Arthritis: How to Recognize and Manage the Condition


By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

Almost every six months a new medication becomes available to veterinarians that helps keep arthritic dogs more mobile and pain free. Any products listed here are only a sample of various medications or supplements that can have a positive impact on dogs (and cats) that have arthritis.  Be sure to check with our veterinarian for updated information on the safety and effectiveness of any medication before it is used on your pet to help improve the pet's quality of life.

Arthritis in dogs is a common and difficult disorder to manage. For instance, during a routine exam of a six-year-old German Shepard prior to vaccinations, the client remarked that the dog seemed to be a little slower moving lately and was more careful about lying down and getting up. There were no obvious indicators of pain or limping, just a "careful" attitude on the dog’s part when changing positions.

In the end my evaluation of the dog’s limbs showed a reduced range of motion in the hips, the stifles (knees) were normal, and there was no evidence of back pain when I pushed and probed along the spine.

I considered early arthritis in the hips as a possible explanation for the subtle signs the owner had observed. We decided to sedate the dog and take some X-rays. What a surprise we had! This dog, only displaying the subtlest of signs of discomfort, had advanced degeneration of both hip joints (called coxofemoral osteoarthritis) and early bony changes of the lower spine.

In contrast to this case other patients that radiographically show only minimal signs of arthritic degeneration in the joints often will display definite signs of discomfort, lameness and restricted mobility. The bottom line is this: Arthritis, joint inflammation and degeneration -- they are all is personal. Because there are so many variables associated with joint degenerative changes on both a microscopic and macroscopic level, each case must be evaluated individually; every dog responds uniquely to discomfort and pain.

What is Arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for abnormal changes in a joint. It can arise from joint tissue destruction subsequent to an infection, from congenital defects affecting structural architecture, and from stress and trauma to joint surfaces and supporting structures. Occasionally, disorders of the immune system will lead to joint tissue inflammation and degeneration.

In commonly seen cases of hip dysplasia, arthritis is partly due to abnormal conformation and misaligned stress points of the coxofemoral joint. The cartilage is adversely impacted and wears away faster than it can regenerate. The bony layer beneath the cushioning cartilage can be exposed and becomes inflamed; the joint capsule surrounding the joint members becomes thickened, less elastic and highly sensitive. Blood vessels to and from the area of the joint dilate and the joint becomes swollen and inflamed. Elastic tissues of the joint stiffen, calcium deposits can build up and nerve endings send pain signals to the brain. Motion becomes more and more restricted due to the joint degeneration, and the discomfort and pain prompts the patient to reduce the use of the joint.

Unfortunately, the reduced use further compounds the problems associated with arthritis because the patient then gains weight and continued disuse further limits joint mobility.

X-ray Images of Arthritis

The hip on the right is partially dislocated and early arthritis has begun to develop.  Click" target="_blank">here to see a large view of a different patient with advanced hip arthritis. A side view of a dog spinal column with spondylosis... fusion of vertebrae and overgrowth of abnormal bony tissue.
A loose flap of cartilage in the shoulder will lead eventually to arthritis of this joint. See article about this condition, called OCD. Arthritis of a hip joint due to a flattened femoral head, short femoral neck and shallow hip socket.  See more information about Hip Dysplasia in this article.

What to Look For

As a survival tactic animals have evolved into stoic creatures that rarely display outward signs of pain or discomfort. Fortunately for our domestic dogs, no less stoic than their wild ancestors, veterinarians today are much more "tuned in" to pain management than in the past. They look for subtle signs in patients in order to discover early stages of arthritis since outright limping or vocalizing from pain may be the end stage of long-term joint degeneration.

Likewise, you need to be aware of these subtle changes in your dog’s behavior. Typically what will be noticed first are an increased weight gain, sleeping more, less interest in playing, and a change in attitude or alertness. If your dog becomes less excited to greet you when you come home or vacillates about jumping up on the couch or becomes overly cautious when climbing stairs, be aware that these may be the first indicators of joint discomfort from arthritis.

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