There are few things more rewarding than a friendly, happy dog buzzing around your home day in and day out. They’re at the door to greet you when you get home, are your faithful companion on hikes and runs, and teach you what unconditional love really is. But inevitably, our beloved canine family members will age and slow down. Things that were second nature will become more and more difficult. Oftentimes this is simply a result of old age. But sometimes this can be caused by arthritis. Canine arthritis can be mild and barely noticeable, or can grow to severely affect your dog’s quality of life. Generally, it’s somewhere in the middle. But it’s important to note that dog joint pain isn’t indicative of the end of the road. There is plenty you can do to help your dog continue to have a long, happy life.
Causes of Dog Arthritis While it’s most common for signs to appear later in life, some dogs will develop joint disease earlier, so it’s best to not dismiss symptoms as natural aging. Dogs are very susceptible to arthritis, and larger dog breeds are more vulnerable than smaller breeds. Taking your dog for routine check-ups with your veterinarian can help you identify if you have an arthritic pup.
But you might be wondering… What causes your dog to develop arthritis? Unsurprisingly, the list of causes isn’t too dissimilar from humans. While joint problems are common in aging animals, there are several causes that pop up most frequently. These include:
- Lack of exercise
- Joint disorders, diseases and conditions
- An early trauma or injury
Or, if you are looking for a more scientific explanation: As dogs get older, the cartilage in their joints begins to thin, and cartilage cells die. When those cells die, they release enzymes that cause inflammation of the joint capsule and the release of excessive joint fluid. The joint space then narrows and the bone beneath the cartilage begins to deteriorate. Osteophytes (extra bony growths) may also develop. This changes your dog’s joint(s), and creates discomfort, pain, limb inactivity and eventually muscle atrophy. Not all dogs will vocalize it if they’re feeling discomfort, but there are other ways to pick up on if your dog might be in pain.
What are the early signs that my dog has arthritis? You know your fur baby’s movements and demeanor better than anyone. The first signs of arthritis might be if either or both begin to change. Pay attention and you should be able to identify potential symptoms. There are many indicators that tell you if your dog is potentially dealing with arthritic joints. These include:
- Difficulty standing from a sitting or lying position
- Stiffness or moving slowly
- Moving awkwardly
- Develops a limp or favors a leg
- Inability to jump or difficulty climbing stairs
- An aversion to being touched or picked up
- Swelling in the joints
- Changes in personality or mood
Many of these symptoms should be fairly obvious when they start setting in. However, others can be subtler. Your normally happy, sweet pup might start getting a little snippy, or no longer hop up on your bed at night or leap as eagerly into the car. Again, just make sure you pay attention to these signs. It’s more than just natural aging and steps can be taken to help improve their quality of life. Once you identify these symptoms in your pet, it’s time to take them to your vet to see what’s causing their discomfort. Together with your vet, you will put together an all-encompassing plan that will combine exercise with diet and therapies that apply to your dog’s specific needs.
What can I do to treat my dog’s arthritis? While it’s agreed that arthritis is forever and can’t be undone, there is plenty you can do to help alleviate joint pain in your dog. Most dogs will enjoy a higher quality of life with a combination of these treatments.
Exercises for dogs with arthritis Keeping your dog active is a great way to keep its joints from stiffening up. Work with your vet to put together an exercise program that suits your dog’s size and breed, keeping in mind the severity of their symptoms. Generally, too little can be more harmful than too much, but the wrong exercise can also cause damage. If your dog has arthritis, it is especially important to make sure you warm up before diving into any activity. Some light play or walking is all you need to do here, just make sure you get your dog moving before you get into the real workout. Those creaky joints need to loosen up! Low-intensity walks on flat, smooth surfaces is the best and easiest exercise you can give your dog. Start slowly with a nice casual walk a couple times a day, then work your way up to more as your dog’s mood and energy permits. If your fur kid wants to run, you can let them run, just make sure you keep things under control. Your dog is eager to please, so you need to pay closer attention and know when it has had enough. Swimming in moderate temperature water is great for your dog’s joints, however cold or hot water can actually do more damage. Here, it can also be easy to overwork your pup so be sensitive to their stamina. Overall, more interactive playtime with your older pet can have great benefits for their overall health and happiness. Light games of hide and seek, tug of war, or, of course, fetch, can be fine as we all know how much they love chasing that ball. Start with moderate activity and work your way up, but again, don’t overdo it. Through trial and error and with careful monitoring, you can find your dog’s exercise “sweet spot” for optimal joint health.
