Published on January 20th, 2015 | by Debbie Martin
Understanding dogs and degenerative joint disease
What is osteoarthritis?
Dogs and degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis, occurs when the cartilage between joints begins to wear away. This cartilage serves as an important lubricant and its absence causes bones to rub against one another. The effect is extremely painful.
What causes my dog to suffer from osteoarthritis?
While the condition can affect dogs of any age, it is most common in older dogs, whose bones have been exposed to a greater amount of wear and tear. There are a number of other factors which contribute to the onset of the condition.
A major factor is the size and weight of the dog. If bones have to carry a larger weight, then they will be placed under greater stress and therefore degenerate more quickly. For this reason, certain breeds of dog are more prone to developing the condition than others. Similarly, obese dogs are more vulnerable than those of a healthy weight.
Other factors contributing to the condition are abnormal development of certain joints, like the hip and elbow. Dislocations of the knees and shoulders can also prompt the onset of the condition.
How can I tell whether my dog has osteoarthritis?
There are a number of signs which would indicate that a dog is suffering from arthritis:
Dogs suffering from arthritis will have difficulty walking properly, as the movement will cause them pain. This pain will most often be greater in some joints than in others and the result is usually a pronounced limp.
Dogs which have arthritic joints will tend to hold themselves in unusual positions so as not to aggravate the affected areas. If your dog seems to be standing strangely, then it may be because they are arthritic.
Arthritic dogs will be disinclined to move around and will most often simply lie motionless. Movement will cause joints pain, as the cartilage that allows smooth movement of bones will be worn away, forcing them to grind against one another.
Dogs who suffer from arthritis may become shy and retreating. They will become particularly irritated whenever they are touched and fussed over. This is understandable, since being touched is likely to cause an arthritic dog considerable pain. This change is particularly noticeable in dogs which were once very friendly and exuberant.
Excessive chewing and biting
Arthritic dogs may attempt to address the pain in their joints by chewing and biting them, in much the same way we humans scratch whenever we get an itch. In some cases, this can result in inflammation and hair loss in the afflicted areas.
Fear of climbing
For a dog whose joints ache all the time, a staircase is a terrifying prospect. If your dog once took great pleasure in bounding up and down the stairs and now reluctantly shuffles up and down when coerced into doing so, this could be a sign of arthritis. Similarly, if your dog was once inclined toward sleeping on a chair or sofa and no longer does so, this could indicate that it is arthritic – the dog no longer considers the act of climbing up onto the sofa worth the effort.
These symptoms will be exacerbated by certain environmental conditions; in particular, cold weather will make things worse. If you suspect that your dog is arthritic, then it is best to get the condition looked at sooner rather than later. The earlier the condition is noticed, the more effective the treatments against it will be.
What can I do about it?
It would be wonderful if there was a cure for osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, no such cure exists currently. Once the cartilage has been worn away, it cannot return.
There are, however, ways to manage the pain and to prevent further degeneration. The first step you should take is to take the dog to a vet, so that a thorough examination can be performed and further action considered.
In some cases, surgery (followed by medication used in the management of post-operative pain like Carprieve) may be necessary in order to replace afflicted joints and to remove fragments of bone and cartilage which may be aggravating the condition and then to help soothe the pain in the future. In others, a long-term course of drugs like Carprieve, along with some changes in diet and exercise, are sufficient.
Owners of afflicted dogs should ensure that they try to maintain the dog’s activity level – though there is no point in forcing them to go for a walk if doing so will induce agony. It is important that some exercise is undertaken, in order to prevent further atrophy. The symptoms of arthritis are normally at their worst when the dog first begins to exercise, and lessens once the dog has ‘warmed up’.
With the proper painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs like Carprieve, the pain can be brought to a manageable level and so some limited exercise performed. Pain can be further mitigated through hydrotherapy and physiotherapy. Changes in diet will also be suggested. In particular, foods rich in omega fatty acids will be recommended, as they help to reduce inflammation.
It is worth noting that you should never give your dog any medication that is not designed for it. This obviously includes human medication, but also medication that has been designed for another animal – including another dog. Dogs have vastly different metabolisms to humans and are unable to process the dosages present in medication designed for humans. Similarly, there is huge variation within the world of dogs – an anti-inflammatory designed for a Great Dane, for example, will not be appropriate for a Yorkshire terrier.
How do I prevent my dog from becoming osteoarthritic?
The best way to guard against the development of the condition is to identify the contributing factors. If your dog is overweight, for example and rarely gets exercise, then it is a great deal more likely to develop the disease in later life. If this sounds like your dog, then you should ensure that it is fed properly and taken for walks every day.