chocolate lab with older couple, dog arthritis
Pet Health Questions and Answers

4 Tips To Help With Dog Arthritis


Perhaps you have a dog that you’ve noticed has slowed down or is reluctant to go up or downstairs, and you’re wondering what might cause this change. It’s possible that your dog could have dog arthritis or osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is thought to be the most common orthopedic condition seen in dogs. This type of chronic arthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that covers the ends of the bones wears down over time, often leading to pain and reduced mobility. There’s usually an underlying cause and many times it’s seen earlier in life. Often times osteoarthritis in dogs occurs secondarily to developmental orthopedic diseases, such as hip and elbow dysplasia and patella (knee cap) dislocation. In some dogs, osteoarthritis occurs with no other obvious causes and can be associated with age and genetic makeup. Some other factors can include injury, obesity, repetitive stress, and illness.

great dane looking into the distance
Your dog’s genes may play a role in increased risk

 

The joints that arthritis most commonly affects in dogs are the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders. The cartilage in a healthy joint acts as a cushion, which allows the joint to move smoothly. With osteoarthritis, this cartilage begins to deteriorate and the synovial fluid loses its lubricating effects, resulting in decreased range of motion, pain, and inflammation.

How to Diagnose Arthritis in Dogs

Signs of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Osteoarthritis can be difficult to identify in its early stages. Often the symptoms don’t manifest until the joint is badly damaged and the pain becomes severe. Signs of arthritis in dogs may include one or more of the following:

  •  Reluctance to run, climb stairs, or play
  •  Stiffness/difficulty getting up or lying down
  • Sluggish/lethargic
  • Pain when touched
  • Increased weight
  • A change in behavior/increased irritability
  • Decreased ability to position himself to pee or defecate, increased accidents in the house

If you notice your dog is displaying any of the above symptoms of arthritis, have them examined by a veterinarian. A vet will feel your dog’s joints, check for range of motion, and conduct a full physical exam. Your vet may request X-rays to evaluate the affected joints, which will help assess the extent of the damage and rule out other conditions.

group of french bulldogs walking together
X-rays can help identify affected joints

According to Veterinary Practice News, osteoarthritis can be broken down into four stages. Because the signs are typically mild in the first two stages, and OA is often considered an issue for older dogs, it goes undiagnosed or ignored in most cases. Generally, the joint pain a dog experiences in the first two stages of osteoarthritis can cause some loss of strength and physical impairment.

As the condition progresses, chronic pain and weakness increases, making it harder to dismiss. This is why OA is frequently diagnosed at this stage.

By the time a dog reaches the 4th stage of OA, typically they’re unable to walk. Symptoms include intense chronic pain, decreased strength, and decreased range of motion in the joint.

How to Treat Arthritis in Dogs

As mentioned earlier, the first step in treating arthritis in dogs is to have them evaluated by a veterinarian. In addition to a complete physical exam, the vet may also want imaging done of the affected joint(s). This helps to to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms, evaluate the damage in the joint, and assist in a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

Osteoarthritis in dogs cannot be cured. However, by taking proactive steps, you can protect the joints, slow the progression, maintain your dog’s strength, and effectively manage your dog’s pain and discomfort. Preventing OA through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and using joint supplements is the gold standard for keeping your pet’s joints healthy. Treating a dog that has developed arthritis is usually concentrated on pain relief, reducing joint inflammation, slowing disease progression, and improving quality of life.

chocolate lab swimming, dog exercising
Regular exercise can help prevent osteoarthritis

Treatment of osteoarthritis is usually an integrative approach, where multiple types of therapies are used at the same time to achieve the greatest outcome.

Here we’ll discuss several treatment options available to make your dog more comfortable and happy.

1. Veterinary Treatments

Medications and Supplements

NSAIDS 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs play an important role in controlling joint pain and inflammation in dogs. They work by reducing the inflammation around the joint, resulting in reduced pain. These should be prescribed by a veterinarian, as they can cause side effects with prolonged use. Your vet can explain the benefits and risks of using NSAID therapy for your dog and may recommend regular blood work to check your dog’s kidney and liver function while receiving NSAID therapy. Per PetMD, although there are some risks, prescription medications are the safest options for controlling joint pain and inflammation when compared to other over-the-counter medications.

Joint Supplements

Oral supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, and green-lipped mussel are proven supplement ingredients that work by reducing inflammation, improving function, and increasing water retention in the cartilage, providing more cushion for the joint. There are several joint supplements available that are safe for long-term use in dogs. Always consult with your vet before adding any supplement to your dog’s diet, as several may cause side effects.

Joint Injections

One option available for severe arthritis in dogs is joint injections. Injections can help when other therapies (supplements, NSAIDS, weight loss, and physical therapy) aren’t enough to reduce pain and mobility.

However, joint injections can be helpful in managing certain conditions earlier in the arthritis process.

