We can elect to try a steroid for its anti-inflammatory effect. The caveat with steroids, of course, is that over time, they have a “breakdown” effect on body tissues, including joints. Also, if used for any length of time, they may contribute to the development of diabetes, medically caused Cushing’s disease, liver inflammation, immune suppression or other problems. In order to prevent gastric erosion or ulceration, vets will often prescribe medications such as histamine blockers (famotidine, cimetidine), proton-pump inhibitors (omeprazole) or gastrointestinal protectants (sucralfate). If ulcer symptoms develop, steroids should be discontinued. All this having been said, many ancient dogs with advanced arthritis can get four to eight weeks of benefit from a long-lasting steroid injection.
If none of the above provides sufficient relief, one of the veterinary NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) might be considered. Canine NSAIDs include Rimadyl, EtoGesic, Deramaxx, Previcox, Metacam and Feldene. While these drugs are highly effective at reducing inflammation and pain, they should not be casually dispensed. I use them on a very limited basis with exceeding caution.
Few drugs are without possible side effects. The potential side effects of veterinary NSAIDs are numerous; they can be severe, and even fatal; their development can be completely unpredictable; and most importantly, they can be irreversible. I hold the “above all, do no harm” portion of our oath close to heart at all times. Unpredictable, irreversible side effects are scary.
For dogs whose systems tolerate an NSAID well, they can be wonderful. However, more than a few dogs, including healthy non-geriatrics, have succumbed to irreversible organ-system failure from sometimes no more than a few days’ worth of NSAID therapy. I have also heard of fatalities from perforating gastric ulcers, seizures and other “adverse events.” The FDA has documented thousands of such deaths, which by their own estimation represent a fraction of total cases.
Blood work should be done before an NSAID is dispensed to confirm normal liver and kidney function, red blood cell count, and other parameters. These tests should be repeated at regular intervals to confirm that the NSAID is being tolerated. Ask your veterinarian for a copy of the pharmaceutical company’s Client Information Sheet; he or she should also advise you about symptoms to watch for, including, importantly, any increase in water consumption or urination. The medication should be stopped immediately if symptoms develop. NSAIDs must never be given with aspirin or any form of steroid; doing so can result in death.
And please, do not give your dog over-the-counter pain medicines without consulting your veterinarian! Dogs have died tragic, unnecessary deaths from a variety of seemingly innocuous pills, including a healthy five-year-old dog whose owner gave her several days’ worth of Ibuprofen, which is toxic to canines (and, for that matter, felines too).
Let’s strive to support fit, structurally sound dogs; maintain them with excellent nutrition and age- and breed-appropriate exercise and at optimal body weights; and begin supplemental integrative therapies when they show symptoms of and are diagnosed with degenerative arthritis. Let’s work our way up to the “big guns” prudently and judiciously. Here’s to long, happy and comfortable lives for all our dogs!