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Preventing Canine Arthritis

by Tammy Wolfe, DPT, PT, CCRP, GCFP

Canine arthritis is a common debilitating issue that affects dogs of all sizes and ages. Obviously, the geriatric population is affected more frequently than younger dogs, but arthritis can begin at a very young age. As arthritis progresses, the management of decreased mobility and pain becomes increasingly more important and the success or failure of that management can become a matter of life and death. In this article, I’d like to present several strategies that can help ward off arthritis and reward you and your four-legged friends with long, healthy, active lives to enjoy deep into their geriatric years.

Osteoarthritis is a gradual abnormal wear and tear of the joint surfaces which normally cushion and protect the bones of the joint. Osteoarthritis causes inflammation, pain, and decreased range of motion. The wear and tear can be caused from a variety of sources, such as poor conformation, joint instability, obesity, injury to the cartilage or joint surfaces, or abnormal use of the joint. It is important to realize that a normally performing, uninjured joint that has congruent joint surfaces, will not become arthritic. However, even micro-variances and incongruences can cause abnormal wear and tear of a joint and start the arthritic process.

Many dog breeds inherit abnormal joint structure and, therefore are more prone to suffering the effects of arthritis very early in life. For these dogs, healthy eating habits are even more important than dogs with healthy joint conformation, and it is important to keep their weight down as low as possible to avoid undue stresses on already dysfunctional joints. These dogs may also benefit from nutritional joint supplements very young in life. With other breeds, it is difficult or impossible to tell if any of the joints are abnormal until the dog begins showing signs of discomfort. However, weight management is a huge factor in contributing to osteoarthritis and can easily be managed throughout a dog’s life. For all breeds, there are some other universal strategies that can help delay or prevent arthritic changes in the joints.

Exercise is a key ingredient for any dog’s health. When it comes to joint health, exercise should always be done on a soft surface, such as grass or paths, or when inside, on mats or padded floors. As a comparison, concrete is 14,000 times harder than rubber, 600 times harder than clay, and 140 times harder than crushed gravel. Concrete is the same hardness as asphalt at 32 degrees or less, but is 10.5 times harder than asphalt at 68 degrees because asphalt’s hardness varies with temperature. (1)

Not only is the surface that exercise is performed on important, but the amount and types of exercise is equally important for several reasons. A moderate amount of exercise is essential to supply nutrition to the joint surfaces because joint surfaces do not have a blood flow. The cartilage absorbs nutrition from the synovial fluid in the joint and the joint must be repeatedly moving for the fluid to be absorbed into the cartilage and provide needed nutrients for joint health. So, unknown to many, arthritic changes can begin taking place because of too little activity and lack of nutrition to keep the joint surfaces adequately hydrated and performing normally.

On the other hand, exercise with excessive joint compressions, whether those compressions come from excessive jumping, landing, stopping, twisting, or pulling large loads, can cause damage to the cartilage and joint surfaces, causing arthritic changes. In this modern competitive world of “more is better,” many canines suffer early arthritic changes from excessive training and exercise. Excessive exercise can cause damaging changes on several levels. When a dog gets fatigued, the muscles can no longer support the proper alignment of the joints. When the muscles get fatigued, tight, and possibly sore, and the joints stop moving normally and efficiently. This fatigue and soreness from over-training can cause muscle guarding and an interruption in normal movement patterns. If this becomes a chronic condition, abnormal movement patterns inevitably cause consistent incongruent joint movements and wear and tear of the joint surfaces.

Strengthening the muscles around the dog’s joints without over-exercising is equally important in preventing early-onset arthritic changes. Strong muscles guide joints through their natural paths of motion more efficiently than weak muscles. Muscle support around joint is actually the primary defense in preventing abnormal joint motion. As you can see, moderation of exercise, finding someplace between no exercise and over-exercise, is ideal for all dog breeds if done on forgiving surfaces. The repetitive movement of exercising provides nutrition to the joint surfaces and strengthens the muscles to help guide normal motion.

The final preventative strategy for preventing pre-mature arthritis that I want to discuss is the management of injuries, if they should occur. Injury is another common pathway that can lead to arthritic changes in joints. If a joint becomes unstable due to injury, the joint will perform with excessive gliding forces and cause damaging changes to the cartilage and joint surfaces. The dog’s body then produces additional scar tissue and boney tissue to support the joint and may cause further joint dysfunction, inflammation, pain, and early arthritic changes. The first important treatment is to stabilize the injured joint as soon as possible so that near-normal joint mechanics slow the arthritic process in the effected joint. 

The second important thing to realize is that the injury to the joint or any other tissue, does not only elicit a localized response in your dog. A dog with a painful joint, tendon, muscle or bone, will invariably change his/her entire body’s movement patterns to avoid recurring pain. These changes in movement patterns do not necessarily normalize again when the pain is relieved. Faulty movement patterns can continue indefinitely after injury and cause changes in joint movement, and therefore arthritis, anywhere in the body. However, possibly not so obviously, you can easily gain the assistance of a canine physical therapist who is able to not only rehabilitate the area of injury, but also re-teach normal movement patterns in the entire body so that normal function in all of the body can be restored and early-onset osteoarthritis can be avoided.

(1) Reference: Obrzud R. Truty, The Hardening Soil Model: A Practical Guidebook. Z Soil, PC 10071 report revised 31.01.2012.

This article appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Mile High Dog magazine.