Arthritis (osteoarthritis) is a degenerative joint disease, where the cartilage within the joint is worn away, leading to inflammation, and painful, aching joints.
Osteoarthritis may be due to wear and tear with age, secondary to joint instability such as hip dysplasia, or following a traumatic injury. If an old dog experiences arthritis it tends to be generalised, some joints just appearing worse than others.
Typically an animal with arthritis is slow to rise from lying down, and then walks with a stiff-legged gait, until they ‘warm up’. Lameness may seem to be localised to one limb, but it is quite likely that many more joints are affected. Colder temperatures certainly worsen signs of arthritis, with the warmer months often leading to an apparent recovery. Over time, muscle wasting can result, with bony prominences usually seen around the hindquarters and lower spine.
The early signs of pain may be very subtle and can include:
- Stiffness (that may disappear once the animal has 'warmed up')
- Reluctance to climb stairs, jump into the car, onto the bed or couch
- Slow to rise from rest (especially after a walk)
- Acting withdrawn, spending less time playing with the family (which is often misunderstood as a sign of 'ageing'
- Sitting 'off centre'
- 'holding on' and toileting less frequently
As arthritis progresses, your pet may show their pain in different ways, including:
- Reluctance to take walks of usual length
- Difficulty or inability to climb stairs or onto the bed/couch
- Difficulty rising from rest
- Wobbly gait
- Swollen or thickened joints
- Licking of a single joint
- Soreness when touched
- Agression when touched or approached (not common)
- Muscle wasting with bony prominences becoming more noticeable
It is important to note that even in a very arthritic dog, they may still get excited and jump around when you get the lead out to go for a walk. They may appear pain free, but afterwards, they may be sore or stiff for a few days.
Diagnosis is often made on routine clinical examination, as well as the observation of symptoms at home, although x-rays usually confirm the condition.
Unfortunately arthritis cannot be cured. However there are many steps we can take to slow down the progression of disease and control pain, helping your pet to lead a happy life for as long as possible. Treatment can include anti-inflammatory medication, Pentosan/Cartrophen injections, prescription diets or natural supplements. Other forms of pain relief may also be needed in some cases. The earlier we start a management plan, the more effective it will be at slowing down the degeneration of your pet's joints.
What you can do at home
On top of medical management, there are many things you can do at home to help you pet’s comfort.
- PROVIDE WARMTH such as hot water bottles (or any plastic bottle will do) placed under bedding at night, or in the early morning. Ensure you place sufficient layers over the heat source to protect from burns. Shelter from draughts and even placing a blanket over him or her can help.
- PROVIDE CUSHIONING.
- MAINTAIN A HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT. In many cases just losing weight is all that is necessary to call an end to the signs of arthritis – however this can be hard with an arthritic pet that cannot exercise for long without pain. If necessary, you vet will discuss an appropriate diet for your pet.
- LIMIT EXERCISE. Long walks can be detrimental, often leading to soreness towards the end of the walk, and even the next day or two. Short walks, more frequently are much better, even if only for 10 minutes. Swimming is excellent, as it keeps the joints mobile and the muscles working, without the effects of gravity. 10 minutes every second day can really help.
- RAISE FOOD AND DRINK BOWLS. Reduce the amount of effort needed to eat and drink. Placing them on bricks or similar at a comfortable height helps.
- AVOID SLIPPERY FLOORS.
If your dog is showing any of the signs described above (even if very subtle), make an appointment to see one of our vets. If we think arthritis is likely, we will discuss the treatment options available and help make a plan that is suitable for your dog, to ensure they are as comfortable as possible.