According to experts from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), 60 percent of dogs over the age of seven suffer chronic discomfort from degenerative joint disease, more commonly known as arthritis. It often goes unnoticed by the dogs’ owners, however, because they are not familiar with the signs. Humans talk about pain, and express it by crying or wincing. Dogs will rarely vocalize unless the pain is acute—a toenail cut too short, stomach distress, a broken bone.
Signs of chronic discomfort are subtle and can come on so gradually that the dog’s person often doesn’t notice until a veterinarian points out the changes. A dog who’s uncomfortable may slow down, reluctant to run as fast or walk as far as she once did. She may be stiff after lying down, or take longer to get up and moving when it’s cold or damp outside. An uncomfortable arthritic dog may be grumpier, sleep more and decline to take part in games she used to love.
Unsure if your dog is suffering from arthritis? One of the easiest ways to tell is with a trial of pain medication. Talk with your veterinarian about your concerns, and request a week’s worth of anti-inflammatory medication. While your dog is on the medication, keep a diary and note changes in her behavior. People are often amazed at how youthful their older dogs act once their discomfort is relieved.
Penn Vet assistant professor of small animal surgery Kimberly A. Agnello, BA, DVM, MS, one of the nation’s foremost researchers in canine pain management, has some advice on how people can help their arthritic dogs feel better.
According to Dr. Agnello, one of the easiest, most cost-effective and beneficial ways to reduce pain associated with arthritis is to maintain dogs at their healthy weight. She described a recent patient with hip dysplasia who came to her overweight and in pain from arthritis. The dog was scheduled for hip surgery, but first the dog’s owner was instructed to put the dog on a diet. Turns out that when dog lost weight, he improved so much that he ended up not needing surgery. The dog felt better and his owner saved money on food as well as on the procedure.
Once the pain is controlled, strengthening in the form of rehabilitation exercises is vital to maintaining strength and mobility; even one visit to a canine rehab veterinarian for instruction in how to do these with your dog can be useful. Dogs can also be helped by alternative therapies such as joint supplements (high quality fish oil is an excellent choice; check with your vet for the appropriate dosage), acupuncture and cold laser.
When it comes to medication, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) continue to be the mainstay of pharmaceutical treatment for canine arthritis. These drugs are relatively safe, and generic forms are available. Dogs on NSAIDs long-term require annual blood work to check liver and kidney function.
As with humans, one size does not fit all when it comes to NSAIDs. Most commonly, a veterinarian will start by recommending carprofen, which has been around a long time, is highly effective, more affordable in the generic formulation and tolerated well by most dogs. It may sometimes provoke an upset stomach or diarrhea, and abnormal changes in blood work may also be seen. In that case, most veterinarians will reach for a second or third NSAID, such as deracoxib, meloxicam or firocoxib.
A new anti-inflammatory drug, grapiprant, was approved by the FDA last year for management of chronic canine arthritis pain. A prostaglandin receptor antagonist, it specifically blocks the EP4 receptor, which is the primary receptor involved in arthritis pain. It is considered safer than many of the other NSAIDs available because its mechanism of action is so specific, meaning that it does not affect other systems in the body like other NSAIDS might. Grapiprant is labeled for use in dogs as young as nine months of age, which makes it a good drug for those with early-onset arthritis from hip or elbow dysplasia, but should not be used for dogs smaller than eight pounds.