Maybe you’ve noticed that your dog has lost a certain spring to her step. Does she seem reluctant to engage in the activities she used to love, like chasing a ball or jumping into the car for a ride? Is she taking a little longer to get up from her bed? It could be canine arthritis, an often painful and debilitating condition of the joints that affects at least 20 percent of adult dogs.
What is canine arthritis?
Arthritis is inflammation within a joint, typically resulting in pain, stiffness and reduced mobility over time. The most common type is osteoarthritis (OA), a thinning and eventual deterioration of the protective tissues between the joints.
In a healthy joint, cartilage and other tissues act as shock absorbers that help with smooth movement and flexibility. As OA degrades these shock absorbers, joint tissues become damaged and release substances that cause painful inflammation. When cartilage breaks down, friction develops between the bones. OA most commonly affects a dog’s hips, elbows, knee joints (stifles) and lower back.
What causes chronic joint pain?
There are multiple causes of arthritis and chronic joint pain in dogs, which often occur in combination with one another. These include:
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- Trauma from injury or repeated stress from high-impact athletic activity
- Pre-existing joint instability caused by ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) ruptures or hip dysplasia.
- Genetics and anatomical conformation (for example, short-legged, long-body breeds like Dachshunds, Bassets and English Bulldogs).
Certain larger breeds, including Labs, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds, have a higher incidence of joint problems than some of the smaller breeds, but any dog can develop arthritis if the conditions are right.
How is chronic joint pain in dogs diagnosed?
To determine whether your dog has joint pain due to osteoarthritis, your veterinarian may use diagnostics such as:
- Physical exam, to check for localized pain and swelling
- Radiographs, to look for abnormalities
- Gait evaluation and limb manipulation, to assess mobility
- Joint-fluid analysis, to rule out other causes
Observation of your dog at home is another powerful diagnostic tool. Unless they’re experiencing acute, sharp pain, dogs rarely vocalize, so it’s important to monitor their habits and behavior. The symptoms of arthritis related joint pain in dogs can be subtle in the early stages.
Be on the lookout for these signs in your dog.
- Decreased energy levels/sleeping more
- Reduced interest in physical activity
- Negative reactions to being petted or touched in specific areas
- Difficulty lying down or getting up
- Reluctance to climb stairs, jump on furniture or jump into the car
- Soiling accidents in the house
- Increased panting or drooling (may indicate stress or pain)
- General irritability (chronic pain)
- Vocalizing with certain movements
Treating Chronic Join Pain at Home
At this point, there’s no cure for joint pain due to osteoarthritis, but there are an increasing number of options that can help your dog with pain; increase mobility; and, in some cases, slow the degeneration of joint cartilage. A multi-modal treatment plan that includes a combination of medicine, supportive care and home remedies has been shown to be the most successful.
Consult with your veterinarian before introducing these into your dog’s treatment plan. Your vet can help you determine the most appropriate strategies for weight loss as well as other therapies.
•Maintaining a healthy weight is an essential component to managing osteoarthritis joint pain in dogs. Obese dogs are more likely to develop arthritis because excess weight puts more pressure on joints, leading to increased stress. It’s important to discuss your dog’s weight with your veterinarian and create a weight-loss plan if needed.
•CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabinoid derivative) is believed to reduce both pain and anxiety, and many pet owners are trying it for the treatment of canine joint pain. It is thought to be safe in combination with other medications, though it is partially metabolized by the same metabolic pathway as NSAIDs, so monitoring for possible side effects is advised.
• At-home activities depend on the dog and the severity of her joint pain, but a 10-minute walk two or three times a day rather than one long walk is a good rule of thumb. Because excitement and activity release endorphins and adrenaline, dogs may feel less pain when exercising, allowing them to overdo.
• You can also gently massage your dog’s sore spots to increase blood flow, and apply alternating cold and heat to the affected areas.
• Spending leisure time with your dog outdoors is also good medicine. Sunlight stimulates the body to produce vitamin D, which supports the immune system, reduces inflammation, strengthens joints and aids in calcium absorption. Enjoying some fresh air will also help your dog’s mood if pain has her feeling down.
• Joint supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM and others (see box) are referred to as nutraceuticals. They can be very helpful in reducing joint discomfort and may also allow reductions in the dosage and frequency of pharmaceutical drugs when used in combination. Nutritional supplements are not regulated by the FDA and the quality and potency of supplements may vary, so it’s a good idea to consult with your veterinarian for recommendations on which ones to try.
Best Supplements for Chronic Joint Pain
A list of nutraceuticals for dogs, many products contain combinations of supplements on this list.
• Chondroitin sulfate
• Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)
• MSM (methylsulfonylmethane)
• Green-lipped mussel
• SOD (superoxide dismutase)
• Fortetropin (fertilized chicken egg yolk powder)
• ASU (avocado/soybean unsaponifiables, available as Dasuquin)
• Sea cucumber
How can I help my arthritic dog live more comfortably with chronic joint pain?
Try these changes in your dog’s home to make living with arthritis easier:
• Use portable ramps or steps for places your dog can no longer jump to.
• Provide thick bedding, such as memory foam or an orthopedic pad. Heated dog beds or dog-specific heating pads can also help with joint pain (the temperature should be warm but not hot to the touch). Make sure your dog’s bed is large enough for her to stretch out if she needs to relieve pressure on sore joints.
• To help your dog walk without slipping on uncarpeted floors, make a path with non-skid rugs or yoga mats (use individual extra-long mats, or look for 100-foot rolls of yoga mat material, available online). Keep her nails and any excess fur around her paw pads trimmed. Paws pads are a dog’s built-in traction, but dry or worn-down pads don’t grip well; try a thin coating of Bag Balm or Musher’s Secret. You can also DIY a paw balm in your kitchen. Booties or toe grips are another option for better traction. (Your dog may need some time to get used to them.)
• Raise food and water bowls off the floor so your dog doesn’t have to bend or strain at mealtime.
• Use a lifting harness or support sling if your dog needs help getting up or has other mobility issues.
• Acupuncture is increasingly popular for treating canine joint pain and can be beneficial for some dogs.
• Physical therapy is essential to fighting the effects of osteoarthritis in dogs. Low-impact exercise strengthens the muscles around joints, helps keep joints mobile and reduces pain from stiffness. Some larger vet hospitals now provide a variety of physical-therapy options such as ultrasound, shock wave and targeted Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (tPEMF) therapies, electrical stimulation, range-of-motion stretching, and cold-laser treatments.
• Hydrotherapy (swimming in a warm-water pool or using an underwater treadmill) is a great low-impact exercise that improves muscle mass without overstressing joints. Swimming in cold water, however, can be counterproductive, causing both joints and muscles to stiffen up.
Although there is no cure for canine arthritis, there are steps you can take to mitigate the effects of chronic joint pain at home. By combining multiple elements of treatment and support, including pain control, weight management and low-impact exercise, you can help your arthritic dog enjoy her golden years.