There are several types of joint injections, which we’ll discuss further.

Steroids

Corticosteroid injections are one of the most common treatments for both humans and dogs. Steroids are helpful in reducing inflammation and pain. Hyaluronic acid (a natural component of cartilage) is often combined with steroids when administered. Many times improvements can be seen within a week and the effects of steroid injections can last at least 3 months.

However, prolonged treatment with steroids can be harmful to cartilage, and therefore it’s recommended as an end-stage treatment, when there is little to no cartilage that remains.

Adequan®

Adequan® is an FDA-approved injectable polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (mostly chondroitin sulfate) which is an anti-inflammatory agent. The benefits of Adequan for arthritis patients include reduced inflammation and improved joint lubrication.

Adequan is given by veterinarians as a series of injections, on average twice a week until a response is seen but not exceeding eight injections. After improvement is observed, Adequan injections are given on an as needed basis.

Platelet Rich Plasma

This is a fairly new therapy and acts as an alternative to drugs. Blood is taken from the patient, separating the white and red blood cells from the plasma and platelets. Once separated, the platelets are active and highly concentrated. The plasma then becomes “platelet rich” and is then injected directly into the damaged joint(s).

Platelets are found in large numbers in the blood and are involved in clotting. However, there are other highly beneficial effects in alleviating joint inflammation, cartilage destruction, and repairing joint tissue.

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cell therapy is another regenerative therapy used to treat osteoarthritis. Vets use the animal’s own tissue (usually a small sample of fat) by collecting the sample, processing the fat and concentrating the stem cells, then injecting the stem cells into the diseased joint.

Much like platelet rich plasma, this is a new therapy, and while its effects are promising, it’s not without risks. Your dog will require general anesthesia for both the fat harvesting and the subsequent joint injection. And then there’s the cost. Per petinsurance.com, the average cost of stem cell treatment for a dog rings in around $2,500.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy, also known as rehabilitation therapy, for dogs includes activities that improve strength and mobility. Therapy may include electric stimulation (TENS), ultrasound, and underwater treadmills. Similar to the techniques used for humans with arthritis, canine therapy uses heat and cold application, massage, stretching, and range-of-motion exercises to preserve joint health.

dog massage
Even dogs can have physical therapy

Surgery

There are several surgical procedures available for dogs with osteoarthritis, including total joint replacement. Surgical intervention plays a key role in managing arthritis in dogs and is most beneficial in the early stages, to modify the development of the disease. In the later stages of degenerative joint disease, surgery is done to restore function when the joint is non functional, or when non-surgical methods can’t control the pain.

2. Weight Management

Maintaining a healthy weight and active lifestyle is crucial for your dog’s overall health and well-being. Overweight or obese dogs with arthritis are at risk of accelerated cartilage breakdown in the joints, and may experience increased pain. Even in healthy dogs, carrying extra weight can put them at risk of developing osteoarthritis and other diseases earlier in life.

overweight dog in grass, dog arthritis
Extra weight can raise the risk of arthritis

Work with your veterinarian to create a diet and exercise plan based on your dog’s needs. Consistent exercise such as swimming or walking on a leash up to 15 minutes, three times a day, is invaluable in maintaining your dog’s joint mobility and muscle strength. Other high-impact activities such as running on the beach or chasing after a ball can place additional stress and pressure on the joints and ligaments and may cause permanent joint damage.

3. Alternative Therapies

These days there are several alternative or complementary therapies available for dogs with arthritis, including acupuncture, laser therapy, and herbal medicines.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture has become increasingly accepted by veterinarians as a safe adjunct treatment for arthritis pain in dogs and other animals. It is the insertion of fine, sterile needles into the skin at certain points on the body, which are left in place for 10-30 minutes. Acupuncture is a good option for dogs that can’t tolerate pain medications or their side effects, as it may result in a dose reduction of traditional analgesics. Acupuncture offers both immediate and long-term pain relief, but as with any treatment, not every dog responds.

If your veterinary practice doesn’t offer acupuncture, ask for a referral to a certified veterinary acupuncturist. You’ll want to discuss realistic expectations regarding length of treatment and potential adverse side effects.

Laser Therapy

Laser therapy for dogs uses deep-penetrating light to stimulate cell regeneration and the production of endorphins, which counteracts pain. It also reduces pain by decreasing inflammation, reducing swelling, and increasing blood circulation. Laser therapy also stimulates nerve cells that block pain signals from traveling to the brain.

During a laser therapy session, a vet technician holds a laser wand over the dog’s affected area for 3 to 10 minutes. Your dog will wear special glasses or goggles to protect their eyes. It’s pain free and most dogs are very relaxed and comfortable during treatment. Pain relief is experienced almost immediately, and there are no known side effects.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine may be a good natural preventative measure in treating your dog’s arthritis.   This is because your dog needs to have its blood routinely monitored to check the functioning of the kidneys and liver whenever your dog is taking medicine for arthritis.  In addition, stomach ulcers can result from steroids and NSAIDs.

