Caroline Zambrano brings to light the debilitating disease of arthritis in dogs, in conjunction with Pet Arthritis Week in May.
A 2005 Newspoll survey revealed pet owners don’t know their pets are at risk of arthritis, a painful and potentially debilitating condition that causes degeneration and inflammation of the joints. Arthritis in dogs can be a very serious condition, but luckily there are a wide range of treatment and support options available.
Dr Mark Allison, from Balgownie Veterinary Hospital in Wollongong, NSW, believes it’s not so much an at risk situation, but more of an owner recognising their pet has an arthritis problem and is not simply slowing down with old age.
Many owners think their pet is just getting old and do not realise the pet can still be very active if proper treatment is given, he told Dogs Life.
Allison’s own 13-year-old Cattle Dog, Percy, has been suffering from arthritis for nearly two years but a blend of available treatments have allowed him to continue enjoying long walks on the beach even in the colder winter months.
According to Allison, if a dog suffers from arthritis during winter, it could be an indication of how active the dog is during those colder months. Lying around and not exercising means the joints seize up and the owner will notice the dog has a problem. In the warmer months, the dog is more active and frees up the affected joints to some extent, he said.
To promote awareness of arthritis in dogs, especially during Pet Arthritis Week in May, Balgownie veterinary staff concentrate on early detection of arthritis problems in dogs (among other conditions) in their annual Senior Pet Program beginning each autumn. Allison said they get a good response and often find pet owners are surprised to discover their pet has a problem.
It’s even nicer if we don’t find anything wrong as it gives peace of mind to the owner, he said.
Causes of arthritis
In arthritis, the cartilage lining of the joints wears down and the lubricating oil in the joint is less than it should be. This is caused by many factors, including damage due to old age, injury and growing defects (elbow and hip dysplasia). Arthritis in dogs is painful and can be very debilitating, said Allison.
We see a lot of arthritis problems in middle- to old-age dogs, especially if they were very active when young, he said. A large number of cases are due to joint injury, the most common being a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in the knee (stifle).
If left untreated, the unstable joint causes damage to the smooth joint surfaces and arthritis quickly develops. If presented to the vet a few months later as a slight lameness, surgery becomes much more difficult and there can be no guarantee that the already established arthritis will go away.
Dogs with an untreated ruptured anterior cruciate place a lot of weight on their good leg, said Allison. Quite often we find the good leg has ruptured its anterior cruciate as well. This presents the veterinary surgeon with a dilemma which leg to operate on first?
Dog breeds prone to arthritis
According to Allison, any dog of any age can get arthritis, howe’ver medium to large breeds are more at risk as they carry more weight and are therefore more likely to damage their joints.
Some of these breeds include Labradors, Retrievers, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Collies and Kelpies. Very active dogs can simply wear out a joint by the time they reach middle to old age, while younger animals can injure a joint and quickly develop arthritis if its left untreated and unstable.
Breeds prone to genetic defects, such as elbow and hip dysplasia, are also at risk of developing arthritis, Allison said.
The effects of arthritis in dogs may become worse in pets that are overweight because they become less active.
More weight on an arthritic joint means more damage and more pain, said Allison. The pet does not want to exercise as it is too painful, so the weight goes on. Eventually, obesity becomes a big problem to correct in dogs with untreated arthritis issues.
Although a variety of arthritis treatments is available, unfortunately there is none that can cure it. The name of the game is to reduce the amount of inflammation, swelling and pain in affected joints and make the pet comfortable, said Allison.
Before starting any treatment, the vet will conduct tests to ensure the animal actually has an arthritis problem and not another condition, such as slipped discs (especially in active dogs), infection in the bones of the lumbar spine or even cancer. Blood tests will also indicate the kinds of medication the animal can handle. All medication carries some risk of side effects so its important to talk to your vet and be aware of any potential problems.
Regular health checks and repeat blood tests while the dog is on medication will minimise the chances of a severe reaction, said Allison. Because some arthritis drugs can be quite expensive for medium to large breeds, some owners often consider less expensive but less effective treatments, he warned.
At the same time, Allison said using natural medications may mean less cost to the client and less risk of a serious side effect. The products may also not require such diligent health checks and blood tests. However, Allison emphasises that more seriously affected pets require more powerful pain relief and a vet is the only person who can decide which will be best for a particular case.
The most common drugs used to treat arthritis in dogs are called Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID). Your vet will determine the best type of NSAID to suit your dog.
Many drugs and natural therapies are available to treat arthritis in dogs but, as Dogs Life discovered, not all are registered with APVMA (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority) for use in Australia. Of those registered with APVMA, the commonly used products are Rimadyl, Zubrin and Metacam. Etogesic is another common NSAID, but was not yet registered with APVMA at the time of writing the article.
Another newer APVMA-registered NSAID is Cu-Algesic, which is developed in Australia and is useful for short- and long-term treatment of inflammation and pain.
A variety of natural treatments is also available for your arthritic pet. We like to try the natural types of treatment if the arthritis problem is not too severe, said Allison.
