A common issue yet one too often ignored by pet parents, it’s time to address arthritis and dogs.
I literally want to cry when I speak to people with dogs who are obviously in pain, yet they assume it’s a natural part of aging and don’t do anything to help. Of course I suggest they go to the vet immediately. Naturally I explain how many options there may be but I can only recommend, I can’t physically drag them, although I wish I could.
Does my dog have arthritis?
Dogs can be pretty good at hiding pain, so you may not realise the extent of your dog’s discomfort until his condition has become quite advanced.
Have you noticed any of the following?
- Stiffness when your dog gets up in the morning, or after a nap
- Difficulty lying down
- Reluctance to move around as much as he used to
- Stopped jumping onto the couch
- Prefers shorter walks
- Not running around with his mates at the dog park
- Overweight dog having trouble walking – it may be more than just his weight
- Trouble/avoiding climbing stairs
- Uncomfortable in certain positions
- Avoids being petted/touched
If you’ve answered yes to one, a few, or all, there’s a good chance your dog has arthritis.
Since these changes typically happen very gradually, you may not notice them at first, assuming it’s a natural part of aging. For that reason it’s important to pay close attention to your dog, as even subtle changes should signal a vet visit.
Catching the first signs of arthritis, or any condition, could mean a much better prognosis and a more comfortable life for your dog.
Are some breeds more likely to get arthritis?
While older and larger breeds are more susceptible to developing arthritis, any dog can develop it.
Many joint diseases are actually the result of a trauma or minor injury sustained in the past, even at quite a young age.
Cervical trauma caused by a walker jerking the leash attached to a collar, in a bid to stop him from pulling.
Strain on tendons and ligaments caused by excess weight
Lack of exercise – dogs need exercise every day, not just on the weekends. Putting an out of shape dog through a lot of physical exertion two days of the week, and barely any the other five days, is an injury waiting to happen.
Overweight or obese pets
Bone fracture involving a joint
Aging and natural wear and tear
Can arthritis be prevented?
You’ve just read about the causes of arthritis, so let’s look at a few and see.
Because arthritis can develop as a result of an injury, treating that injury and making sure it heals properly is important.
All dogs need physical exercise every day, so make sure your dog is getting enough.
Keep your dog at a healthy weight, as obesity not only can cause arthritis and make the pain of existing arthritis worse, it can lead to many other health issues as well.
Teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash, so there’s no pressure put on his neck.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
Your vet will have a chat with you, asking what changes you’ve noticed and what your concerns are. He will conduct a thorough examination, ask to see your dog walk, and order any tests he deems necessary to make his diagnosis. It would be very helpful for the vet if you made a video of your dog when you notice him having difficulties.
There are “traditional” options like medications, as well as those that are more natural or holistic.
Natural arthritis relief
Many people prefer a more natural, holistic route to healthcare in their own lives, and that has quickly translated into wanting the same for their pets. As the desire for more natural products grows, many veterinary practices are introducing alternative protocols.
What do these terms mean?
Before we begin let’s look at what these terms mean – alternative, natural, herbal medicine, holistic, supplement, nutraceutical.
Alternative – “…Medical products and practices that are not part of standard care.” For example: treating heart disease with chelation therapy
Herbal Medicine – “The practice of using medicinal herbs to promote health, prevent and/or treat disease”
Holistic – “Identifying with principles of holism in a system of therapeutics, especially one considered outside the mainstream of scientific medicine, as naturopathy or chiropractic, and often involving nutritional measures”
Homeopathy – “…or homeopathic medicine, is a medical philosophy and practice based on the idea that the body has the ability to heal itself”
Natural – “Anything that occurs in nature or is produced naturally; it is not artificial, synthetic, or manufactured”
Nutraceutical – “… a broad umbrella term that is used to describe any product derived from food sources with extra health benefits in addition to the basic nutritional value found in foods.”
Supplement – “Something added to a food or a diet to increase its nutritional value” or “Nutritional supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, meal supplements, sports nutrition products, natural food supplements, and other related products used to boost the nutritional content of the diet.”
The holistic approach to treatment
In a more holistic approach to veterinary medicine, (and I should say human medicine as well!), drugs are viewed as merely treating symptoms, without much, if any, investigation into understanding why the problem developed in the first place.
There is a concern that when symptoms are masked for long periods of time (due to drugs), it not only makes it harder to treat the problem, other serious problems can develop that will go unseen.
Will it work for my dog?
Every dog responds differently, so a blanket yes or no cannot be given. Many dogs respond extremely well, while others show no improvement. In these cases, medication will likely be needed to keep him comfortable and pain free.
If you are interested in exploring this area of veterinary care, find a reputable holistic vet, and make an appointment for a consultation.
How long will it take for my dog to feel better?
