Osteoarthritis affects at least one in five dogs, and its prevalence increases as a dog ages.
The sad truth is that each dog has or will get osteoarthritis at some point in its life.
At least 80 percent of dogs over the age of eight years suffer from arthritis, therefore, it is likely that your dog will develop arthritis in one or more joints at some stage in their life.
Dogs are incredible at “coping” with discomfort. Some suggest it is due to them wishing to mask their pain and avoid appearing vulnerable. Others suggest the only option is “to cope” when you do not understand there is an alternative.
Meanwhile, some feel they demonstrate tolerance to musculoskeletal pain due to the insidious chronic nature of its development and through the ability to shift weight away from the pain into other regions of the body.
Whatever the reason, dogs often have significant disease even before it is suspected, as detecting osteoarthritis can be very difficult.
Pain is typically classed as either being acute or chronic. This is an important distinction as while acute pain serves a useful biological purpose, chronic pain does not.
How is arthritis recognised in dogs?
Behavioural signs can be playing less with toys, licking joints excessively, pacing at night and low mood.
Changes in posture may include a hunched back, avoiding putting weight on one leg, low head carriage and a low, tucked in tail.
Mobility issues may arise, such as slowing down on walks, stiffness after rest periods, lameness and dragging feet.
Recognition of any of these in a dog is the most important factor as the earlier it is identified the shorter the beloved dog will be in pain and discomfort.
The first actionable step if a dog is diagnosed is weight management. If the dog is overweight, weight loss will have a significant positive impact on the pain of arthritis and will slow the progression of the disease.
Studies have shown that losing 6 percent of excess body weight will significantly reduce an arthritic dog’s lameness. Sixty-three percent of all dogs are overweight, and 90 percent of owners cannot see that their dog is overweight.
What is often surprising is that the most important steps in managing canine arthritis rest with the owners and much can be done before veterinary intervention and medicine.
Like humans, pets are also vulnerable to harm from obstacles of daily living that were once easy to navigate, but with a physical impairment become a risky challenge.
Simple inexpensive modifications are hugely beneficial to assist our companions achieving a comfortable life well into old age.
These interventions are often overlooked, as there is a belief that a dog is more agile and stable than a human because they have four legs.
Unfortunately this is not true.
With diseases like arthritis that cause pain and reduced function, the dog will offload that limb and use it less. Muscle mass and function reduces, as if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
This functional loss also includes strength, balance, reaction times and agility. They lose their physical coping mechanisms, and what was once easy becomes hard; a few steps from the living room to the kitchen become a balance challenge; and the stairs to the bedroom become hard work for weak wobbly limbs leaving them liable to falling.
Through adapting a dog’s environment, you will not only improve their physical comfort levels and reduce the risk of injury, you will likely slow the progression of the disease and positively influence their emotional state through reducing stress and anxiety.
Owners must remember, and be reminded that, dogs are incredible at coping with the world that we surround them in. They will continue as best they can, no matter the circumstance.
A dog with painful, weak limbs will continue to cross a slippery floor to reach the resources that are important to them, such as their food and water or their exit point to the garden or to simply be with their owner/friend. This does not mean that that activity is not painful or dangerous to them.
Comprehending their capability, being aware of the risks and adjusting to improve safety and comfort is an essential part of a chronic pain management plan.
Managing a dog’s exercise levels is essential to the management of arthritis.
We must remind owners and remember that our dogs don’t have the forethought that hours of boisterous play, ball chasing or running off the lead is likely to cause them pain later.
At the time they will be under the influence of endorphins and other pain-relieving neurochemicals, so the pain is likely to come later and will not be associated with the activity due to the time delay.
This is well illustrated through clicker training theory. A click is an effective reward if done at the time of wanted behaviour. It will not be effective an hour after the wanted behaviour has occurred because it will not be associated.
With their inability to link activity with deterioration in pain later, we must influence what they do.
There are countless presentations of arthritis, from very mild undetectable arthritis that does not affect their capabilities, to severe arthritis that debilitates their every move and their quality of life.
Offering advice that can support such a wide spectrum of disease presentation is nigh on impossible, but there are some crucial points to understand when making an exercise plan.
Diet and nutrition
It is globally agreed that the most important factor that may influence choice of diet for an arthritic dog is reaching and maintaining optimal body weight.
Being overweight (110 percent of their recommended body weight) or obese (120 percent of their recommended bodyweight) has significant impact on pain control and progression of arthritis.
Ensuring the diet chosen enables controlled weight loss if needed or maintained weight if already at the appropriate weight is a priority.
Please also consider using the CAM Endorsed PawSafe ranges of flooring in your veterinary practices as having a safe fear free environment extends to every aspect of a dog’s life.