If you notice your pooch to be limping in pain even though there are clearly no signs of injury or that you don’t know of any instance when it hurt itself, then there’s a great chance that your beloved pet may already be showing signs of arthritis. This is especially true if your dog happens to be a large breed or a dog that belongs to a special group of dogs that are genetically predisposed to abnormalities in their cartilage. Aside from limping because of pain, you might also notice your dog to show unusual lameness, excessive panting, and even loss of appetite; although, these can also be brought about by other veterinary medical conditions. That is why if you see something quite ‘not right’ in your pooch, there’s only one person you need to see: your vet.
What is Canine Arthritis?
In humans, arthritis is never fatal. Of course, if you’re talking about rheumatoid arthritis, that’s an entirely different matter since RA is more of an autoimmune disease that can lead to the development of amyloidosis or even spinal cord syndrome as life-threatening complications. But arthritis, being a simple inflammation of the joints, is never fatal. However, its effects on one’s mobility and quality of life are often likened by many to be worse than death itself.
This is exactly the same thing with canine arthritis. It is described as an inflammatory condition that affects the dog’s joints. It is a very common health problem among dogs. Most of us who have experienced the human version of the disease know it very well as quite painful, sometimes really debilitating depending on the location of the arthritis. If we can experience pain, stiffness, and discomfort, our dogs definitely go through the same experience as well.
The major issue in arthritis is there is a change in the cartilage tissues that line the outer edges of bones where they meet other bones to form what we call the joint. Imagine a cheese sandwich – 2 slices of bread with a slice of cheese in between. The breads are the two opposing bones and the cheese in the middle is the joint capsule. The inner surfaces of both bread slices – those in contact with the cheese – are covered with bone-like tissue, albeit softer and less dense, called cartilage. The joint capsule (the cheese) is made up of other structures but is mostly filled with synovial fluid. This fluid acts like a lubricant so that the opposing cartilage surfaces do not rub against each other and create friction. The synovial fluid is produced by the chondrocytes on the cartilage as well as other cells present in the joint capsule. That’s the normal anatomy of the joint.
The problem in arthritis, as we have already said, is that the cartilage somehow undergoes structural changes either as a result of malnutrition (cartilage still requires plenty of nutrients), injury (compression0, or any other event that can significantly damage the cartilage. Since cartilage tissues are less dense than bone, they are easily damaged. When this occur the cartilage surface of the opposing bones become very rough. Even though the joint capsule still contains synovial fluid, they will still rub against each other. This, again, creates friction and is translated as pain or discomfort.
The thing is that because of the damage to the cartilage, the dog’s body will attempt to repair it by depositing minerals over the damaged surface in an effort to make it smooth again. Unfortunately, this thickens the cartilaginous edge of the bone, substantially decreasing the amount of space between the two opposing bones. This makes it quite difficult to move the joint, leading to one of the characteristic manifestations of arthritis – joint stiffness.
That’s not all. Remember what we said about the synovial fluid being produced in part by the chondrocytes present in the cartilage? Well, because of damage to the cartilage, many chondrocytes get destroyed. As such, there is also a substantial reduction in synovial fluid production.
In effect cartilage damage leads to three things:
- Increased friction between the two opposing bones
- Limitation of joint range of motion secondary to the resulting tissue repair
- Reduction in synovial fluid production
Technically, canine arthritis, like human arthritis, is self-fueling. The greater the damage to the cartilage, the greater is the degree of tissue repair and reduction in synovial fluid production. This leads to an increased in cartilage friction which fuels another cycle of tissue repair.
Remember, as tissue is repaired, the thickness of the cartilage grows. This further reduces the space between the opposing surfaces leading to more frequent application of friction forces.
What makes it quite sinister is the fact that, in an effort to minimize the pain, the dog will not move the joint. Not moving the joints can complicate the problems that are associated with arthritis. Not moving will mean the dog will somehow gain weight which will further add to the pressure on the joints. Not moving the joints will also produce calcifications within the joint capsule itself, further limiting the mobility of the joints.
How Do Dogs Get Arthritis?
As we have already pointed out canine arthritis is more a general term that describes a joint in a state of inflammation where pain, stiffness, and discomfort are the major presenting signs and symptoms. You’d be surprised to know that there are actually 10 major categories of canine health conditions that affect the joints.
- Bone fractures that involve the joint
- Congenital disorders like luxated patella and cervical spondylomyelopathy, also known as Wobbler’s syndrome
- Degenerative disease of the joints such as osteoarthritis
- Degenerative disease of the spinal joints like cauda equine syndrome and intervertebral disc disease
- Developmental disorders in dogs which can include hip dysplasia, osteochondritis dissecans, elbow dysplasia, and Legg-Perthes disease
- Diseases of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments such as a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament
- Hormonal and dietary conditions like obesity, Cushing’s disease, poor nutrition, and hyperparathyroidism
- Inflammatory joint disease such as rheumatoid arthritis and Lyme disease
- Metabolic disorders such as hemophilia in dogs or von Willebrand’s disease and diabetes
In each of these classifications there are a various diseases that can bring about an inflammatory change in the joints. This is a very important consideration since the treatment will depend entirely on the disease that is causing an inflammation in the joints.
