Arthritis and the aging dog

The signs of arthritis may be hard to spot. You might notice it takes Fido a little longer to get up in the morning and she seems to have a harder time moving around. Soon you realize that she’s in pain whenever she walks, jumps, or even sits up. It’s difficult enough to accept that our beloved dog is aging, but learning that she has arthritis makes it seem worse.

But take heed–arthritis doesn’t have to mean a poor quality of life for your dog any more. Arthritis is simply joint inflammation, often accompanied by pain, heat, and swelling, which usually results in increasing stiffness and immobility. These days there are medications and therapies that, combined with a few changes in your home, can help your dog be more comfortable and pain free as she continues to enjoy her life with you.

Diagnosing arthritis

The first step in caring for a dog with arthritis is proper diagnosis. The symptoms of arthritis can be hard to recognize–dogs can’t complain about their aching joints, so all that the owner sees is a response to pain. Keep an eye out for changes in behavior such as:

  • Avoiding once enjoyable activities. Arthritic dogs may stop jumping onto the furniture, or nip or seem upset when touched.
  • Some dogs may become depressed or change their eating habits; others may simply seem grumpier than usual.

These are also possible symptoms of much more serious problems, such as cognitive dysfunction or certain cancers. That’s why it’s very important that you consult your veterinarian if you suspect she has arthritis.

Your veterinarian can determine the type of arthritis she has by using a combination of a medical history, blood tests, X rays, physical exams, and, if warranted, tests on the fluid inside the joint or MRI imaging. Though relatively uncommon, arthritis can sometimes be caused by a bacterial infection inside a joint or an autoimmune disorder.

These conditions require different medications than common osteoarthritis. Arthritis caused by elbow or hip dysplasia can sometimes be treated surgically. Your veterinarian needs to rule out these probable causes before starting treatment.

The most common type of arthritis in dogs and humans is osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease. Most elderly dogs suffer from osteoarthritis to some extent. Time causes the cartilage that cushions joints to wear down and bones start rubbing against each other. As the condition worsens, the friction can wear down and damage the bones.

This kind of arthritis can occur in any joint, though it is most common and causes the most pain in the weight-bearing joints like the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, and ankles. It can easily be seen in large-breed dogs, whose frames carry the more weight, but smaller dogs are affected as well. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but the pain it causes can be managed through medical treatment, environmental adaptation, and diet and exercise.

Finding the correct treatment

After diagnosing and determining the severity of your dog’s arthritis, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options with you. New medications have made the treatment of arthritis much more promising. Steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs will decrease the swelling in joints and make movement easier. Dietary supplements, which fortify the cartilage in damaged joints, is frequently recommended.

Do not try to medicate your dog’s arthritis on your own, however, as human anti-inflammatories and supplements can be dangerous for dogs.

Some dogs, particularly younger ones may be benefited by surgery. Veterinary surgeons can try to reconstruct joints for more stability, or they may perform an arthroscopy to remove chips of damaged bone. In some large and medium sized dogs, veterinarians may chose to replace the entire hip joint.

In smaller dogs, they may recommend removing the top of the femoral (upper leg) bone since the leg muscles will compensate for the loss. In an extreme case, with painful, unstable or frozen joints, a veterinarian may perform arthrodesis–“fusing” the joint together.

Your veterinarian will discuss the viability of surgery for your dog, taking into consideration your dog’s age, general health and the progression of the arthritis. Surgery is not an option in every case.

Many dog owners and veterinarians are using complementary or holistic therapies to reduce arthritis symptoms. Acupuncture is increasingly popular as a treatment for chronic pain and some practitioners suggest the use of herbal supplements and antioxidant vitamins.

Massage therapy, benefitting dogs both physically and emotionally, is another option gaining popularity. Take your dog to a trained animal massage therapist for treatment to avoid causing her additional pain that could happen with an untrained person rubbing against her sore joints and muscles. Learning the massage techniques yourself creates a way for both you and your dog to enjoy quality time together.

Making life easier

Dogs with arthritis face physical challenges that used to be easily surmounted, such as steep stairs, slippery floors and cold drafts. If you make a few alterations around the house, you can help your arthritic dog move around more easily and confidently.

