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How to treat arthritis in dogs

Osteoarthritis, often referred to simply as arthritis, is a degenerative condition of the joints and is very common in dogs. Although there is no cure, veterinarians can offer a range of treatments to manage arthritis by delaying its progression and keeping dogs mobile and comfortable. If you have a dog, it’s important to identify any signs of arthritis that your dog might be showing early, to ensure they receive effective treatment.

Unfortunately, this chronic condition often goes undetected, causing pain and reduced quality of life. Some people assume that a dog with arthritis will be lame or limping, but the signs are often more subtle and can also be intermittent, especially early in the disease. Many owners don’t recognise these signs and treatment may be delayed by waiting before seeing a veterinarian. This is even more of a problem for cats because their pain can be more difficult to recognise. Many dogs suffer from untreated arthritis, especially those who are older.

Symptoms of arthritis in dogs

As with many conditions, the possible signs of arthritis may be due to a variety of underlying causes, so take your dog for an assessment if you notice any of the following:

  • Reduced activity
  • Reluctance to walk or play
  • Falling behind on walks (walking more slowly, reluctance to walk the usual distance, lying down)
  • Stumbling
  • Stiffness in the legs (especially in the mornings) that may improve during the day
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Shifting posture
  • Hesitating before a major movement
  • Limping or lameness in a single limb (during or immediately after exercise)
  • Gait changes such as ‘bunny hopping’
  • Difficulty climbing stairs
  • Difficulty jumping up and/or down (e.g., onto the lounge or car seat)
  • Licking or chewing at joints or feet
  • Yelping when touched
  • Yelping during movement
  • Changes in demeanor (including being withdrawn or aggressive)

Risk factors

There are key risk factors that lead to arthritis in dogs. These include:

  • Genetics
  • Breed (particularly dogs with a susceptible conformation/body shape).
  • Predisposing joint and ligament problems (such as patella or ‘kneecap’ luxation, hip or elbow dysplasia and cruciate ligament disease)
  • Increased bodyweight, which places an additional load on joints
  • Older age, although it should not be assumed that arthritis is a disease of older dogs because many are not diagnosed until their condition has become advanced; and
  • Forms of exercise during early years that can lead to overuse of the joints.

Treating or managing an arthritic dog

Your veterinarian can advise about safe exercise for puppies and juvenile dogs. And remember that all dogs need at least an annual health check. If your dog is predisposed to developing arthritis, your veterinarian will be aware to monitor their joint health.

The treatment of arthritis in dogs is multimodal, which means veterinarians manage the pain and discomfort by using multiple therapies for the most effective results. If your dog has been diagnosed with arthritis, his or her treatment plan will most likely be based on the following established treatments:

Weight management

Keeping your dog’s weight within the health range is crucial for both preventing and reducing the impact of arthritis. As a dog’s joints become weaker and more damaged, their weight becomes harder to carry, and even small losses or gains to their weight can have an impact on their ability to cope. You can do this through daily exercise, regular weigh-ins, learning to use a Body Condition Score and seeking veterinary advice about nutrition and weight management.

Exercise modification

Dogs with arthritis must continue to have appropriate daily exercise to keep their joints mobile. Your veterinarian can advise you how to exercise your dog in moderation by avoiding overly strenuous activities such as running or jumping and offering low-impact exercise through gentle walking or swimming. You can also ask for a referral to rehabilitation therapy, an exciting new field in veterinary medicine that offers a range of treatments including special exercises, hydrotherapy, laser treatment and acupuncture.

Dietary management

Apart from ensuring your dog’s diet is not too high in calories for them, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription joint diet. These diets assist with joint health by using nutritional components to reduce inflammation and pain and improve mobility. They also assist with weight management. Your veterinarian may also recommend nutraceuticals such as glucosamine, chondroitin or omega-3 fatty acids that have been especially formulated for pets, on their own or in addition to a prescription joint diet.

Medication

The aim of medication is to reduce inflammation and manage the pain of arthritis to keep pets comfortable. Medication treatment commonly involves a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and a longer-acting analgesic. There are also other treatments that may be recommended by your veterinarian for your individual dog.

Surgery

Sometimes surgical options are offered, depending on your dog’s individual condition and the success of medical management. These may include surgery to correct underlying causes (such as cruciate ligament rupture), reconstructive surgeries (such as a hip replacement) or joint fusion surgery.

Environmental modification

As an owner, you can support your dog’s overall treatment by modifying your home to keep them comfortable and help avoid any movements that could inflame their joints. Comfortable bedding is a must, and you can even buy an orthopaedic dog bed for extra support. Other aids include portable ramps to replace stairs or assist with getting in and out of the car, a dog gate to keep them away from dangerous areas and non-slip flooring (along with regular nail trimming) to prevent slipping.

Staying on top of your dog’s condition

The best way you can help manage your dog’s arthritis is to follow your veterinarian’s treatment plan and have regular check-ups, which could be as often as every one to four months to assess their response to treatment, and may involve blood tests to pick up on and respond promptly to any medication side effects. It is important to monitor treatment outcomes, so your veterinarian may provide you with a questionnaire to complete in between visits to rate the severity and impact of your dog’s pain.

Arthritis is a common condition in dogs and is by no means exclusively a disease of old age. The good news is that, with veterinary guidance, arthritis can be well managed to keep dogs mobile and free from pain so they can enjoy a good quality of life.

Other ways to continue to look after the health of your dog if an accidental injury or illness occurred is with pet insurance. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums help support the invaluable work of the RSPCA.