Nutrition for arthritic dogs Your dog’s diet and nutritional intake plays a vital role in its treatment of arthritis as well. A dog that gets regular exercise especially needs proper nutrition from high-quality food and some added supplements. Veterinarians recommend going with name brands that offer well-balanced nutrition and that are tailored to specific breeds or sizes. Superfoods are particularly powerful agents in the fight against canine arthritis. Certain superfoods have anti-inflammatory properties that can help alleviate symptoms for dogs. Superfoods like blueberries, kale, broccoli and sweet potatoes are bursting with antioxidants and can help reduce swelling. Not to mention they promote a healthy coat as well! Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are also great for dogs with joint issues. Omega-3’s are found mainly in fish, like salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, halibut and herring, and also have proven anti-inflammatory effects. Many of these superfoods are included in leading dog food varieties, but they are safe to be consumed on their own as well, if you prefer to prepare them yourself. Higher levels of omega-3’s may be necessary and can be given to your dog through supplements.
Supplements Supplements, are substances that are consumed orally as an addition to a normal diet. These substances are much safer than traditional drugs because they can be considered a form of food or nutrient and come from natural sources. Glucosamine assists in decreasing inflammation and will help the body repair and strengthen tissues. Vitamin E and selenium yeast are other great options. Many pet owners prefer to use these supplements because they work to help the body become healthier rather than mask symptoms. They also have little to no side effects and allow pets to take fewer prescription drugs. They are also generally safe to be taken for your dog’s entire lifetime. It is important to note that like in humans, no amount of consumed nutrients will correct structural damage to a dog's joints. Calcium deposits, scar tissue, cartilage tears and dissolution, or contour changes to the bones at the joint surfaces from long-term wear and tear will not go away. They will continue to affect your dog regardless of their nutritional intake, but these foods and supplements will help reduce inflammation, and keep them from deteriorating further.
Other Symptom Management Techniques There are also other methods of treatment that you can implement to help ease your dog’s joint pain.
- Weight Management: The best thing you can do for your dog is to make sure it isn’t overweight. Studies show that roughly half of pets in the U.S. are overweight, many of which suffer from osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia. Keeping your dog at its recommended weight is one thing you as the owner have total control of. Sure, it can be hard to resist giving the extra treat or table scrap, but the results will be worth it.
- Sleep Therapy: Just like in humans, a good night’s sleep keeps your fur kid healthy and happy. Keeping your dog’s bed in a warm area will help them get better rest and rise more easily. A firm, dome-shaped orthopedic foam bed reduces pressure on the joints and keeps your dog more comfortable. They are also easier to get in and out of. If your dog (and husband) are willing, you can even splurge for a sweater to provide them with added warmth.
- Improve Their Daily Routine: Think about your dog’s daily activities and ways you can make life easier for them. Going up and down stairs is a common issue for arthritic dogs. Build a ramp going outside so it’s easier for them to go to the bathroom. Elevate food and water bowls for larger dogs. If you love snuggling on the couch or in bed, give them a ramp or steps to avoid jumping up and down. These simple steps can help make their lives easier!
- Massages and Compresses: People like massages. Dogs do too! Not only are they soothing, but they stimulate blood flow to atrophying muscles. Your vet can show you massage techniques to help relax stiff muscles and promote range of motion. There are also certified canine massage therapists available in most areas of the country. Warm compresses over sore joints can also be soothing, but you have to make sure not to overheat them and cause further injury.
- Alternative Therapies: Believe it or not, dogs with arthritis can actually be made more comfortable and more mobile through acupuncture. Alternative veterinary practitioners also sometimes prescribe formulas made with Chinese herbs to support the benefits they receive from acupuncture.
- Laser Therapy: A newer form of treatment, Class IV therapeutic laser therapy can help stimulate blood flow to tissues and improve arthritic conditions.