Some vets use Cartophen or Pentosan, which contain naturally occurring plant substances and help repair damaged cartilage and increase joint fluid production. The treatment is usually administered once a week for four weeks and the effects can last from three to six months. Because it lasts so long, giving a course prior to the cold winter weather would be beneficial, he said.
Some of these drugs have been trialled in human medicine and used post-operatively in orthopaedic cases involving joints, he added.
Nutraceuticals, like Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate, are supplements added to a dogs diet to ease the discomfort of arthritis in dogs and promote healing and tissue repair. Glucosamine (extracted from crab, lobster and shrimp shells) plays an important role in production, maintenance and repair of cartilage, while Chondroitin Sulfate reduces inflammation and assists the Glucosamine in protecting against future cartilage degeneration.
Another arthritis-fighting supplement is MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), which provides sulfur compounds that may inhibit pain. This supplement was not yet registered with the APVMA at the time of writing the article.
Among the oral types of arthritis medications are some that have a high content of shark cartilage (chondroitin), green lipped mussel and/or Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fatty acids. They work similarly to Cartrophen and Pentosan.
Shark cartilage stimulates cartilage repair, green lipped mussel works as an anti-inflammatory and Omegas 3 and 6 reduce tenderness in joints and decrease morning stiffness.
One of the APVMA-registered products that contain such ingredients is Sashas Blend, a powder placed in the food each day to help to maintain joint function and promote mobility. The ingredients not only act as a natural joint lubricant, they also assist with pain and discomfort.
Other products that were not yet registered with APVMA at the time of writing the article are Joint Formula, Joint Guard, Cosequin DS and Missing Link.
Joint Formula helps to maintain and assist repair to damaged joint surfaces, tendons, ligaments and bony tissues.
A newer product on the market, Joint Guard, helps maintain healthy joints and is the only product for dogs that contains the previously mentioned MSM to help reduce pain associated with inflammation.
Cosequin DS is also a natural treatment that is safe and effective in providing the building blocks for cartilage and joint fluid production.
The Missing Link comes in powder form as a special canine formula with joint support and helps to maintain healthy joints, skin, coat, digestive system and more.
For more information about these products and others, contact your local vet.
Besides food supplements and medication, other types of therapies are also effective in some animals, including massage, acupuncture and swimming. Ask your vet for more details about these alternative types of therapy.
Exercising your arthritic pet
While diet and keeping the weight down to avoid stress on arthritic joints make a difference in treating arthritis in dogs, so does exercise. However, pet healthcare professionals urge owners to exercise their dog with caution.
Many arthritic dogs respond quickly to the use of high-quality liquid glucosamine by feeling less pain and, therefore, think they can do much more than they should be doing. The greatest risk lies in the hips, particularly for larger-breed dogs. Hip dysplasia is painful and debilitating, but exercising correctly can make this condition manageable. Talk to your vet before starting your dog on any exercise program.
Swimming or walking underwater (aquatic therapy) is excellent as it is a low-impact aerobic exercise that works to strengthen the muscles around injured joints and helps maintain a more stable joint.
Controlled leash walking, walking on a treadmill, jogging, swimming and going up and down stairs or ramp inclines are also excellent low-impact exercises.
(This information has been compiled from The Pet Arthritis Resource Centre [www.arthritis-cats-dogs.com.)
What not to do
The Pet Arthritis Resource Centre lists some no nos when exercising your arthritic dog. For instance, if you are taking Rex down to the park and tossing balls for him to fetch, you are likely to cause more damage to injured joints. Rapid movements and putting this additional stress on joints will only make your dogs arthritis worse.
In most cases, you will be able to tell when you have pushed your arthritic pet too hard. Generally, he will start to show signs of fatigue and even begin to show you renewed lameness. Also watch also for signs of change in appetite, which is often a signal the dog is experiencing some pain and discomfort.
Tips for treating arthritis in dogs
- Check with your vet to make sure your pet really has arthritis. Ensure your pet has a thorough health check to see if he is allergic to any medication.
- When considering pain relief, talk to your vet about side effects, like kidney and liver damage.
- Exercise your pets joints in moderation.
- Keep your pets weight in balance as excessive weight will make matters worse.
- There are many effective treatments available but not all are suitable for your pet. Do your research, talk to industry professionals and your vet before deciding which treatment is best for your individual pet.
- Research products well before purchase check recommended dosage rates, body and quality of ingredients, method of delivery and price. Price is not always the factor where quality issues are concerned.
- Evaluate products carefully. Do they end pain and fight the disease? It does little good to have no pain if the arthritis is actually progressing.
Simple home remedies for arthritis in dogs
- Change your dogs diet to a high-quality food.
- Provide supplements that reduce arthritic swelling and pain.
- Keep your dog warm and cosy on cold, damp days.
- Raise your dogs food and water dish.
- Use a ramp for the stairs.
- Give your pet a massage as it can increase flexibility, circulation, calmness and a general sense of wellness.
- Apply moist heat (a hot water bottle with warm water or use a towel soaked in warm water).
- Provide a soft bed to make your pet more comfortable.
- Ensure your dog has some peace and quiet away from noisy family activities.
- Your dog needs extra time to walk, climb stairs or get in and out of the car. Support and help them if needed or just give them extra time to get around