Aging takes it toll on everyone, animals as well as humans. Among the hardest hit are the joints, especially the articular cartilage inside those joints, which normally provides a smooth, low-friction buffer between the bones. A variety of causes, including age, can cause this cartilage to break down or develop fissures, resulting in severe pain, inflammation, and lameness.
Although degenerative joint disease (and the resulting arthritis) is generally considered a problem of older canines, it's appearing in more and more younger large-breed dogs as well. Selective breeding has resulted in the altering of bone structure in several breeds, especially larger dogs such as German Shepherds, Great Danes and Mastiffs. In these animals, many are now born with a defect that prevents the development of normal cartilage, leading to permanent early lameness in the shoulders, knees, and ankles.
Injuries often start the degenerative process. It's common for middle-aged and older dogs to rupture ligaments in their knees, which usually begins the gradual breakdown of cartilage. Overweight animals also put additional stress on their joints, again causing cartilage damage. Other young dogs, especially Retrievers and Rottweilers, are prone to hairline fractures and fragmentation of their forearm bones at about 5 to 9 months of age. Finally, some dogs are prone to a disorder known as hip dysplasia, in which the hip joint doesn't fit together as snugly as it's supposed to. The result is that the hip joint moves around within the socket, leading to chronic lameness and, occasionally, arthritis. If your pet seems to be in pain when you hold him in certain positions or touch him in certain areas, it can be a warning sign of bone and joint disease, especially if the animal also has trouble getting up and down, moves stiffly, or appears to be lame.
Anti-inflammatory agents and pain relievers are often prescribed for degenerative joint disease. Veterinarians also often recommend nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, which have been proven to help replenish articular cartilage.
With this type of disease, there also are a number of lifestyle changes that can make your pet more comfortable and improve his quality of life. First, the animal's weight needs to be kept under control, since extra pounds place significant stress on the joints. Daily exercise is another must, but it needs to be carefully balanced in order to maintain muscle strength without damaging the joints further. Dogs with this disease should be walked on a leash and kept from jumping. Swimming is the best exercise of all, for both old and young dogs with this problem. Whatever you do, be sure to do it daily. Otherwise the dog may be sore after exercise and become reluctant to move at all.
Joint diseases become more painful in cold, damp weather. Make sure your pet is kept in a warm area, and don't hesitate to dress him in a sweater. Massage and physical therapy can be helpful, and it's recommended you get a firm, orthopedic foam bed. These distribute weight evenly and reduce pressure on the joints. For larger dogs, an elevated feeding area can be much more comfortable, especially if the animal has stiffness in its neck or back. Since degenerative joint disease is incurable, regular checkups with your veterinarian also are critical.