Of course, advancing age and infections can also lead to inflammatory changes in the dog’s joints.
What are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Canine Arthritis?
We now know that arthritis is characterized by at least two very distinct manifestations: pain or discomfort and stiffness of the joints. Unfortunately, our pet dogs cannot verbally tell us if they are in pain or not or whether they are feeling uncomfortable every time they move a joint. We can, however, notice the stiffness of their joints, but again we may dismiss this as nothing really serious. That is why we also have to be very observant of our dog’s behavior since many of the signs and symptoms of canine arthritis are present in these behaviors.
- Limping or an unusual stance while standing or gait while walking
- Difficulty moving or reluctant to do many of the things that previously your pet was able to accomplish with ease
- Lameness in one or both of its hind legs
- Difficulty moving the head and neck
- An abnormal posture, often with a hunchback appearance
- Spends more time resting and sleeping rather than moving
- May snap or even bite especially when handled or even when approached
- A limb that looks unusually thinner than normal limb
- Increased licking, biting, and chewing on a certain body part
- Loss of hair on the body part that is frequently licked, chewed, or bitten
Is My Dog More Prone to Develop Arthritis?
While arthritis is a very common condition that can affect all dogs especially those that are already in their golden years, there are certain breeds that are, sad to say, at higher risk for developing the condition. Of course, this is not an absolute guarantee that since you have a dog that belongs to this list you will already have to contend with canine arthritis. Other factors can still have an impact on the final outcome whether arthritis will manifest on your dog or not. Suffice it to say, these dog breeds have one more reason why they may develop arthritis.
- Basset hound
- German shepherd
- Golden retriever
- Great Dane
- Labrador retriever
- Old English sheepdog
- Saint Bernard
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If you noticed, majority of those dog breeds in this list are those that are quite heavy. This underscores the importance of weight in the development of canine arthritis. A dog’s body weight can bear down on the lower of two opposing bones, creating friction, and inducing the inflammatory changes that we all know occur with arthritis.
However, there are also breeds of dogs that are not necessarily large in size yet are at an increased risk for arthritic conditions. For instance dachshunds, basset hounds, and bulldogs all belong to a group of dogs called chnodrodystrophoid. These are dogs that are predisposed to a variety of joint cartilage disorders of genetic origin. Examples of articular conditions in small breeds of dogs that can lead to arthritis include patellar luxation and elbow incongruity.
How is Arthritis in Dogs Diagnosed?
Diagnosing canine arthritis involves a combination of a review of the dog’s clinical manifestations, the results of its comprehensive physical examination, its health and veterinary medical or even surgical history, and a host of laboratory and diagnostic tests.
Typically, your veterinarian will be looking for the following:
- Muscle atrophy
- Abnormal bone formation
- Bone roughness
- Limited range of motion
- Grinding of the joint known as crepitus
- Tenderness and swelling of the joints
Radiologic studies are often indicated to help visualize the structure of the joints. In many cases, a radiopaque contrast media is injected through the joint of the dog to aid in the visualization. Some veterinarians will also call for force plate analysis which effectively measures the amount of force exerted by the dog’s limbs as it walks across a mat that is embedded with pressure-sensitive plates. The synovial fluid of the affected joint may also be aspirated for evaluation, helping determine whether the dog’s arthritis is degenerative or inflammatory in nature.
What Treatment Options Does My Dog with Arthritis Have?
Managing canine arthritis actually depends on the underlying cause of the inflammation. For instance, if the cause is due to a torn ligament, surgery may be required to help repair the damaged tissue. Also, if the problem is in the presence of cartilage tissues that have accumulated in to joint space, then arthroscopy may be indicated. Nevertheless, the management of arthritis in dogs typically include any of the following.
- Weight management
The importance of managing the weight of arthritic dogs cannot be overlooked. In fact, even before medications for arthritis are given, most veterinarians will recommend reducing the dog’s weight first in an attempt to reduce the pressure exerted by the weight of the body on the joint capsule, reducing friction and the resulting inflammation.
While moving may bring tremendous amount of pain to the dog, doing low-impact exercises can actually do more good. Taking your dog for a walk or letting it walk on a treadmill, going swimming or slow jogging, or even going up and down several flights of stairs can help improve the range of motion of the joints. Typically, this is performed in conjunction with the administration of an anti-inflammatory and analgesic medication to help minimize the pain that may be experienced by the dog while exercising. Do take note that it is crucial to choose the right type of exercise; otherwise, you will only make the arthritis worse.
- Warmth and orthopedic beds
The application of heat over the affected body part helps to relax the different tissues in the area. It also helps improve the flow of blood and the delivery of nutrients and oxygen. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, the symptoms of arthritis are typically worse in damp and cold weather. This is because of the effect of cold on the muscles and other tissues. Cold contracts the muscles that are connected to the bone. This leads to the sensation of muscle stiffness which can exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis. The application of heat can help loosen up these muscles, bringing comfort. In like manner, the use of orthopedic beds helps reduce the pressure applied on the joints. These specialty mattresses also help distribute the dog’s weight evenly across a greater surface area. This can bring comfort to the arthritic dog.
