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What is osteoarthritis and how does it affect our dogs?

Friday, 10 September 2021 04:33 PM

Arthritis affects 4 out of 5 dogs over 8 years old, resulting in a disabling, non-curable and

progressive disease which is a common cause of euthanasia. It is a huge welfare concern, not

only because it affects so many dogs but also because it often gets ignored. As dogs can’t talk,

they are unable to tell us how much pain they are in and it is just assumed that slowing down

and becoming stiff is part of getting old. Here Sarah from Canine Arthritis Management explains

how we can spot the signs and what you can do to make your dog comfortable, improving their

quality of life.

What is arthritis?

Although the term arthritis can be used to describe septic conditions as well as

immune-mediated disease, in this case, we will just be discussing osteoarthritis. This type of

arthritis is mainly caused by instability of the joint through developmental joint disease and

injuries or trauma to the joints. The pain associated with osteoarthritis is complex and chronic,

affecting the whole body and even the emotional health of the animal, it is also progressive,

resulting in a change in the requirements for pain medication over time.

Which dogs are affected by arthritis?

Any dog may develop arthritis and although it becomes more prevalent in older animals, the

leading cause of osteoarthritis is developmental joint disease which is present from a young

age. Trauma to the joint is another common instigator, as is joint instability caused by poor

conformation and conditions like degenerative cruciate disease. Overweight dogs really struggle

with arthritis because not only are their joints being put under more strain due to the extra

weight they are having to carry but also, the fat in their body can produce proinflammatory

mediators, increasing the amount of inflammation in the joints.

What are the signs of pain associated with osteoarthritis?

There are many signs that animals can display when they have arthritis but sometimes

all that may be noticed at first is a change in behaviour, such as being less social with

family members or less tolerant of other dogs. Changes in posture can also be evident,

with reduced muscle mass, splayed toes and thickening around the neck. Often dogs

will become slower on walks, be reluctant to walk as far as they used to or start to lie

down during a walk. Dragging or scratching the nails on the pavement may also be

heard. Rising from lying down can be slower, with a stiff, abnormal gait or lameness

occurring afterwards. In some cases, increased nibbling or licking may be seen, or even turning sharply to look round, thought to be associated with a feeling of pins and needles.

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Although you may think that your dog has arthritis based on the signs that they are showing, it

is best to have an assessment by a vet. A thorough clinical examination will be performed,

assessing muscle mass, range of motion of the joints and any thickening, swelling or pain

associated with them. Diagnostic imaging such as radiography may be recommended to confirm

the diagnosis and fluid samples of the joints may also be taken.

What is the best treatment for osteoarthritis?

Because pain is complex, there is no one size fits all strategy and each dog requires a

tailored approach. However, the first-line treatment is usually a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory

drug (NSAID). Variable results are seen between patients, so if your dog doesn’t

seem to show much improvement, it is worth discussing your observations with your vet and

changing to a different medication rather than stopping treatment. Once the most appropriate

NSAID has been determined, it is best to administer this continuously, rather than only giving it

when the signs appear to be worse. Many cases of arthritis can be managed with NSAIDs alone

but due to the progressive nature of the disease, often further medications are required in

addition, either long-term or for cases of acute flares.

New medications are being developed with the recent arrival of monoclonal antibodies which is

a completely new tool in the “pain control tool kit”. These new treatments may eventually

become the first line approach, but it is still too early to tell.

Will treatment be needed for life?

Osteoarthritis is a progressive condition that can only be managed, not completely cured,

therefore treatment is required for life. Consistent treatment is required to maintain the soft

tissue support around the joints and a reduction in this support will lead to further disease

progression. A review of the pain management plan with your vet will be required regularly to

ensure that the condition is being managed appropriately.

Should I be worried about the side effects of medical management?

If a dog is going to have a reaction to an NSAID, it will most likely happen within the first 2-3

weeks and is usually seen as a tummy upset, such as vomiting or diarrhoea. These signs usually

improve on their own and a reaction to one medication does not mean that the dog will have a

reaction to all medications in the same category. However, it is worth waiting until 10 days after

treatment to start the new medication as this allows the gastrointestinal tract to heal.

As the dog ages, degeneration of kidney and liver function is common and because many of the

drugs are removed from the body through the kidneys, this makes them more vulnerable to the

side effects that can occur. Regularly monitoring the urine and blood is important as it can help

to pick up subtle changes, enabling medication to be adjusted before clinical signs are seen.

What else can be done?

Although medications are important, it is not the only tool that can be used in the management

of arthritis. Regular, controlled exercise is essential, ensuring that the dog only walks on

non-slippery, flat and even surfaces, ideally using a harness to provide more stability for the

dog. In the home, providing non-slip high traction surfaces such as rugs, mats or rubber matting

can help the dog to navigate their way around without the worry of slipping, tripping or falling.

The dog should be prevented from jumping onto the sofa or running up stairs as this will

aggravate the joints and could lead to a flare-up of their clinical signs. Weight loss should be

encouraged through diet and a gentle increase in exercise if the dog can manage it. Help should

be sought from a physiotherapist as they are well trained in using rehabilitative techniques,

enabling the addition of therapies such as hot and cold treatments, laser, massage, myofascial

release, joint mobilisations and therapeutic exercises. Acupuncture is another technique that

can be used to manage arthritis, it is well tolerated in many dogs and is more accessible now,

with many more vets becoming trained.

Where can I find out more information about arthritis?

Canine Arthritis Management (CAM) is an organisation that was set up by vet Hannah Capon to

increase the awareness of arthritis in dogs. After practising as a vet for 14 years, Hannah

became saddened and frustrated by the fact that a large proportion of the animals presented to

her for euthanasia were dogs with poorly controlled arthritis. She started to think about what

could be done to improve the early recognition of arthritis as well as providing information

about the various treatment options available. Along with her border collie Holly, Hannah

embarked on “The Big Walk”, a 100-mile walk along the South Downs Way to raise awareness

for arthritis and set up CAM. The Big Walk is now an annual event to raise much-needed funds

to continue CAM's great work. Sadly Holly is no longer with Hannah having passed in December

2018, but her huge legacy lives on. Their website provides a

wealth of information, helping owners to understand more about arthritis and what they can do

to improve their dog’s quality of life. CAM also hosts regular free live events on Facebook with

experts in the field, aiming to delve into aspects of the disease in more detail, as well as

providing a safe, evidence-based social media community for owners to seek support.

Join CAM for The Big Virtual Dog Walk 2021 and learn so much more about this all too common

disease -

Canine Arthritis Management

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