Another question that should be asked of your vet, and the answer will be an estimate. No one can put an exact number to an arbitrary question.
I can tell you that dogs that take “drugs” will improve quite quickly, but there’s always the risk of side effects. Nutraceuticals take a long time to work, and dogs may not show improvement for weeks, or months, but there are no side effects.
Speak to your vet
Below you will find information about various therapies and supplements that have been successful in the treatment of arthritis in many dogs. Having said that, I strongly recommend you speak to your vet before implementing any changes.
Daily massage helps increase circulation, and the good sensations block the bad ones.
Soaks in: warm water with Epsom salt – hot tub – whirlpool
Gentle swimming, starting with just a couple of minutes. A life jacket may help him feel more relaxed.
Exercise on an underwater treadmill
Acupuncture and chiropractic treatment
Many dogs respond well to both treatments, but do be careful to only deal with reputable and experienced practitioners.
Your dog’s bed
A heating pad added to your dog’s bed will help relax muscles and increase circulation. Alternatively, he may benefit from an orthopaedic bed. Some contain magnets, which evidence suggests reduces arthritis pain.
Supplements cannot fix/change calcium deposits, scar tissue, cartilage tears or other structural damage to a dog’s joints. They can, however, help decrease inflammation, and help the body to repair.
Mention the word arthritis (be it dogs or humans), and you’ll hear the words Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate. They are the most commonly used nutraceuticals in pet health care.
Glucosamine is an amino sugar produced naturally in the body. It plays a key role in the production of joint lubricants and shock absorption, protects the cartilage in the joints against further degeneration, relieves pain, and improves mobility.
As a nutritional supplement it is extracted from crab, lobster, or shrimp shells. The fact that shells are usually discarded, allows for a constant and cost effective source.
Choose Glucosamine Sulphate when shopping.
It can take several weeks before seeing any noticeable improvements, several months for real results. Results can range from dogs who couldn’t walk, to being able to go for long walks, and even runs, to no improvement. Overall, people are very pleased with the results they’ve seen in their dogs.
Chondroitin is naturally found in animal cartilage, and the supplement is derived primarily from bovine cartilage, but also comes from sharks and whales. The source does not seem to influence its’ efficacy. Chondroitin sulfate addresses the disease process itself, doesn’t just mask the pain like drugs do.
- Help the body repair damaged cartilage
- Restore joint integrity
- Prevent stress injuries to joints
- Help repair damaged connective tissue
- Protect existing cartilage from premature breakdown
- Keep cartilage tissue hydrated
Because chondroitin production decreases with age, supplements may be particularly helpful for older dogs with arthritis.
A complete run down of all the anti-inflammatories available is best left to a conversation with a professional. However, here is a brief list of a few that are well known.
They contain a very high concentration of omega-3s, and are an excellent source of glucosamine and chondroitin.
Contains anti-inflammatory properties, helping to eliminate pain, and provide essential nutrients required by cartilage.
MSM blocks the transfer of pain impulses through the nerve fibres, by enhancing cortisol production, a natural anti-inflammatory hormone produced by the body.
If you prefer to rely on food for MSM, the best sources are raw, organic meats and bones.
Organic apple cider vinegar
Added to food.
Fish oil – omega 3 fatty acids
Fish oil reduces inflammation, but avoid liver oil. It is low in omega 3s, and could be dangerous in the high doses needed to be effective.
Is a liver support, but can also reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation caused by arthritis.
Herbs and vitamins
Certain herbs help reduce inflammation, and one of the best is turmeric (which is recommended daily for adults). Vitamin C and E may also help.
Bromelain is an enzyme found in pineapples, and is said to have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
“Traditional” pain relief
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories)
Most drugs used for treating arthritis in dogs are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Aspirin and ibuprofen, which most of us keep in our medicine cabinets, are just two examples. That was not a suggestion to pull them out and give them to your dog! I just wanted to present a relatable example.
How they work
They help reduce swelling, stiffness, and joint pain.
Side effects are rare, side effects are common. Don’t you wish things were black and white? Yes or no?
Let’s put it this way. When you fill a prescription for yourself, there’s always a very long list of potential side effects included in the box. Usually nothing happens, but sometimes they do, so the companies just want you to be aware of potential problems.
Same goes for this!
These medications are very beneficial, with a good track record, but things happen. Monitor your dog for any changes in behaviour – eating, drinking, skin redness, vomiting, diarrhea. If yes, call your vet immediately.
When side effects do happen, they can come on quite suddenly, and by the time you notice them, the problem could be well advanced.
Side effect may include: gastric ulcers, problems with kidneys, liver, intestines, digestion, bleeding disorders.
Can I reduce the risks associated with NSAIDs?
Don’t combine them with steroids.
If you’re seeing a new vet who doesn’t know your dog’s history, be sure to tell him/her all medications your dog is taking, to avoid clashes.
