as well as an enzyme called synovial fluid, enables free range of movement. When arthritis is present, the cartilage is worn away, the synovial fluid escapes and the joint loses mobility, causing pain and discomfort. Arthritis can occur anywhere in the body where there is a joint and cartilage, but in dogs it’s most commonly found in the hips, knees (stifle), shoulders and elbows.
Canine arthritis tends to become more symptomatic with age. While it is a common condition among older dogs and medium to large breeds like Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers and Rottweilers, being young doesn’t mean your dog is not vulnerable. “Any dog can develop arthritis,” says Melbourne-based veterinarian Dr Joanna Paul. “It is more common in older dogs because it’s a degenerative disease that usually happens over a long time, but it sometimes happens in younger dogs too. For example, dogs can develop arthritis after a ruptured cruciate ligament or secondary to hip dysplasia.”
Keep an eye out for telltale signs
There are a number of possible signs that your dog’s joints are causing pain. Dr Paul says to be on the lookout for the following:
• Reluctance to walk as far as they used to.
• Stiffness that is usually worse when first getting up from sleeping.
• Difficulty in climbing stairs, jumping onto furniture or getting in the car.
• Limping (lameness).
• Spending less time playing — a general sense of the dog being withdrawn.
• Visible muscle loss.
If you suspect arthritis could be the cause of your dog’s pain, a visit to the vet for a physical examination is needed. During this exam your vet will pay careful attention to your dog’s movements, as these can indicate where the pain is present and which part of the body needs a closer examination.
“When I examine a dog I carefully and gently feel and manipulate all the major joints,” says Dr Paul. “Common problem areas are hips, knees and elbows, but arthritis can occur in any joint, including in toes and between the vertebrae of the spine.” Arthritis can reduce the range in motion of a joint or cause a pain reaction when the joint is flexed or extended. The joint might be swollen or asymmetrical, or there may be the loss of muscle mass in the area around the joint. Putting hands on the dog is the best way to determine where treatment is needed.
While arthritis can’t be cured, it can be managed by using a range of different procedures, medications, supplements and techniques. Dr James Crowley, a veterinarian from Sydney’s northern beaches, recommends a multi-modal management plan using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, pain relief, supplements and exercise, but every case is different and treatment will depend on your dog’s condition.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are very effective to relieve the symptoms of arthritis. They are prescription medications that must be supplied and monitored by your vet because they do affect various systems within the body. “Kidney, gastrointestinal, or liver conditions must be assessed to make sure your dog is able to metabolise and excrete the medications,” says Dr Crowley. “Six- to twelve-monthly blood tests are recommended for dogs on NSAIDs long term.”
Dr Crowley says that pentosan polysulfate injections and supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin and green-lipped mussel extract — all of which aim to promote new cartilage production — may also be a part of a treatment plan.
Treatment with medication and supplements is important, but of equal importance is the need for low-impact exercise. “If you just rest your pet, they don’t use their muscles. Muscles continue to waste from inadequate use, which is a vicious cycle: as the muscles get weaker, the less strength the dog has,” says Dr Crowley. “Exercise stimulates blood flow, oxygenates tissues and actually helps keeps joints more supple, ligaments flexible and strengthens muscles. It also helps with weight management.”
Prevention is always better than cure
We know that arthritis can affect many dogs, particularly medium to large breeds, so it’s worthwhile taking some preventative measures when your dog is young. “Prevention of arthritis is much more effective than trying to manage a dog that is already in pain,” says Dr Paul. “The most important factor is weight, so I strongly recommend keeping dogs at a healthy weight. It is also worthwhile considering nutritional supplements early, especially if your dog is at increased risk of developing arthritis later in life.”
In the depths of winter, dogs like Winston benefit from carefully considered treatment options and they thrive when owners are proactive and determined to give them the best possible care. Sarah Enid Connor says a little bit of extra TLC doesn’t go astray either. “I’d say that love and affection go a long way towards giving your pet some relief,” she says. “Sometimes if Winston’s having a bad day, simply sitting with me on the couch and having a cuddle is enough to relax him. Anti-inflammatory medication makes a big difference but it comes with risks, so rather than just dosing your pet up and leaving it, try adding some simple love and attention. It’s good for the both of you.”You need to look after your pooch's health - check out our all-new DOGSLife Directory