- Physical therapy
Massage is often indicated by veterinarians to help loosen stiff muscles while also promoting optimum range of motion. This is best performed by veterinarians who have knowledge in veterinary physical therapy. In many instances, you may also be taught how to provide massage to your pooch so you can perform these maneuvers as needed at home. Additionally, for those dogs that are in extreme pain but will definitely benefit from exercise, hydrotherapy may be recommended. Since the effect of gravity on the dog’s body is substantially reduced when the dog is in the water, this allows the dog to exercise its joints and help promote good range of motion.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers
There are three classes of anti-inflammatory drugs currently in use for the management of pain associated with arthritis in dogs. These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, buffered aspirin, and corticosteroids. Some veterinarians may also choose to give the dog other types of drugs that will help alleviate pain such as tramadol, amantadine, gabapentin, and grapiprant.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are excellent painkillers and are quite exceptional in reducing inflammation as well. Examples of these drugs include carprofen, etodolac, deracoxib, meloxicam, and ketoprofen. Ibuprofen also belongs to this class of drugs but is not often advised since it has more side effects than the others we have mentioned.
Buffered aspirin is also effective both as an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic agent. Unfortunately, it still carries its gastric ulcerant property. As such, it is often administered with food to help minimize the risk of developing gastric ulcers in dogs. Also, if gastric upset does develop, it is advised that buffered aspirin therapy be discontinued immediately and a thorough veterinary evaluation be performed.
Corticosteroids are the best when it comes to its effects on inflammation. Sadly, its short- and long- term side effects and adverse reactions can be quite alarming. The good news is that newer formulations of corticosteroids are now made available for use in the management of arthritis in dogs. There are still side effects and adverse reactions, but these are typically tamer than the first generations of corticosteroids. Nevertheless, most veterinarians reserve corticosteroids for use only in cases of flare-ups or when all other pain relieving and anti-inflammatory methods have been exhausted.
- Joint health supplements
Two of the most common supplements recommended by veterinarians today in the management of canine arthritis include chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine.
Chondroitin sulfate works by enhancing the production of glycosaminoglycans which are one of the several substances required for the formation of cartilage as well as the production of synovial fluid. Since the issue in arthritis is that there is a change in the structure of cartilage in the joint capsule, introducing chondroitin sulfate will naturally increase the number of fully functioning cartilage, hastening the repair process. In addition to its effects on glycosaminoglycans, chondroitin can also inhibit the action of certain enzymes on the joint. Enzymes hasten the breakdown of cartilaginous tissue. If these substances are inhibited, then repair of the cartilage can proceed at a much faster rate.
On the other hand, glucosamine is the major component of hyaluronate and glycosaminoglycans. We already know what glycosaminoglycans do in the formation of cartilage. Hyaluronate is also known as hyaluronan which serves to improve the viscosity or ‘thickness’ of the synovial fluid inside the joint capsule. Giving glucosamine to arthritic dogs not only help in the faster repair and regeneration of cartilage tissues, it also aids in the synthesis of more synovial fluid. This helps improve the lubrication of the joint, facilitating optimum range of motion with less to no pain.
It should be made clear that chondroitin and glucosamine are not painkillers. They work by helping the joint repair itself. As such, it usually takes about 6 weeks of continuous use before any significant improvements in the dog’s joints become noticeable. It is also for this reason that chondroitin and glucosamine are typically administered together with painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs.
For some recommendations into the most popular brands at the moment, make sure you read our review for the best dog joint supplement.
There is growing evidence in support of the use of certain nutrients to aid in the reduction of inflammation and the promotion of joint tissue repair and healing. These can include the following.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – It is well known that omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA have excellent anti-inflammatory properties.
- Duralactin – This is an ingredient that is sourced from the milk of cows that have been grass-fed and raised organically. This substance is known to have anti-inflammatory properties which can be beneficial to dogs with arthritis.
- Creatine – A derivative of an amino acid, creatine aids in the production of fuel in the form of ATP. It is often given to arthritic dogs that have obvious signs of muscle atrophy since creatine helps in the improvement of muscle performance.
- Vitamin C – This vitamin is an important component in the synthesis of cartilage and collagen. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
- Methylsulfonylmethane or MSM – This substance has both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties which may aid in the alleviation of the symptoms of arthritis in dogs. However, its main use in canine arthritis is the enhancement of the structural integrity of various connective tissues of which cartilage is an example.
- Bromelain – This is an enzyme that is typically found in pineapples. It has exceptional anti-inflammatory property which can be further enhanced if given together with quercetin.
Arthritis in dogs can be a debilitating condition just like in humans. Its effective management rests on our understanding of the various symptoms and how fast we can recognize these symptoms. It should be clear that the earlier we recognize these symptoms of canine arthritis the more manageable the condition. This helps guarantee our dogs will lead a more normal life.
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- Angela Mazza, DVM, Ouch! My Aching Joints!, The MSPCA–Angell
- Integrative Treatments for Dog and Cat Arthritis, Best Friends Animal Society
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.