The easy run becomes a stiff walk; the jump to a favorite chair is no longer possible; lying down is accompanied by a deep groan. As our dogs age, things that were once second nature become an effort. Today, thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and companion animal care, many dogs are living to a ripe old age. On the downside, that longevity also increases the odds that they’ll suffer from some form of degenerative joint disease (DJD), or osteoarthritis. There are several types of canine arthritis, but in this article, we’ll address the most common, the age-related degenerative form.
As dogs get older, the cartilage surfaces of their joints begin to thin, and cartilage cells die. When the cells die, they release enzymes that cause inflammation of the joint capsule and release of excessive joint fluid. Extra bony growths (osteophytes) can develop. With severe cartilage thinning, the normal joint space narrows and the bone beneath the cartilage deteriorates. All of these processes set in motion further changes in the normal functioning of the dog’s joint, and an ongoing spiral of pain, lameness, limb disuse/inactivity and muscle atrophy sets in. Many of these changes may be seen on X-rays.
On physical exam, veterinarians rely on a dog’s pain response to joint palpation, detection of crepitus (a crackling or grating sensation felt within the joint), observation of gait and the presence of muscle atrophy to diagnose osteoarthritis. Not all dogs—even those with significant DJD—vocalize when they’re in pain, but a dog whose muscles are atrophied and limbs are stiff, who requires assistance to rise, and does little more than teeter outside to go to the bathroom is without question suffering pain.
DJD isn’t the only reason for a decrease in a dog’s normal activity level, weakness or reluctance to move, so other conditions that could be causing or contributing to this change need to be ruled out. Among the entries on a lengthy list are infectious and metabolic illnesses, cardiac conditions, cancer (particularly bone cancer), anemia, and endocrine conditions such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease. In an ideal world, all dogs would start life with genetically sound conformation and joints. For purebreds, the importance of responsible breeding and the use of OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) certification or other screening tests to evaluate hip and elbow conformation of prospective breeding animals cannot be overstated. Regardless of a dog’s origins, feeding her a high-quality diet throughout life and maintaining her at her optimal lean body weight are also crucial. If she’s overweight, a healthy weight reduction plan should be instituted immediately.
When it comes to relief, reaching for a single “big gun” pharmaceutical is rarely the most effective approach. Rather, best results are achieved by working with your vet to develop a plan tailored to help with your dog’s specific issues. An integrative, multimodal therapy regime can maximize your dog’s comfort and well-being as it minimizes the potential side effects of certain therapies, and is often more gentle to boot. Following are a few strategies that have been found to be beneficial.
Around the house: Provide well-padded bedding away from cold or damp drafts. (This will also help prevent the development of pressure-point calluses.) Carpeted or padded steps or a ramp to get on and off the bed or couch are advised. Nonskid flooring wherever surfaces are slippery is also very helpful. Outside, your dog may find a gently sloped ramp easier to negotiate than steps.
Body work: Many arthritic dogs appreciate muscle massages, which stimulate blood flow to atrophying muscles. Certified canine massage therapists are available in most areas of the country; many are willing to demonstrate techniques to owners. (Start your search here: members.iaamb.org/users) Warm compresses over sore joints can be soothing, but care must be used to avoid injury from excess heat.