Canine Arthritis

Arthritis which causes inflammation of the joints, is a common problem for dogs. Large breeds and senior dogs are especially prone to this painful condition. Arthritis can be the result of an injury, an infection, development defects, immune disorders, or quite simply chronic wear and tear of the joints.

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, or DJD for short, is the most common form of arthritis in dogs.

Arthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones breaks down over time. Normally, cartilage allows for smooth, frictionless motion in the joint. With arthritis, the cartilage gets rough and eventually wears away, exposing the sensitive bone underneath. This results in pain, inflammation, and stiffness of the joint. The joint loses its stability, and bone spurs develop. This results in more pain and stiffness of the joint.

Arthritis can happen in any joint in the dog's body including the hips, elbows, knees, shoulders and spine. It is a progressive disease, in that it gets worse over time. It is often associated with old age, but can occur in younger dogs as well.

What causes Arthritis in dogs?

There are many things that can cause arthritis in dogs. The most common form is DJD (degenerative joint disease), the result of chronic wear and tear. DJD is more common in medium- to large-breeds that tend to put more stress on their joints because of their size. Other causes of arthritis include:
  • Inflammatory joint disease, which could mean either rheumatoid arthritis or immune-mediated arthritis. Common in people, but less so in dogs, these disorders occur when the animal's own immune system attacks the joint, leading to arthritis.
  • Injury, for example a ruptured cruciate ligament or fractures involving the joint. Injured joints may become severely unstable, causing wear and tear to the cartilage and other joint structures, resulting in arthritis.
  • Congenital joint problems, for example hip dysplasia, luxating patella or wobbler's syndrome. These are problems in which joints develop abnormally in a young dog, only to cause joint instability and arthritis later on in life.
  • Infection, for example Lyme disease or septic arthritis. Bacteria or other organisms invade the joint, causing a destructive inflammation.
What are the signs of Arthritis in dogs?

Signs of arthritis will depend on the dog's age and the joints involved. A typical sign is a stiff or altered gait as the dog tries to avoid bearing down on the affected limb. A dog with shoulder trouble may be unwilling to go up or downstairs. A dog with arthritic hips may no longer be able to jump into or out of a car. Symptoms are often worse when a dog first gets up from rest.

Because the pain is dull and chronic, a dog with arthritis is not likely to cry out in pain. In fact, an arthritic dog may just appear to be slowing down, a sign often dismissed as normal aging.

Chronic disuse due to arthritis can lead to noticeable muscle atrophy of the affected limb. Joint swelling may be visible when lower limb joints are affected with arthritis. Cold and damp conditions make the signs of arthritis visably worse. An arthritic dog may seek warm, soft places for comfort or may endlessly lick at the painful area.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will start with a complete physical exam, including gait analysis and careful palpation (feeling) of the joints. X-rays may also be required and can help confirm the diagnosis. Additional testing such as blood work, urinalysis, joint taps for bacterial culture and cell analysis, or even a biopsy might be needed if infection or inflammatory joint disease is suspected. CT scans and MRI's may also be required.

Treatment

What treatment your dog receives for arthritis depends on the cause. Infectious and inflammatory joint disease are usually treated with medication. Surgery may be suggested for joint injury (e.g., cruciate ligament rupture) or congenital joint disease (such as a luxating patella). Hip replacement is becoming increasingly available for dogs with hip dysplasia and DJD of the hips. But for the majority of cases, treatment is first aimed at alleviating pain and slowing the progression of disease.

Some simple lifestyle changes are crucial for any arthritic dog:
  • Weight management: Managing your dogs weight is the first step to managing DJD, as less weight decreases the strain on damaged joints. Consult your veterinarian for an appropriate weight control program for your dog.
  • Keep your dog active: Regular amounts of low-impact exercise actually improve arthritis symptoms by decreasing stiffness and strengthening the muscles that support the joints. Leash walks on soft surfaces and swimming can prove to be very beneficial. "Warm up" and "cool down" periods before and after exercise are essential. Your veterinarian can recommend an appropriate exercise program for your dog.
  • Make your dogs life a little easier: Arthritic dogs can benefit from using ramps to negotiate steps, stairs, and for getting in and out of the car. Elevated feeders rather than placing a bowl on the floor are more comfortable for dogs with neck or back problems. Placing throw rugs on bare floors can also help a rickety old dog gain traction and prevent painful falls. A warm, padded dog bed is also essential.
Medications

There are several types of medication currently used in the treatment of canine arthritis. Your veterinarian will develop a treatment plan best tailored to your dog's needs.
  • Disease Modifying Agents (DMAs): These drugs work to slow the progression of disease. They may also provide mild pain relief. DMAs do a variety of things including strengthening collagen, enriching joint fluid, or decreasing toxic chemicals within the joint. DMAs are usually well-tolerated and cause few side effects. Thus they are often prescribed early on, when arthritis symptoms are still quite mild.
  • Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS): NSAIDS are the cornerstone of treatment for many dogs with painful arthritis. They are both strong and effective. However, they are not risk-free. Severe liver and stomach problems can occur, so your veterinarian will monitor your dog with regular exams and bloodwork.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids drugs are very effective for arthritis pain but can cause undesirable side effects as well. Increased thirst, urination, hunger, and agitation are some short-term side effects. Long-term use can cause unwanted weight gain and actually destabilize joints by weakening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments associated with those joints. Corticosteroids are only used for occasional flare-ups or when other treatments fail.
Physical and Alternative Therapies for Arthritis in Dogs

Some regions of the country now have specialized clinics for dogs that offer therapeutic massage, aqua-therapy, chiropractic, or even acupuncture. Your veterinarian may be able to provide a referral. Physical therapy is something you can do at home. It might be as simple as performing a gentle massage. Warm compresses can also soothe aching joints. Consult your veterinarian for specific instructions.

Prognosis for Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis isn't curable, but with proper care, most arthritic dogs can enjoy a good quality of life for many years to come.