In simple terms, arthritis in dogs (often referred to as osteoarthritis) means inflammation of the joints, which is a common problem for dogs, and can cause pain, discomfort, and stiffness. It is estimated that four out of five older dogs are affected. Large and medium breeds are affected more, and certain lifestyles, such as engaging in regular, hard exercise, or being overweight, can make it more likely that arthritis will develop.
The bone surfaces within a dog’s joints are normally covered with a thin layer of smooth cartilage, which is lubricated with a small amount of joint fluid that allows the two surfaces to glide freely over one another with minimum friction.
In arthritic dogs, the cartilage in the joint becomes less smooth, which can result in the bone surfaces rubbing together, causing pain and discomfort. Because of this increased friction, new bone begins to form around the joint, which makes the joint even stiffer, and limits movement. This is known as degenerative joint disease.
What are Signs of Arthritis in Dogs?
Because your dog has four legs he is able to shift his weight and posture to help cope with discomfort, so you may not notice any changes until the arthritis is well developed. Signs of arthritis can initially be very subtle, so don’t assume that any changes are down to age, or that he is simply ‘slowing down’.
For example, you may notice that your dog’s energy levels have decreased; he is occasionally a little stiff or lame, doesn’t want to exercise as much, and his normal habits have changed. He may no longer stretch, shake, or roll, but is displaying new behaviours, such as pacing at night, licking his front paws, not wanting to be groomed, and preferring to spend time alone.
If you recognise any of these signs, it is important to contact your vet so that a diagnosis can be made and a treatment plan put in place. Remember that dogs do not show pain like humans do, so they may not whimper, yelp, or limp. Check your dog’s mobility and posture regularly for any changes that may indicate a problem.
How to Diagnose Arthritis in Dogs
Your dog will rely on you to spot signs of discomfort, and arrange a vet appointment. Your vet will assess your dog’s mobility levels, gait, and behaviour changes and may arrange investigations such as blood tests, urine samples, X-rays, or CT scans and joint fluid collection. There will also be an assessment of how well your dog responds to anti-inflammatory medication.
How Long Can a Dog Live with Arthritis ?
Unfortunately arthritis is a progressive disease that cannot be cured, and ultimately leads to immobility, pain, and a negative impact on quality of life. However, early and effective treatment, combined with the implementation of lifestyle changes can undoubtedly slow its progress. Lifestyle changes can include weight reduction, replacing long walks with regular, gentle exercise, changing slippery floors to non-slip coverings, providing additional bedding, and steps and ramps to help the dog access areas of the house and garden.
Complementary therapies can be used in conjunction with anti-inflammatory medication. Treatments can include physiotherapy, osteopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, laser treatment, and hydrotherapy. Always check with your vet before embarking on any complementary treatment. All complementary therapists should seek permission from your vet before starting any treatment.
How to Help a Dog with Arthritis at Home
Your vet may suggest a weight management programme, which will ease the strain on your dog’s joints. Avoid slippery floors at home and when you are out and about, as these can cause your dog further mobility problems and pain.
It is also a good idea not to walk your dog over rough terrain and uneven surfaces. Review your dog’s exercise levels and avoid very long walks at the weekends. It’s important to tailor your dog’s exercise levels according to how well he is, rather than the time you may have available.
Weather conditions can affect dogs, so keep him warm with coats in the winter, and gently but thoroughly dry him on his return home. Ensure that beds are positioned away from draughts and encourage dogs to sleep on a soft, warm bed rather than on hard, cold ground.
Importantly, remain alert to your dog’s mobility and behaviour and consult your vet if changes develop. Always keep your dog’s routine veterinary check-ups so your vet can monitor his medication, weight, and mobility.