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Help for Dogs with Arthritis

by Tammy Wolfe, DPT, PT, CCRP, GCFP

As the weather turns colder and the days become shorter, many of our pets begin to move more slowly and less frequently. Dogs with previous or current injuries, dysplasia and arthritis can be affected by weather changes because of inflammation and joint and soft tissue changes that may have taken place over the years. Warm, high pressure weather causes the tissues to be flexible and move easily. Dogs are more active and generally feel better in those warm, sunny months. But as the cold air and low pressure move in, joints can swell and tissues become less flexible. This can lead to stiffness, pain, and generally less activity. Decreased activity levels can start a spiral that causes more pain, less activity, and atrophy or wasting of the muscles from disuse. 

Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, is inflammation of the joint or joints, caused by a wearing down of the cartilage and joint surfaces. It affects 20% to 30% of the canine population. Cartilage covers the joint surfaces to protect and provide a cushion for the boney surfaces as they move and compress against one another. Normal cartilage is very resilient to pressure and provides a cushion between bones during weight bearing activities. As long as a joint moves in perfect congruency, there is little wear and tear on the cartilage.

However, not all joints move in complete congruency. Dysplasia is one primary cause of a joint moving incongruently and always leads to arthritis. Dysplasia is an abnormal development of a joint which alters the size or shape of a joint. It is a congenital deformity, and depending upon how severe the dysplasia is, it may be diagnosed in puppyhood, adulthood, or not until the dog becomes geriatric. Another cause of poor joint congruency is poor conformation, which is also inherited. Trauma, injury, weakness, infection, and metabolic changes also can cause osteoarthritis and abnormal wear and tear on joints.

Signs of arthritic pain can be difficult to detect because in milder cases, they may only be visible with the weather changes. Low pressure changes, even in warm weather may cause pain and may change your dog’s behavior as early as 48 hours before it arrives. So, your dog may move more stiffly and slowly even while the weather is sunny and warm because the air pressure is already dropping. In the colder months, the persistent colder weather will make the change in your dog’s behavior very easy to detect because the joints become chronically more stiff and painful.

Along with stiffness and slowness in the morning, your dog may not be able to walk as quickly or as far on daily walks and may develop a limp in one or more legs. Stair ascending and/or descending may become slow and difficult, or your dog may hesitate before beginning to walk on stairs. You may find that your dog simply lies down more instead of standing or that getting up and down from the lying position is slow or difficult. Additionally, your dog may play less or appear to have less energy. Finally, in very severe cases, your furry friend may become less social, aggressive with people or other dogs, may whimper, shiver, shake, or pace because of pain.

There are several things that you, as an owner, can do to help make your dog more comfortable. The most important thing to do is to make sure that he or she gets a moderate amount of exercise. Too much or too little exercise can make pain worse. Arthritic dogs do best with frequent, moderate amounts of exercise to keep them strong, but not so much as to make the arthritic joints more painful. Swimming or walking in water are the best exercise to improve strength, allow the joint surfaces to receive good nutrition, and decrease pain. If water is not available, exercising on a soft surfaces like grass or soft paths are best. Contrary to the popular belief that the cartilage is the best shock absorber for the joints, it is really strong muscles supporting the joints that is most important. So, even if there is very little cartilage protecting the joint surfaces, good muscle development can still keep your dog more comfortable and active.

Other things you can do at home are massage to the muscles around the painful joints. Heat or cold applications may also help control pain. Your dog’s sleeping surface should be supportive enough so that he does not touch the floor when he lies down and long enough so that he doesn’t have to curl up in his bed. Weight control is extremely important to decrease the stresses on the joints. You also may want to consider using runners on slippery floors and ramps instead of stairs. Beyond things you can do at home, there are several medications and supplements that your veterinarian can recommend to help decrease pain and inflammation and improve health of the joint surfaces. Your canine physical therapist can teach you a variety of exercises that can be done, in addition to offering hydrotherapy. They can administer manual therapy of various types for pain relief and to assist your dog in movement re-education for more comfort with all activities. Modalities such as dry needling, laser, acupuncture, and ultrasound to help decrease pain and muscle spasms may also be helpful.

Arthritis is a common challenge for our canine friends. However, with detection of the painful signs comes many forms of effective intervention. This intervention can serve to add many healthy, happy, active years to your companion’s life.

This article appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Mile High Dog magazine.