Priscilla, a pudgy Weimaraner, was about 3 or 4 years old when she was adopted by Sharon Blankenship of Michigan. Although Priscilla initially joined the other household Weims in their romps and two-mile daily walks, she began to slow down and lag behind after about a year.
“She became reluctant to leave the house, walked stiffly, and frequently would turn back before our walk was done,” Blankenship says. “Eventually, she couldn’t be coaxed out to walk with us.” Although still relatively young, Priscilla seemed old beyond her years. A veterinary diagnosis revealed she had arthritis.
A degenerative joint disease, arthritis affects cartilage, bone, and surrounding soft tissues. Commonly seen in middle- and old-aged dogs due to aging or mechanical damage to the cartilage, arthritis causes the cartilage to become less resilient, more prone to breaking down, and less able to recover and heal from injury or trauma, according to Darryl Millis, DVM, American College of Veterinary Surgeons diplomate, and professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Tennessee.
But arthritis can also occur in any age animal — even puppies — due to orthopedic injuries or disorders, such as hip or elbow dysplasia or cruciate ligament damage. Immune-related diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and tick infections can also cause cartilage damage, Millis says.
Arthritic dogs typically show signs of lameness, stiffness, difficulty in sitting or standing, decreased interest in play or exercise, reluctance to go up or down stairs, or hesitancy to jump onto furniture or into the car.
Treatment and prevention
According to Millis, arthritis is more prevalent today for reasons that remain unclear. “It could be due to dogs living longer, to increased obesity — which directly contributes to arthritis — or because owners are more tuned into arthritis, so it’s being reported more.
“There are more cases that could benefit from treatment, however,” Millis adds. People often attribute decreased activity to old age, but dogs also reduce their level of activity because of chronic arthritic pain. “Many owners of older dogs that we treat for osteoarthritis state their dog is much more active after initiating treatment, and they didn’t realize how much pain their dog must have been in,” Millis says.
Although arthritis is progressive and not curable, various management techniques can reduce or even eliminate its symptoms.
Additionally, you can help prevent or delay the onset of arthritis in your pet. Here’s how:
• Keep your dog or puppy trim. Excess weight puts additional force on the joints, basically wearing them out more quickly.
• Feed an appropriate diet. “Large or giant breed puppies that are fed high levels of [energy-producing ingredients] and calcium are at much greater risk for developing orthopedic problems as young as 4 to 5 months of age,” Millis notes. For giant breeds, choose a large breed puppy formula; it will contain reduced amounts of energy ingredients and calcium.
• Exercise appropriately. Exercise helps preserve joint and muscle health and aids in fitness and weight control. Keep training sessions, repetitions, and intensity limited, however, until a growing dog’s skeletal system is mature. Ditto for aging dogs. “As the animal and the cartilage age, switch from explosive, concussive activities — running hard on a daily basis for long periods, jumping from high places, etc. — to low-impact, aerobic exercise,” Millis says.
• Exercise sensibly. Prior to sustained or hard-on-the-joint activities such as jogging and agility, provide a proper warm-up period by stretching your dog’s muscles and slowly warming them up, gradually increasing the speed over several minutes to the desired level of performance.
If your dog has arthritis, treatment can help:
• Supplement with nutraceuticals. Chondroitin, glucosamine, manganese ascorbate, and Omega-3 fatty acids promote normal joint cartilage, decrease joint inflammation, and enhance the lubricating effect of the joint fluid.
• Administer NSAIDs. Give prescription or over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory canine drugs on an as-needed, short-term, or long-term basis, per your veterinarian’s recommendation, to relieve pain and inflammation. Do not give human over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen to your dog. These can be deadly in pets.
Successfully managing arthritis is a lifelong commitment, but one that often pays off, as happened with Priscilla. Her treatment included weight loss, restricted activity, and NSAIDs on an as-needed basis. “As she lost weight, she became more active,” Blankenship recalls. “In short order, she lost about 30 pounds, built up her body, and kept pace with all of us as we walked.” It’s been seven years since her diagnosis, and since that time, Priscilla hasn’t had any more lameness or stiffness.
Blankenship says, “She is still energetic and full of life.”
Marcia King is a DOG FANCY contributing editor who lives in Ohio.
This article first appeared in the November 2005 issue of DOG FANCY magazine.