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Dealing with Canine Arthritis & Joint Pain

Arthritis is the most common health problem in senior dogs. So if you own a dog, chances are that you will have to deal with this issue at some stage. 

Arthritis comes on in many ways, but the most common cause is the wear and tear the joints undergo over the years: they simply wear out. Veterinarians sometimes refer to it as arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD).

The key to detecting any issues early is to take advantage of the health and wellness checks offered by your vet: some even provide a dedicated Senior Pet programme.

What is Canine Arthritis?

Nature’s solution to motion are biological hinges – two slick, smooth surfaces coating the bones that form each joint. The ends of the bones that form all movable joints are formed of a cushiony layer of cartilage that is coated by a slick slippery membrane called the synovium. To reduce friction, the space in between is filled with an oily fluid; and the whole structure is bound together with a series of fibrous tissue and ligaments.

The secret to the long-term success of this wonderful apparatus is that its components are all living and capable of repair. But as dogs age, this repair process becomes less and less successful and makes errors. With years of repeated movement, several things begin to happen. 

The fibrous elastic sheets (fascia) and the ligaments begin to stretch, allowing the bones that form the joint to rattle slightly as they move. This in turn bruises and erodes the joints surfaces causing inflammation. And as these surfaces continue to move, the inflammation causes new bone to be laid down where it does not belong, causing pain, and bone to be reabsorbed from where it is critically needed. This is called remodelling and it is a vicious painful cycle. 
Taken all together, this is what arthritis is.

Arthritis in Carpus (Knee)
Credit: Washington State University
The problems that lead to arthritis begin early in your pet’s life. But because joints are tough and reparative, you probably will not notice pain or lameness in your pet during its younger years.

When a particular joint is damaged through accident, or born misaligned, it may not be able to repair itself. If your dog was born with abnormally shaped bones or abnormally lax joints (Dysplasia) arthritis may appear in its youth.

Large and giant breeds that are prone to Dysplasia include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, Saint Bernards etc. and they tend to develop arthritis sooner. 

It also runs in families or lines of dogs so if the parents of your pet did not develop arthritis until a ripe old age, your pet probably won’t either, therefore it is essential to buy your puppy from a reputable registered breeder.

Very active dogs (working dogs or those competing in sports like agility, flyball or canine disc) can easily wear out a joint by the time they're middle aged and an injured and untreated joint can quickly develop arthritis.

What are the first signs of Arthritis?

The tell-tale sign of arthritis in older dogs is a reluctance to move about. As your dog’s joints age, he will become more reluctant to run or play for long periods. 

He won’t be bouncing up and down the stairs and you may notice he is stiff or even limping when he rises in the morning. 

These changes almost always come on very gradually so it is easy to ignore or not notice signs at first. Larger dogs were bred to be very pain-resistant and stoic so they won’t let you know that they are in pain until their arthritis problem is quite advanced.

As dogs guard their sore joints, the muscles and ligaments contract, decreasing the joint’s range of motion. You may notice that your pet no longer jumps up on sofas and chairs as it once did? One common symptom of age-related arthritis is that joints tend to be stiffer and more painful after periods of rest and that pain tends to work itself out during the day. By evening, your pet may be its old self again.

Arthritis problems tend to be worse in overweight pets. Some of their panting after a long walk could be due to arthritis pain and not just the overheating and out-of-shape problems that obesity produce. Cold days and dampness also tend to make the problem worse.

How does your Vet diagnose Arthritis?

Your vet has learned to be a very good judge of the subtle signs that dogs give to tell us that they are in pain. It may be just a worried look in their eyes when the veterinarian overly flexes their joints. Or you pet may withdraw its leg, or even growl or snap. You veterinarian will probably ask you to lead your pet around the examination room so they can observe its gait and locomotion.

The major muscle masses of your pet’s legs and spine may have shrunken (atrophied) due to disuse and your dog may wince when areas of its spine are palpated.

