Watching any animal attempt to run and play while battling arthritis can be hard. Yet it's especially heartbreaking for owners whose animals have a form of rheumatoid arthritis known as Juvenile Onset Polyarthritis Syndrome. One of a wide variety of types of polyarthritis, this incurable disease strikes early and cripples the dog's limbs, causing chronic severe pain and lameness.
This type of arthritis begins with an abnormal immune cell response that causes too many white blood cells (the body's disease-fighters) to invade the joints. Once there they release chemicals that create swelling, joint pain and fever. Animals with polyarthritis often feel ill and are reluctant to move around. Rheumatoid arthritis is especially aggressive in eroding cartilage that cushions the joints. Plus, over time, it deforms the bones surrounding the joints as well, leaving the limbs deformed and unable to bear the dog's weight. The disease usually affects more than one joint; often all of the dog's joints are involved.
Unless the joints are obviously swollen, polyarthritis can be difficult to diagnose, since its symptoms are similar to many other ailments. A dog's malaise, for example, is often overlooked or attributed to other causes. The problem is further complicated by the fact that symptoms in these animals may come on quickly or gradually, involve only one limb or multiple joints, and may improve spontaneously for a period of time, or become crippling very soon. In other words, inconsistency in symptoms is the only consistency. A chronic fever, combined with lameness, is one of the best indicators of an arthritis-related problem. There is no specific test for the disease; therefore a definite diagnosis of polyarthritis can only be made after multiple tests have been performed and all other potential causes ruled out.
In most instances, arthritis is a disease of aging dogs, caused by a lifetime of wear and tear on the joints. Injury, disease and poor nutrition also can play a role in its development. However, with the juvenile form of the disease, the symptoms appear early and are particularly disabling. The condition is normally treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Your veterinarian also may prescribe anti-rheumatic and analgesic drugs, plus a steroid like cortisone to treat the underlying disease. Pain relievers also are usually prescribed. In regular cases of polyarthritis the disease can be put into remission about half the time with medication, which is then maintained with corticosteroid treatment. However, in the juvenile form of the disease, the success rate with medication-only treatment is much lower.
In the most severe cases, arthroscopic surgery may be performed in order to remove any debris from the joint and repair the remaining cartilage. Depending upon the age, size and condition of your dog, joint replacement surgery also may be an option.