It seems like every dog owner has some experience in his or her beloved pet becoming stiff and reluctant to move as they age. In reality any dog of any breed, including mixed or hybrid dogs, can all develop arthritis as they age, however some breeds and some lines within breeds are more prone to the condition. In general the larger the breed the more problematic arthritis is likely to be but even smaller dogs that are obese, have a history of joint or muscle problems or that have had injuries to joints can develop the condition.
For most dogs the symptoms of arthritis include difficulty in moving, particularly when first standing, sitting or walking after resting, muscle pain and stiffness, brittle joints and lameness in one or more limbs that may come and go over time. Arthritis is most commonly seen in dogs over seven years of age, but can sometimes also be diagnosed in much younger dogs, especially those with a history of hip dysplasia, patella luxation or congenital joint or skeletal malformations. Dogs that have been injured in car accidents or other types of trauma that included damage to the long bones, spine or joints are also at high risk for developing this condition at young ages.
What causes arthritis?
There are actually two different causes of arthritis and understanding the type of arthritis your dog has is important in managing the condition and preventing, as much as possible, any further damage to the joints. Since your vet can perform tests to determine the type of arthritis, it is essential to get your dog into the vet at the first signs of stiffness and joint pain to start the treatment process.
One type of arthritis is caused by the ongoing damage of the joint, known as degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis. This is a gradual or sudden degeneration of the cartilage around the joint either through an injury, abnormal joint formation or other trauma to the area. As the cartilage erodes by incorrect joint formation or injury, the bones gradually come into contact in the joint, causing the pain and stiffness and ongoing damage to the structure of the joint.
Dogs that are very energetic during their younger years or that are used in competitions or work that include physical challenges and exertion are more likely to develop this type of arthritis as they age due to the stress on the joints. In some cases the cause of the osteoarthritis can be determined by taking a history of the dog that includes injury, medical problems such as hip dysplasia or joint problems or even a history of these conditions within the breed or breeding line. For some dogs the primary cause of the arthritis cannot be determined, which makes it more challenging for owners and vets to actually understand the root cause.
The second type of arthritis is caused by some type of inflammatory joint disease that leads to the breakdown of the joint, resulting in the bone on bone painful contact. Some causes of the immune related and inflammatory type arthritis can include tick bites, fungal infections, bacteria and severe immune compromising diseases. Typically in this type of arthritis all joints are affected by the stiffness and there are other symptoms such as fevers, weight loss, despondency and other immune related health problems occurring at the same time.
Both causes of arthritis can result in significant changes in your dog's behavior. They may refuse to sit down on smooth surfaces since they know that they will have difficult in standing up again. You may also find that your dog has to rock back and forth to get up from a down or sitting position and he or she may yelp, whine or cry even when moving slowly. The joint may feel very hot to the touch and the area around the joint may be extremely sensitive for the dog. He or she may not want to be touched or have the affected joint manipulated in any fashion.
Once the vet has determined the type of arthritis cause, he or she can then develop a treatment plan. In the case of a degenerative joint disease issue, it may be possible to surgically correct the joint, preventing any further damage. Canine hip replacement surgery is now possible and while costly it has been highly successful in most larger dogs.
If surgery is not an option, there are relatively low cost treatment options available to owners. Painkillers prescribed by a vet can help with managing the physical issues for the dog, plus new types of arthritis medications are now on the market. Carprofen, sold as Rimadyl, is a commonly prescribed drug that helps to alleviate the pain of arthritis and helps restore range of movement for older dogs. There are some possible side effects with kidney and liver functioning so periodic blood tests will be necessary. Most dogs have very positive results on this medication.
A very interesting new drug known as Adequan is an injectable treatment for arthritis that not only helps with the pain but also directly stimulates the re-growth of cartilage within the joint. This treatment is most effective when the degeneration is caught in the early stages and the malformation has been corrected. Dogs with high levels of inflammation can also benefit from both of these medications as well as with buffered painkillers that don't cause digestive problems when used for long periods of time.
Exercise and weight management is a key factor in management of arthritis. Obese dogs put much more pressure and stress on already irritated joints, plus they are more likely to injure themselves during exercise. If your dog is overweight, be sure to start any exercise programs very slowly and work at the dog's pace. Cut down on the food by one quarter and slowly increase the exercise. Don't forget that all treats also need to be counted in the daily food ration and any human foods or table scraps need to be completely removed from the diet during the weight loss phase.