Just as we age and become prone to ailments, so do our canine companions. Kylie Baracz finds out about osteoarthritis in dogs and the beneficial physical treatments that can help ease their pain.
Osteoarthritis, often simply called arthritis, is a degenerative joint disease that results in poor cushioning and lubrication of joints during movement.
In a normal joint the cartilage acts as a cushion between the joints, while the joint fluid allows the bones to glide over one another smoothly. As arthritis progresses, the cartilage becomes brittle and can even chip off, which can result in inflammation and pain.
Dr Martine Perkins, veterinary surgeon at Pymble Veterinary Clinic, explains that osteoarthritis develops slowly and it is often not until it is well progressed that people notice changes in their pet’s behaviour or ability to move.
“Sadly, many dogs suffer from arthritis and these signs are often misunderstood or go unnoticed. Quite often, people just think their dog is old and doesn’t want to play anymore. Our dear pets are really quite stoic and often don’t complain until they are in a very bad way,” Dr Perkins says.
Dr Perkins lists a few risk factors to look out for when it comes to arthritis in your dog.
When people think of arthritis, they think of older pets. Sadly, however, there are lots of pets out there with arthritis from quite a young age. Management and treatment plans can begin as early as two to three years old. Arthritis progresses as we all get older due to constant wear and tear.
Breed and genetics
Joint dysplasia is commonly seen in some breeds. This is when the joint conformation is not ideal and the forces created at the joint by movement and striking the ground are not dispersed effectively. Arthritis occurs much more quickly in such joints.
Large breeds are generally more susceptible to osteoarthritis due to their higher body weight. However, studies have shown that while 45 per cent of dogs with arthritis are large-breed dogs, the condition is still common in small and medium breeds.
What appears to be more important than just the size of a dog’s breed is whether that individual is overweight for their breed. Overfeeding is a big factor in the development of arthritis as it puts pressure on the joints.
Previous joint trauma
Joint trauma or joint surgeries are major predisposing risk factors. Once the integrity of the joint is disturbed, arthritis often follows. However, joint surgery is often required to alleviate pain and to stabilise a joint so that further development of arthritis is minimal.
Early warning signs
“Signs of arthritis are subtle in the early stages and may be easy to miss. Often your veterinarian can pick up some subtle signs which you may not be aware of,” says Dr Perkins. “Once pain is actually a factor, the disease is quite far progressed.”
Some signs to look for are:
• Stiffness (taking some time to warm up)
• Reluctance to walk as far
• Difficulty with stairs, jumping on the sofa or getting in and out of the car
• Difficulty rising from rest
• Limping or abnormal gait
• Frequent licking of a single joint
• Pain when touched or picked up in certain ways
• Acting withdrawn or spending less time playing and interacting with the family (people often just think their dog is old and doesn’t want to play)
• Occasionally, aggression when touched or approached can also be seen.
Senior health checks with your local vet can be very useful to discuss such things. It helps for you to understand what is normal for a senior pet and whether there is some way of intervening a little earlier to make their life more comfortable and happy.
“Quite often, people notice their pet starts to do things they used to once some of their discomfort and pain is relieved. It can provide a whole new lease on life,” Dr Perkins says.
Animal physiotherapists can help with some great methods of massage, physical therapy and swimming techniques that can be helpful to ease arthritis pain.
Aquatic physiotherapy involves a lot more than just swimming. The buoyancy, temperature and other factors can play a big part in strengthening muscles, reducing swelling and improving range of motion. Sometimes wading can be more beneficial than swimming. Underwater treadmills are often used by animal physios, with a variety of aids, flotation devices or weights on hand to help maximise the benefits. A backyard swimming pool or nearby doggy beach can also be beneficial — just make sure you speak to your vet first.
Massage can also play a role in helping arthritic pets. Massage for your pooch needs to be done correctly and this can often be taught by a vet. Although we might like a hard massage, your fur baby might not find it as comfortable and relaxing. Massage done effectively (gently and slowly) can help with circulation, lymphatic drainage and muscle spasms.
Protecting them in winter
Dr Perkins also recommends protecting your dog in the cooler months as the chill can cause more pain in your pooch’s joints.
Ask your vet to check your pet’s body condition score to see if it is ideal. A weight-loss diet may be beneficial as it reduces pressure on the joints.
Low-impact exercise is best. You should not force your pet to exercise through pain. Frequent small walks are desirable on level, soft ground. Swimming can be helpful but discuss this with your vet as there can be many complicating factors.
Soft and comfortable bedding off the cold ground is suitable. Try and keep your pet warm and dry through the cooler months. Their bed should not be difficult for them to get in and out of.
Senior health check
Book your pet in for a senior health check if your dog is getting old or acting differently. Our pets age much more rapidly than us and one year is actually a very long time in an old dog’s life. A senior health check every six months can be beneficial.
There are many different medications, nutraceuticals and diets for arthritis — so many, in fact, that it can get quite confusing. Consult your veterinarian for an up-to-date and unbiased opinion. There is constant progress in veterinary medicine and a lot more options other than just pain relief are now available.