Most of us have had dogs in our home that reach that ripe old age where they start to slow down. Sometimes it is difficulty getting up or sometimes it’s simply having less interest in longer walks. Osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease, DJD) is a progressive condition that will affect most of our pets at some point in their life. Common signs of the joint pain associated with DJD include difficulty rising or climbing stairs, difficulty getting in and out of cars or onto furniture, limping, and having an abnormal gait. It is important to recognize the early signs of DJD and its causes so you can help to limit the impact of this disease as your dog ages.
In normal joints in a dog, cat, or person, the articulating bones move smoothly and comfortably against each other, allowing easy movement. The key to this smooth joint operation is cartilage, which covers the surface of both bones where they come into contact. Cartilage is a soft rubbery tissue that acts as lubrication and a shock absorber. When damaged, or worn down through a lifetime of use, joints no longer work so smoothly. In addition, the body’s natural inflammatory response also slowly contributes to the chronic changes in any joint with DJD.
You might ask yourself, then, “why does my dog have arthritis while other dogs of the same age appear to be unaffected?” The simple answer is that size matters. There are many potential risk factors for any dog that can make them more or less likely to acquire DJD at any age, most of which are related to how much weight the joints have to support:
Being a Large or Giant Breed: Larger breeds of dogs simply weigh more, and daily exercise causes more trauma to their joints than with a smaller dog. Many larger breeds are also predisposed to abnormal joint conditions such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, cruciate injuries, and other conditions discussed below.
Obesity: Even if your dog is not a larger breed, if they are overweight it will cause more trauma to their joints during their normal routine.
Joint Instability: Normal cartilage can be damaged when joint surfaces don’t line up properly or wear unevenly. The most common conditions of joint instability in dogs include:
- Hip Dysplasia: Common to many larger breeds, this is a condition where the hip joint does not form appropriately. Similar to people, the hip joint in dogs is made up of a ball (at the top of the femur) and socket (of the pelvis). Dogs with hip dysplasia often have a shallow socket resulting in limited contact between ball and socket, and also excess laxity. Both of these allow the ball of the femur to pop in and out of the joint easily.
- Elbow Dysplasia: Also affecting many larger breeds, this condition can be caused by a number of abnormalities of the bones that make up the elbow, resulting in poor joint alignment.
- Cruciate Tear: While cartilage ensures smooth operation of the joints, ligaments hold the joints together, ensuring correct alignment. Like football players, larger dogs are prone to tearing their cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) which leads to instability in their knee.
- Luxating Patellas: While larger dogs are more likely to suffer from dysplasia and ligament tears, smaller dogs can have kneecap problems. This condition causes the knee cap to pop in and out of place (usually inward), which can result in abnormal function and wear and tear. How can you minimize the impact of DJD in your dog? For any larger dog, or any dog who already has osteoarthritis, the most important thing you can do is to keep them as lean as possible, so as to limit the trauma to their joints. In addition, most of the above conditions can be successfully corrected surgically. If done early enough, this can significantly reduce future joint damage. If your dog already has DJD, don’t feel helpless! There are many options out there to help slow the progression of their osteoarthritis and help control their pain, including:
Controlled Exercise: While it may seem counter-intuitive, exercise is actually very important to keeping the muscles that support the joints strong. Low impact activities such as leashed daily walks, swimming, or even slow jogging are acceptable.
Weight Reduction: As discussed above, by keeping our pets lean we help to limit the impact on their joints. Feel free to give us a call for guidance.
Supplements: Glucosamine/chondroitan sulfate, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils) in the correct proportions can help support joint health and also have anti-inflammatory properties. Many products or prescription diets (Hills J/D) are available at your veterinarian’s office or can be purchased over the counter.
Physical Therapy: There are many options for physical therapy for dogs with DJD. Contact us for more information and a referral.
Prescription Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as Rimadyl or Dermaxx are safe and effective medications for dogs with DJD. When these medications are used long term, routine bloodwork should be performed to ensure adequate liver and kidney health. Other pain medications (tramadol, gabapentin) can also be effective, either on their own or in combination with NSAIDS.
Injectable Agents: Adequan acts to promote joint health and limits the breakdown of cartilage. Ask your veterinarian for details on this treatment. While osteoarthritis can sound like a horrible thing, it’s important to remember that there are many treatments that can help your dog feel more comfortable. The key to preventing this condition in your own dog is to recognize potential risk factors, and to look for early signs of DJD so that treatment can help to limit its progression. As always, your veterinarian can help you decide what treatment options are best for your own furry family member.
– Jonathan Smith, VMD, Veterinarian