  • Keep food and water dishes at a comfortable height and on a non-slip surface such as a rubber bath mat or a piece of indoor-outdoor carpet. In a multi-level house, have water available on every floor.
  • Give her a padded surface to cushion her joints while she sits and sleeps. Old chair and sofa cushions work as well as an expensive bed from the pet store. Be sure her bed is in a warm, draft-free spot.
  • Put non-skid runners over slippery wood or linoleum floors. You can find them at most home improvement and hardware stores.
  • Ramps can help dogs navigate stairs, mount furniture, access anywhere they used to jump to. You can make your own ramp, from heavy plywood covered in sturdy carpeting. Make it long enough that there is not a steep angle for your dog to climb and make sure that both ends are completely secure before allowing your dog on the ramp.
  • Some dogs will disregard their pain and stiffness and may hurt themselves trying to climb stairs. You can keep her from injuring herself by placing a barrier up to prevent access to the stairs when you are not there to supervise.
  • A homemade sling can help you support your large dog’s weight as she moves around. Slide a long, wide strap made of leather, canvas, or a thick, durable fabric like a bath towel, under her chest and hold one end in each hand. If you pull up on the ends when she is standing up, it helps her get her balance; the sling is also helpful for climbing stairs and entering and exiting the car.
  • A little extra warmth can help a sore dog get a better night’s sleep. Wrap a hot water bottle in a towel or tuck a microwaveable heating pad into her bed.
  • If your dog likes to spend time alone in the yard, be sure you can keep an eye on her as she moves around. Dogs with arthritis are vulnerable to attacks from other animals, they can fall and injure themselves, and their joints can stiffen in cold or damp weather. If you don’t have a clear view from a door or window, go sit outside with them.
  • Groom your dog regularly. As she loses flexibility in her joints, she can’t reach around to special spots as she used to. Regular brushing will help your dog feel comfortable and allows you some quiet, affectionate time with her.

There are other things you can do to help your dog. Consider her favorite activities and the rooms she spends time in. Think about things you can do to make each activity less strenuous and safer.

Monitor your own actions. Do you really need to make all those trips up and down the stairs? Or if you do, is it really necessary that she accompany you? For her safety and well-being, put up the baby gate. You are the one who best understands your pet’s specific needs, and you may be inspired with some creative solutions!

Keeping your dog mobile

Once you have modified your dog’s environment, begin to modify her lifestyle. Moderate exercise can help make your dog more comfortable by strengthening muscles, keeping ligaments flexible, warding off obesity and improving circulation to stiff joints. After a minute or two of warming up, many arthritic dogs move more easily and with less pain.

If your dog is reluctant to move at first because of aching joints, provide an incentive such as a favorite toy or treat to get them on their feet. Make the exercise as much fun as possible by giving lots of petting and affection before and after, and perhaps a healthy treat afterward.

While moderate exercise is vital to your dog’s health, too much strenuous activity can cause damage to her joints. Keep a close eye on your dog so she doesn’t overexert or injure herself, particularly if she has always been an active dog. Monitor her exercise closely–watching for signs of exhaustion or pain, and stop the activity if you notice any discomfort.

Your dog will benefit from a healthy diet and weight management. Obesity makes arthritis hard to manage because it increases the stress on joints, making it harder for them to move. Arthritic dogs do well on a high quality diet which maintains their weight at a healthy level. If you can’t feel your dog’s ribs easily, consult your veterinarian about exercise and dietary management to reduce her weight.

There are so many options for coping with a dog with arthritis that they can be overwhelming. Your closest ally in your dog’s arthritis battle is her veterinarian who will guide you in finding the best treatment or combination of treatments for your dog’s needs.

Try not to get discouraged. Arthritis may change your life with your dog, but it doesn’t mean that life is over. Some activities may have to be curtailed or modified, but they can be replaced with extra time spent petting, grooming, massaging, or simply spending time with her. As you care for your arthritic dog, you may find your special bond with her increasing. The once energetic, playful friendship should eventually be replaced with the joy of a gentle, caring life together.

Source: Adapted from the American Animal Hospital Association