Any changes in your dog, no matter how slight or insignificant you may think it is, call your vet immediately.
Give with food to help prevent gastric ulcers.
Have blood work done before beginning treatment. The results will be used as a reference against follow up blood tests, done to monitor liver and kidney function.
Steroids may be prescribed if NSAIDs are not having any effect. Prednisone and other corticosteroids will reduce swelling and inflammation, but there are risks, particularly if they are used long term.
Some of the risks and side effects include:
- Liver damage
- Gastric ulcers
- Kidney damage
- Increased thirst
- Increased peeing
- Further damage to the joints
Unlike some drugs that you stop taking when the treatment is done, you must gradually wean your dog off steroids in order to get the adrenal glands used to not getting them.
Controlled medications (narcotics)
Another groups of medications are known as narcotics. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “narcotics” I think heroin, cocaine – maybe that comes from watching too many police dramas on television!
They are the most efficient pain relief, and although they’re addictive, they don’t have the same potential for organ damage as NSAIDs.
This category contains drugs like: Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Oxycodone to name just a few.
Because narcotics are listed as controlled substances, they aren’t available everywhere.
There seems to be many differences of opinion about whether or not Tramadol is a narcotic. Because it’s unclear, I have put it under its’ own heading.
I’m at the vet a lot these days, and it seems every time I’m there, someone is being prescribed Tramadol. It provides pain relief, but isn’t much help as an anti-inflammatory.
Tramadol is less controversial than narcotics, and generally safer than NSAIDs.
It has been known to cause feelings of euphoria, which may reduce anxiety in pets.
It may be unsuitable for use in dogs suffering from liver or kidney disease, seizures etc… but of course your vet will advise you if it’s right for your dog.
Like steroids, your dog needs to be weaned off Tramadol. Your vet will advise you on the schedule.
Tramadol doesn’t typically cause harmful side effects, unless it’s misused, but they can happen:
- Drop in heart rate
Lifestyle changes to make your arthritic dog more comfortable
Our most important goal in caring for our arthritic dog, is to make sure he is as comfortable, and pain free as possible. Here are some quick lifestyle changes we can make.
Food and water bowls
I started elevating my dog’s food and water bowls about a year ago, and the added height seems more comfortable for her. I stand them on a nonslip surface, so they don’t move around. My senior dog is blind, so that’s particularly important.
Test different heights for comfort level, but your dog shouldn’t have to stretch up to reach. If you’d rather buy a set of raised bowls, there are lots of styles, sizes and heights to suit every need.
If your dog seems to have trouble settling, perhaps it’s time to make some changes to his bed. You can try adding a heating pad to what he’s using now, or perhaps a blanket for extra padding.
If you are considering buying a new one, there are lots of wonderful options to choose from including orthopedic and self warming beds. One thing that is important to take note of. Some beds have very high sides which may make going in and out a bit of a struggle. I buy beds that have 3 raised sides because the dogs love having something to lean against, but are low in the front so there’s nothing to climb over.
Your dog still needs to play, but your vet will help you determine what type and duration is safe.
Assisted Living Devices
Ramps are handy for pets needing help getting in and out of the car, or having trouble using stairs. Be sure to make the slope as gradual as you can. Carpeted pet stairs means your dog still has access to your bed, or living room furniture.
A pet stroller is another great help. I bought one quite some time ago for one of my dogs, and it was worth every penny. It’s lightweight with tons of amazing features. Now I take her on long walks, and I get some much needed exercise.
Nails that are too long make walking uncomfortable. Because the quicks on older dogs nails tend to be quite long, very little of the nail can be trimmed at a time. That means more frequent visits to the groomer, unless of course you do it yourself.
Arthritis can make it harder for your dog to get up to go out as often as he needs, so beds with waterproof liners and waterproof removable covers are a good option.
In this house we use pee pads…and lots of them! At night I cover the floor around my dog’s bed so if she has to pee overnight – which she often does – she pees, then goes back to sleep.
Slippery floors and arthritic dogs are not a good combination. I’m not suggesting you invest in wall to wall carpeting, but perhaps add some throw rugs with a nonslip padding underneath, carpet squares or other padded surfaces, to help your dog be more sure footed.
Make sure you also buy a good enzymatic cleaner and stain remover, for accidents.
Arthritis and dogs – conclusion
I find it encouraging, knowing how much can be done to help dogs suffering the effects of arthritis. Many of us don’t realise how much pain our pets may be in, and because they’re so good at hiding it, don’t find out until it’s severe.
I talk a lot about the importance of speaking to your vet if ever you notice a change in your dog’s behaviour, and I’m going to keep preaching that advice.
If you have any tips, advice or stories you’d like to share about arthritis and dogs, please do so in the comment section below, or on my Facebook page.