Arthritis in dogs

Arthritis
 

It can be as uncomfortable for our dogs as it is in humans - but there are ways of managing the disease to ease your pet's pain.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis simply means 'inflammation of the joints' and is a common problem for many dogs. Most of you will no doubt know of a dog suffering from arthritis that has shown the textbook signs of pain, discomfort and stiffness.

Inside a dog's joints, bone surfaces are normally covered with a thin layer of very smooth cartilage, lubricated with a small amount of joint fluid that allows the two surfaces to glide freely over one another with minimum friction. In dogs with arthritis, cartilage within the joint undergoes change or damage, becoming less smooth and resulting in the bone surfaces rubbing together. This causes discomfort to your dog, as well as further damage to cartilage. As a direct result of this increased friction, new bone starts to form around the joint making the joint stiffer, which limits its movement even more - a condition known as degenerative joint disease.

What causes arthritis?

Typically arthritis is a problem seen in older dogs, but the condition can develop from an early age following problems with bone and joint development. Depending on the cause, arthritis may affect one or any number of your dog's joints. So what causes it? Most cases develop as a result of abnormal rubbing within the joint caused by joint instability (e.g. after ligament damage), damage to or abnormal cartilage development, or damage caused by trauma (e.g. fractures). Like humans, signs of arthritis can often vary throughout the animal's life and result in the early onset of joint problems in older age.

What are the signs that my dog has arthritis?

Often owners may ask how they can tell if their dog's suffering from arthritis. As the disease nearly always causes pain and stiffness, dogs may not be as keen to exercise as they were in the past and may show lameness or obvious stiffness (especially after long periods of rest). Commonly this stiffness improves with commencement of exercise, with cold and/or damp conditions usually worsening symptoms. Some dogs may even lick continually at an underlying painful joint - occasionally causing unwanted patches of saliva staining - but rarely do joints appear hot or swollen; more commonly changes are subtle and undetectable to the naked eye. Some patients will show obvious signs of pain, whereas others may just become slower or grumpier.

How are dogs diagnosed with arthritis?

If your vet suspects your dog is suffering, they can sometimes tell which joints are affected by any pain and/or discomfort by examination, including joint flexion and extension. But to investigate properly they usually suggest further tests (e.g. x-rays), which help confirm and locate arthritic change, and sometimes identify any underlying causes too.

Occasionally (in the case of suspected joint infection, for example) your vet may recommend a small sample of fluid is taken from inside the joint and, in some cases, blood samples may be required to rule out any medical conditions associated with arthritis.

How is arthritis treated in dogs?

With so many therapy options available nowadays, it's paramount to match any treatment with their underlying cause and joint(s) involved. Arthritis is commonly worse in overweight and unfit dogs, so the most important therapy is the combination of weight control and exercise management: minimising load on the joints, and maximising the range of movement and fitness of the muscles around those joints.

Many patients benefit from anti-inflammatory therapy for a few weeks or months, with long-term drug therapy proving very useful. Pain relief is vital and the most common veterinary painkillers used are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

What possible medications are available?

If your vet suspects your dog has arthritis, he/she may require treatment on numerous occasions over their lifetime, with treatments varying greatly in terms of medication and timescale between patients to give your dog the best immediate and long-term solution.

There are three main families of drugs used to successfully treat canine arthritis. The first are cartilage protectors designed to reduce cartilage damage (including hyaluronic acid, polysulphated glycosaminoglycans and pentosan polysulphate). These may all reduce cartilage degeneration, as well as promote repair of joint structures and reduce painful inflammation.

Recently the buzzword has been about a second family of drugs: nutraceuticals (primarily glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate) - building blocks for cartilage. Adding nutraceuticals to your dog's diet may enable cartilage repair, which then provides relief from signs of arthritis.

The third set is anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These seem ideal for managing inflammation associated with arthritis, but potential problems are their significant side effects, resulting in some warning against long-term use. In the short term, drugs with the highest impact on analgesia and inflammation are often the first choice, but using them in the medium or long term may prove detrimental to the patient so alternatives must be sought.

New drugs are always being developed and becoming available, so development of a successful management plan in the patient requires regular review of the current medication with detailed progress reports from the owner.

Can arthritis be cured?

In terms of prognosis, unfortunately it's the case that once cartilage in your dog's joint(s) has been damaged it rarely repairs itself completely. But the good news is many pets can successfully be made pain free by appropriate long-term use of medication and sensible management to control further deterioration.

With so much variety in severity of arthritis between patients, many dogs cope well, leading full and active lives without any veterinary intervention at all. However, certain patients will require treatment ranging from simple lifestyle changes to complex surgery.

This article was written by Marc Abraham and was originally published in the Crufts Magazine - www.thecruftsmagazine.com

Marc Abraham is a vet based in Brighton.  He regularly appears on UK television.  For more information about Marc please visit www.marcthevet.com.

Who can I contact for further advice?

The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable to provide general or case specific veterinary advice.  If you have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this article then please contact your local veterinary practice for further information.

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