But the key tests your veterinarian will perform are x-rays. Depending on how subtle the changes are, it may take more than a single x-ray film. X-rays of advanced arthritic joints are very distinctive. Most veterinarians will set these x-rays up in the exam room and point out to you the important bone changes that they are seeing.

How can you slow arthritis in your dog?

#1. Diet And Nutrition

What your dog eats and how much throughout his life will affect arthritis in its later years. If your pet is overweight, reducing its weight, slowly, to a healthy level is one of the most important things you can do to reduce discomfort. 

Switching to a lower caloric diet or simply reducing meal portions is an easy thing to do. All major pet food manufacturers offer “Senior” brands of food. They tend to be lower in calories, higher in fibre, with added glucosamine, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. 

#2. Exercise

Canine athletes - such as working dogs, dogs competing in sports like agility, flyball or canine frisbee - just like human athletes, tend to develop arthritis earlier in life. But a moderate amount of daily exercise, like taking walks and interactive play time, is thought to delay the onset of arthritis. 

#3. Good Nail & Foot Care

It is essential that you keep your dog’s toenails clipped properly so its normal walking and running gait is not distorted. Overgrown toenails place abnormal stress on the joints and ligaments of the feet. Trim them off in multiple sessions over a period of weeks until they just touch the floor when your pet is standing.

#4. Swimming & Hydrotherapy

Swimming or walking underwater (canine hydotherapy) is excellent for pets with arthritis or recovering from surgery as it is a low-impact aerobic exercise that works to strengthen the muscles around injured joints and helps maintain a more stable joint.Short periods of increased warmth, interspersed with cold, are proven to decrease your pet's aches and pains. 

Added heat from heating pads and soaks in heated water relax muscles, increase the circulation in the affected areas which in turn lessens the pain. Those effects persist for many hours after the external heat source is removed.

#5. Other Physical Therapies

Most dogs feel better and are more active after a good canine massage. Not only does this increase circulation and help eliminate toxins and wastes from their bodies, it also improves their joint flexibility and muscle tone, which is particularly beneficial to older dogs. Certified canine massage therapists are available in most areas of the country and many are offering workshops where they are willing to demonstrate techniques to dog owners. Your dog also loves your touch and attention and this will both relax him and strengthen your bond.

#6. Elevated Dish And Water Bowls

Senior pets are often more comfortable eating and drinking from elevated containers. Thankfully, there are now practical and stylish options to choose from. 

Older, large breeds are also more susceptible to canine bloat (GDV) so feeding your elderly pet multiple smaller meals each day, rather than one or two large ones can assist.

#7. A Warm Cosy Bed

All elderly pets will appreciate a warm bed, away from cold and damp drafts. 

Orthopaedic dog beds will help prevent the development of pressure-point calluses. 

Safe heating pads are available to ease the aches and pains that come with arthritis. 

Electric heated pet mats are also available - choose a model that is encased in waterproof plastic and that has a chew-proof cord.

#8. Ramps
Wood ramps, covered with carpet are a real help for pets that can no longer climb stairs or jump onto your bed. Just be sure they are stable and choose a slope as gentle as possible. 

Keep one (that hooks securely) also in your car to help your pet get in and out. 

#9. Assisted Living Devices

If your pet is no longer able to get about easily, there are slings, carts and other apparatus that you can purchase to return some of its mobility. There are online stores that specialise in meeting the needs of disabled pets.

What can be done for a dog with Arthritis?

First, your veterinarian will want to be sure that your dog does not suffer from another health problem (slipped discs, infection or even cancer) 
commonly affecting older dogs. Any serious health issue would make the debility of arthritis worse. There is no cure for aging, but there effective treatments available for many of the health problems in senior dogs.

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... 
In Part 2, we will examine how Canine Massage Therapy can assist in arthritis prevention and in Part 3, we will take a look at Nutraceuticals that can assist in alleviating your dog’s arthritis and joint pain issues.

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