Updated: Nov 2, 2022
by Dr Willem van Wyk
I had a professor that used to say: “If you are lucky, you will grow old enough to get arthritis.” It is one of the most common ailments I see in the consult room, and almost every geriatric patient I see suffers from it. Just because it is inevitable, it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it though.
To understand arthritis management, one needs to understand the disease a little bit better first.
What is Canine arthritis?
Technically, arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. This begs the question then: what is inflammation? The idea of inflammation has been known to man for thousands of years. The ancient Romans identified four signs that typically characterises inflammation: calor, dolor, rubor, and tumor: heat, pain, redness, and swelling. In the 2000 years since then, we have learnt a lot more about inflammation. We now recognise that inflammation is a normal reaction of the body in response to a disturbance or damage to tissue.
Arthritis is a reaction of the immune system and other tissues in the joints to some kind of perturbation. Inflammation is the first step in the healing process and is usually followed by a number of repair processes after the inflammation has abated.
Unfortunately, in the case of arthritis, the disease is progressive, and healing cannot take place as it usually does in other parts of the body.
Arthritis is known by a number of other names, and you might hear vets and rehabilitation therapists use the terms osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD) as well. There are many different kinds of arthritis, depending on the exact cause, location and effects of the inflammation, but in the end, they all cause one thing: damage to the joint cartilage. All joints have cartilage which coats the surface of the bones where they touch against one another. The joint cartilage provides a smooth surface which allows for smooth, pain-free movement of the joint. The perverse thing about this disease, is that inflammation damages the cartilage, and the more damage is done to the cartilage, the worse the inflammation becomes.
Signs and symptoms of Canine Arthritis
It is fairly easy to see the signs of severe arthritis in older dogs, but some of the signs are a lot more subtle than people realise. Clients are often surprised when I diagnose their dogs with arthritis, as people often consider some of the more subtle signs normal behaviour for older dogs.
It is vitally important to recognise these signs for what they really are: painful symptoms of a disease that can significantly impact the quality of life of your dog.
Some of the most common signs include:
• Unusual behaviour
• Difficulty getting comfortable
• Difficulty getting up in the mornings
• Pacing at night
• Physique and muscle changes
• Postural changes
• Sleeping more than usual
• Weak hind limbs and difficulty going to the toilet
• Unwilling to walk, or a decrease in exercise tolerance
• Licking their joints
• Change in temperament
• Clicking, crunching and other noises in the joints
Some of these signs may be caused by a variety of other diseases, so don’t jump to conclusions before you’ve seen a vet. If your dog is showing any of these signs, get a proper diagnosis. A full hands-on examination is needed to confirm that your dog does indeed have arthritis. Your vet may also ask for more complicated diagnostic procedures to be done, like x-rays or a CT scan.
What causes canine arthritis?
In essence, there are only really three causes of arthritis:
• Abnormal load bearing on a normal joint
• Normal load bearing on an abnormal joint
• Damage to a joint
Within these three categories, there is a multitude of more specific causes that may play a role. Abnormal loads may simply be being too fat, or it may be due to a change in posture that causes the load to be carried at an abnormal angle inside the joint. Abnormal joints may be caused by genetics, or aberrations in the growth and development of a puppy. Damage to a joint may be caused by something obvious like a torn ligament, but infections or autoimmune diseases may also damage the structures inside a joint.
It is often the case that there are more than one of these causal processes active in a dog. Once the process has started, a vicious cycle of inflammation and cartilage damage ensues, and the joint deteriorates progressively over time. Once the disease starts causing pain and discomfort, the patient will become averse to moving the affected joint through its normal range of motion. This in turn, will cause muscles to waste away from disuse, and cause joints to become stiff and reduce flexibility.
Eventually, it will lead to changes in posture, which will further accelerate the arthritic processes, as the patient will sit and stand with their joints held at abnormal angles..
My dog has been diagnosed with arthritis, what do I do now?
Luckily, there is a fair bit you can do to help your dog with arthritis. The first thing you should do, is to realise that you shouldn’t delay treatment. Arthritis is a progressive disease, and the earlier you intervene, the better the results of treatment will be.
Find a vet and a rehabilitation expert who can work together to come up with a well-structured treatment plan. Make sure to see your vet at least every six months, if not more often, and your hydrotherapist will most likely need to see your pet even more frequently than that.
Treating and managing the arthritic dog
The single most influential intervention you can institute is weight management.
Your vet or rehabilitation expert can help you work out a weight loss program which will help your dog shed weight without losing muscle mass. If your dog is already at an ideal weight, a special diet may still be of use, in order to maintain muscle mass and to include nutritional supplements that may help combating the arthritic process. There are hundreds of supplements available these days, and some of them have amazing results, whereas others are money making scams. Your vet or hydro therapist can help you to get the most bang for your buck when choosing a supplement or prescription food.
This article is too short to cover an entire nutritional plan, but if I can give you one piece of good advice regarding supplements, I would suggest a product with copious amounts of omega-3 oil from a marine source, like fish oil. Your vet may also prescribe one or more drugs to treat the effects of arthritis. Some of these, like anti-inflammatory drugs, may be aimed at directly slowing down the progress of the disease. Others may simply alleviate pain, which will facilitate more frequent exercise and make hydrotherapy sessions more enjoyable. Some dogs may also require anxiety management if they get very stressed out during hydro sessions.
As a vet, my influence on arthritis is usually limited to drugs and nutritional advice. I always try my best to get my clients to take their dogs to a reputable rehabilitation centre in addition to the therapies that I prescribe. Time and time again, I am astounded at the amazing results hydrotherapists are able to achieve. I have had many a client shed tears of joy because I managed to make their old dog run around again like a puppy. As much as I’d like to think I’m a miracle worker, I know that it is usually the hard work of the owner and the hydrotherapist that did the magic.
To find out more about how Fit4dogsuk Canine Hydrotherapy & Rehabilitation centre can help your dog through Arthritis, Contact Us Today