Just like aging humans, one of the most common problems to beset older dogs – and some younger ones, too – is arthritis, characterized by inflammation, swelling and stiffness in the joints and muscles.
What is canine arthritis?
Canine arthritis is a progressive and degenerative disease that causes a loss of cartilage, and worsens over time as your dog’s joints continue to sustain increased wear and tear with age. Symptoms of arthritis range from mild to intense pain, primarily in the hips, but also can occur in the neck, legs, shoulders and back. For some dogs, it can hugely impact their quality of life, making it difficult or impossible to climb stairs, run, play or even go for a walk.
Canines at risk
Dogs at a higher risk of developing arthritis are middle-aged to geriatric dogs that are inactive or overweight. Several larger breeds are more prone to this disease including Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Newfoundlands and St. Bernards. Ninety percent of this more susceptible canine population typically shows symptoms by old age.
In younger dogs, arthritis can be caused by abnormal bone or joint development, hip dysplasia, infections and certain diseases. Injuries and accidents that stress or damage muscles, tissues or ligaments in younger dogs can cause joint instability that leads to arthritis in later years.
Diagnosing canine arthritis
The most obvious clues lie in your dog’s behavior. If she is slowing down, doesn’t want to walk or play as usual, seems stiff (especially in the morning) or is limping, it may be more than “old age.” If you suspect she may be suffering from arthritis, have your veterinarian check her over. He can perform a variety of tests to determine if arthritis is the culprit, including:
- Medication: Depending on the type of arthritis, there are a variety of anti-inflammatory medications that can control pain and inflammation. That said, it’s important to have your veterinarian properly diagnose your dog’s condition and provide appropriate medications and dosage levels. Do not medicate your dog on your own!
- Nutritional supplements: Natural and homeopathic treatments, alone or combined with medication, can be very effective in treating arthritis. Ask your veterinarian for advice and/or the name of a reputable practitioner.
- Exercise/weight management: Overweight/obese dogs typically suffer more severe symptoms because there’s more stress on their joints, so an exercise and weight management program is critical. Although it seems counter-intuitive, low-impact exercise (like swimming and walking) helps maintain muscle strength and keeps joints lubricated. Your veterinarian can advise you of an appropriate weight management and exercise plan.
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture is proving to be a very effective treatment for some dogs. In some cases, it even can eliminate the need for medication.
- Home measures: Most dogs sleep 12 hours a day. Ease your pet’s pain by adding extra fleece or blankets to her bed, and be sure to keep her bed away from windows and other drafty locations. If your dog has shoulder or neck pain, raise up her water and food dishes so she doesn’t have to bend over.
Prevention trumps a cure
Preventing or minimizing arthritis in an older dog starts when she is young.
- Keep her trim and know that ideal weight is based on breed, height and bone structure. Make sure she gets plenty of exercise to build bone and muscle.
- Regular well-visit checkups will keep tabs on her weight and help to identify problems before they escalate.