Some popular Indian herbs, turmeric, and boswellia, are potent anti-inflammatories. And the Chinese herbal formulas Ligusticum, Corydalis, and Hindquarter Weakness are known to help relieve signs of arthritis in dogs.

Always consult a holistic vet or a vet trained in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Herbal Medicine before administering herbal medication to your dog.

4. Home Care and Modifications

Over-the-counter Meds

As we mentioned earlier, NSAIDs are a safe, effective treatment for canine arthritis. You should never give your dog ibuprofen or acetaminophen from your own medicine cabinet. However, aspirin is a safe over-the-counter arthritis medicine for dogs, according to PetMD.

Aspirin isn’t recommended for long-term use in canines, as there’s a risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. It’s best to use coated aspirin, and give the pills with food.

Heat Therapy

You may know from personal experience that heat therapy can ease the pain and discomfort of stiff joints. But does heat help arthritis in dogs? Indeed, it does. Heat therapy helps reduce stiffness and muscle spasms, increases blood flow to the affected area and reduces pain in both humans and dogs.

Heat therapy is an effective treatment commonly used to treat arthritis in dogs’ hips, knees, shoulders, and elbows. But it can be used on any of your dog’s body parts where inflammation, damage, or spasms occur.

There are several options when it comes to heat pads for dogs with arthritis. You can go with a standard heating pad you would use, which are typically carried at most pharmacies, department stores, sporting goods stores, and Amazon.

Another option is to make a homemade heating device. You can do this by filling an old, clean sock with uncooked rice and tying the open end. You can then microwave the rice sock to the desired temperature, checking it every 30 seconds. Shake the sock a bit to evenly distribute the heated rice and test the temperature on your inner wrist before applying to your dog’s skin.

It’s always best to use a buffer, like a thin towel, between the heating device and your dog’s skin to avoid burns.

There are also heating pads on the market made specifically for dogs. Here are a few features to look for when selecting a heating pad for your faithful companion:

  • Waterproof
  • Flame retardant
  • Low voltage and/or chew resistant
  • Adjustable temperature settings
  • Built-in overheating protection

Around the House

Provide thick bedding with nonslip mats or rugs underneath to keep them from slipping and causing injury and/or pain when getting up. Keep bedding away from cold drafts. Provide carpeted steps or a ramp to get on and off the couch or bed. Block stairs off with a pet gate when you’re not home to supervise your dog’s safety.

jack russell sleeping on dog bed, dog arthritis
Cushioning can help your dog

If you have a lot of steps outside, installing a ramp may make it easier for your dog to get around.

Travel

One last thing to consider is making your dog comfortable while traveling. Older dogs and dogs with medical conditions such as arthritis have certain needs. Taking those needs into account when preparing to travel is important in making your pup as comfortable as possible.

dog napping on the beach at sunset, dog arthritis
Even dogs enjoy the beach

When on a road trip, it can take time for your arthritic dog to find a comfortable spot to relax. If you stop for gas or a potty break and your dog is still lying down, let them be until the next stop or until your dog shows signs he needs to go to the bathroom. Be flexible. Otherwise it can make them more uncomfortable getting in and out of the car more than necessary.

Make sure they have portable bedding so they can lie down while buckled in and so they have a comfortable place to relax wherever you stay. In fact, it’s important to bring your pup’s familiar bedding, toys, leash, treats, food, and bowls. This will help your dog to feel safe and reduce overall stress.

Getting in and out of a car can be difficult for dogs with arthritis. Bring a portable ramp or stairs when possible. It’ll put less stress on their joints and make it easier for them to get around.

Remember to bring your dog’s arthritis medications and supplements with you, along with treats to hide them in. It’s very important to keep up with their prescription schedule while traveling to maximize their comfort. If your dog is on a special diet for their arthritis, bring enough food for the entire trip and a little extra. And always have plenty of water available for your pup.

Unfortunately, dogs with medical conditions such as arthritis might be better left at home instead of flying. If you decide to fly with your dog, try to book a flight with no stops so you don’t have to switch planes and potentially upset your pup even more. You’ll need a USDA-approved carrier or crate. The crate or carrier should be strong, well ventilated, and big enough for your dog to sit, stand, and turn around in comfortably. Just like with driving, bring familiar bedding that is thick to line the carrier or crate, and reduce pressure on your dog’s joints.

Lastly, your vet can be a valuable resource when planning to travel with your arthritic dog. Discuss any concerns you have about the stress or risks of traveling with your furry companion. Get their advice on ways to make your dog comfortable while traveling and make sure you stock up on any prescription medications, prescription diet food, or supplements before you leave for your trip.

treating arthritis in dogs infographic