Otis was our big-hearted hound, whom we loved very much. He led an active life playing with our three other dogs and going on long walks every morning and evening with us. But when he was 8 years old, his lifestyle changed completely. He experienced a knee injury that required surgery and later developed osteoarthritis from that injury.
As faculty members at Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, we see approximately 100 dogs and cats in our hospital daily. Our job is to diagnose and treat the medical conditions these animals experience and, when necessary, perform surgery on patients whose condition is serious.
Like Otis, many of our patients suffer from canine osteoarthritis, the most common orthopedic disorder we see in our clinic. It is believed that more than 20% of dogs over the age of 1 in North America are affected by osteoarthritis. Common activities like long walks, running, and playing often become more difficult for dogs with this condition.
Common signs of canine osteoarthritis include stiffness after rest, difficulty getting up, limping, or avoiding the use of a leg. Arthritic dogs may also be less active or reluctant to use stairs or get in or out of a vehicle. For pets with arthritis, simply going for a walk or playing in the yard can cause joint and muscle pain.
As in people, arthritis is a degenerative process defined as the inflammation of a joint. It can occur in both young and old dogs, although it is more common as dogs age. Sometimes, as in Otis’s case, arthritis develops after an injury. It can affect all the components of the joint, but the cartilage, the connective tissue that covers the bones where the joint forms, is the most affected.
Unfortunately, canine arthritis cannot be cured. Instead, the goal of treating arthritis in dogs is to reduce inflammation and increase comfort to improve a dog’s quality of life, regardless of her age.
Arthritis develops in pets due to age-related changes in the joint, similar to those that occur in people. Pets that are very active can be prone to minor injuries that can later develop into arthritic joints as they age.
Other pets may be born with an inherited problem that develops into arthritis as they age. Some breeds, including German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Rottweilers, may be more prone to arthritis as a result of a condition such as hip dysplasia, which causes the hip joints to become loose.
When arthritis is suspected, a veterinarian can confirm it, often by taking x-rays of the affected joint. Once the condition is diagnosed, a veterinarian will put together a treatment plan for each patient.
Veterinarians generally prefer non-surgical treatment. Although there are surgical options, including joint replacement, most dogs can be successfully managed through a combination of approaches including weight management, exercise, joint supplements, prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, and physical therapy.
Here’s how each of these works to help arthritic dogs stay healthy and active.
Weight control is an essential aspect of managing arthritis in pets. When a pet is less physically active, they may lose some muscle mass and gain weight as body fat. Along with arthritis, this reduction in muscle tone and the added weight put extra pressure on already sore joints.
Cutting back on a few treats and carefully monitoring calorie intake will go a long way in helping your dog lose a few pounds and reduce his discomfort. As in people, weight loss does not happen overnight. Ask your veterinarian for guidance.
Exercise is another important aspect of maintaining healthy joints and weight control. Low-impact exercises like leash walking, swimming, and light running are valuable as long as your dog doesn’t overdo it.
How will you know how much movement is too much? In general, walks and jogs should be of such a distance, time, or intensity that your dog comes home from the activity still feeling comfortable. That means that if your four-legged companion leads you at the beginning of your walk, he should still be able to stay ahead of you at the end of the walk.
If your pet is walking behind you as you approach home, it may be because he is starting to feel tired and his joints ache. It’s important to monitor the signals dogs send to their humans so owners know when to reduce the length or intensity of a walk or run.
It is possible to overdo the activity of an arthritic pet and cause discomfort. Just as we may not want to return to the gym the day after an intense workout, a pet may not be ready to exercise right away either. Rest is the best remedy for sore muscles. A good day or two of rest, sometimes even more for an arthritic pet, may be necessary between intense periods of exercise. The key to knowing if your pet is ready to go out again is if he can get up easily from a resting position and doesn’t appear sluggish or in pain.
Just like in people, joint supplements are available for pets with arthritis. These products, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, provide nutrients and building blocks for healthy joint function. Essential fatty acids, like those found in fish oils for dogs, can also help prevent some inflammation in arthritic pets. Some owners stop taking joint supplements because they don’t see a dramatic improvement in their pets right away. However, these products work internally, just like the multivitamins people take, and their benefits can be gradual and subtle.
Other treatments, such as injections of polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, also known as Adequan, may be used to prevent further worsening of osteoarthritis early in the course of the disease.
A veterinarian may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications when a dog has significant joint pain due to chronic inflammation. These medications effectively reduce discomfort, but they can have negative side effects, such as kidney or liver damage, which can limit long-term use. However, they can effectively keep a patient comfortable as long as their use is carefully monitored by a veterinarian.
Canine rehabilitation and physical therapy specialists work with arthritic or out-of-shape dogs to improve limb function, rebuild muscles, and help control weight. Specific exercises for arthritic pets, such as short jumps known as “cavalettis,” can be adapted to improve limb movement and provide comfort. Helping an arthritic dog’s ability to move better will allow him to get more exercise and improve his muscle tone while helping him lose weight.
Helping older or arthritic pets keep their joints healthy and their bodies in good condition can allow them to enjoy walks and playtime throughout their lives. Even pets with advanced arthritis can maintain a good quality of life and stay active with the help of a veterinarian and a good treatment plan.
Sadly, we lost Otis a few years ago at the age of 11. But for three years after his surgery, we were able to manage his arthritis and keep him comfortable with a combination of weight management, exercise, NSAIDs, essential fatty acids, and joint supplements. He was able to get back to the activities he loved and play with our other three dogs. It warmed our hearts to see his quality of life return to a happy and healthy one for his remaining years.
Michael Jaffe is an associate professor of small animal surgery at Mississippi State University. Tracy Jaffe is a clinical instructor of veterinary medicine at Mississippi State University.
A version of this piece originally appeared on The conversation.