Osteoarthritis in Dogs – How to Make Your Dog More Comfortable
Arthritis is a common condition in both humans and animals. However, among domestic pets, dogs tend to suffer from arthritis most often due to genetic predispositions, injury, and excessive exercise.
As reported in a 2015 review, one in four of the 77.2 million pet dogs living in the United States live with some form of arthritis – osteoarthritis being the most common.
This degenerative joint disease is essentially an illness that causes chronic inflammation, resulting in the degeneration of cartilage, stiff joints, and pain.
What Is Osteoarthritis and How Are Dogs Impacted?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a progressive disease that worsens across time. Being a “wear and tear” disease, as cartilage breaks down, joints and bones are more intensely impacted.
Occurring in four stages, not including the first preclinical stage, OA progresses from a minor stage to a mild stage, followed by a moderate stage, and ending in with a severe stage. Veterinarians will often refer to these stages as grade 1 dog arthritis, grade 2 dog arthritis, grade 3 dog arthritis, and finally, grade 4 dog arthritis.
Just as symptoms are unique in each stage, so is the recommended course of treatment. The impact on a dog’s health and quality of life depends on what stage they’re in. These stages are distinguished based on the following:
- Grade 1 – This describes the beginning of dog arthritis when damage to the cartilage is minor. Although dogs may experience some degree of pain, it may not be overly apparent to their owner. Imaging will simply reveal the softening of cartilage at this time.
- Grade 2 – Inflammation of the joints will begin to occur, causing dogs to experience some mild lameness. Dogs will also experience pain when affected joints are touched. Imaging will reveal the beginning of cracks in a dog’s cartilage, as well as the growth of bone spurs at this time.
- Grade 3 – At this point, a dog’s arthritis will be moderate to severe, as chronic pain and inflammation continue to develop. Lameness will become more apparent and imaging will likely reveal tears in the cartilage, scar tissue, and bone spurs.
- Grade 4 – Once a dog reaches this stage, symptoms of arthritis will be advanced. Dogs will be nearly paralyzed, showcasing signs of extensive pain. Imaging will reveal signs of immense cartilage loss, as well as large bone spurs and bone-to-bone contact.
What to Look For – Clinical Signs of OA
Since dogs cannot verbally communicate their experiences, owners do not typically notice abnormal warning signs until activity impairment becomes more obvious. Signs of OA are often non-specific and include:
- Reduced ability to jump
- Increased reluctance to exercise
- A decrease in overall activity
- Pain showcased though signs of discomfort or behavioral changes, including depression and aggression
Prevention is the Best Medicine – Understanding OA Risk Factors
There are a number of risk factors associated with OA, including breed, sex, and age. Although any dog can develop OA, aging dogs are the most susceptible. Overall, there are several factors that increase a dog’s overall risk, including:
- Being a large or giant breed dog, including Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds
- Being a purebred based on potential inherited defects
- Age, specifically middle-aged and senior dogs
- Arthritis develops in both males and females, but males are frequently predisposed (this may be due to sex hormones as well as body weight differences)
- Stress from extensive, repetitive activity, such as the athletic strain associated with agility or dock diving
- Poor nutrition
- Infections of the joints, such as Lyme Disease
- Injuries, such as a ligament
Once OA has started to develop, it’s important to attend regular veterinarian visits, implementing the most up-to-date strategies and treatment options. This can help slow down the progression of OA-related symptoms, improving a dog’s quality of life.
How to Improve a Dog’s Quality of Life Once Osteoarthritis Has Developed
When a dog begins to develop osteoarthritis, the goal is to keep them as comfortable as possible so that they can remain active. This will allow them to maximize their range of motion as they maintain a lean body weight.
This is why daily exercise is so important. Much like people, pain and stiffness often worsen from a reduced range of motion. Over a decade ago, anti-inflammatories would be prescribed and there wasn’t much more than could be done. However, emerging research supports the benefits associated with a multifaceted approach.
While there is no cure or treatment that will reverse the physical damage associated with OA, there are steps that dog owners can take to prevent the condition from worsening. Based on a dog’s overall health and age, a veterinarian may suggest a combination of surgical and medical approaches, as well as key lifestyle changes, including but not limited to:
- Exercise routines – Implementing daily low-impact activities that promote strength and joint stability, such as walking on flat ground and swimming. This study found that dogs that swam twice weekly for eight weeks improved joint function. Avoid high-impact activities and if flare-ups occur, reduce the intensity and frequency of exercise, then slowly reintroduce low-impact activities once again over the next few weeks.
- Weight management – Obesity puts unnecessary pressure on the joints, increasing discomfort while limiting mobility. Obese dogs also experience a reduced quality of life. A weight-loss regime is recommended and in many cases, once an ideal weight is reached, medication can be reduced.
- Medication – OA is a chronic, long-term disease, which is why symptom-modifying medications are almost always part of a dog’s treatment plan. These include steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and pain relievers. Supplements will also likely be recommended, including omega-3 fatty acids, chondroitin, and glucosamine.
From massage to elevated food bowls, there are many treatment options and aids to assist dogs throughout their lives as symptoms of OA progress.
If a pet owner decides to move forward with joint replacement surgery, recovery is typically very good. However, this option is costly.
Cost to Treat: $20 to $100 per month for medication If necessary surgery will cost between $2,000 to $10,000
Take the necessary steps to protect your four-legged friend today!