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You might have noticed your older dog slowing down in recent years. Maybe he is playing less and sleeping more. Although this might seem normal for an aging canine, arthritis could be to blame.

What Is Arthritis?

There are several different types of arthritis that can affect dogs, but the most common is osteoarthritis — also known as degenerative joint disease. This condition can affect up to one out of five adult dogs. Aging is a definite contributor to the development of osteoarthritis, but there are other factors as well, such as old injuries, metabolic disorders, like diabetes, and obesity. As dogs age, the cartilage in their joints begins to thin. This cartilage serves to cushion and protect the bones in the joint, and if it thins too much, the bones can rub against each other and break down. The resulting friction causes pain and loss of mobility. Inflammation in the joint capsule can also lead to the development of extra bony growths, known as spurs. Any joint in your dog’s body can be affected by osteoarthritis, but the most common locations are the hips, elbows, knees, wrists, shoulders, ankles, and lower back.

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Symptoms of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Osteoarthritis can be hard to detect in its early stages. It is not until the joint is badly damaged and the bone surfaces are wearing away that outward symptoms can often be seen. In addition, dogs tend to mask their pain. If your canine companion exhibits any of the signs below, he may be suffering from osteoarthritis and dealing with some degree of discomfort:

  • Avoids exercise like running or is reluctant to go up stairs
  • Doesn’t play as much as he used to
  • Is lethargic, tires easily, and sleeps more
  • Has problems jumping; for example, struggles to get on the couch or into the car
  • Is stiff, limp, or has difficulty moving
  • Has gained weight or experienced changes in appetite
  • Gets irritated when petted or touched
  • Exhibits changes in personality, like depression or grouchiness
  • Has accidents in the house

Arthritis may not be the only cause of these symptoms, so it is imperative that you take your dog to the veterinarian for a thorough examination. X-rays are the best way to diagnose osteoarthritis. Your vet will want to know about your dog’s recent behavior, and she may manipulate his joints to listen and feel for any crackling or grating. Stiffness when your dog walks around the exam room or loss of muscle mass may also indicate osteoarthritis.

Treatment for Arthritis in Dogs

Many of the same treatments available for people suffering from osteoarthritis are also available for dogs. The goal of treatment is to control a dog’s pain level and increase his movement and function. If possible, attempts should be made to slow down the degeneration of the joint and repair cartilage.

There are many medications your vet might suggest, including pain relievers such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like Rimadyl. These reduce inflammation in the joint, resulting in less pain. However, NSAIDS can have side effects that impact the liver and kidneys, so it’s important that your vet run a blood test to check that these organs aren’t compromised before writing a prescription.

Cortisone or steroids can also be used to combat inflammation, but long-term use can lead to serious side effects. Another category of medication is chondroprotectants, such as Adequan. These drugs inhibit the enzymes that contribute to cartilage breakdown, protecting the cartilage as it tries to repair itself. It’s important to note that many drugs meant for humans can be toxic to dogs, so never treat your pet with medication from the pain relief aisle in a drugstore without first consulting your veterinarian. Surgery is another option for dogs in serious pain or with severe joint damage. This can range from cleaning out debris inside the joint to replacing the joint with an artificial one.

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An important treatment for all arthritic dogs is appropriate exercise and weight management. Excess pounds put more stress on joints, so keeping your dog at a healthy weight will aid in mobility and pain management, as well as minimize further damage. Products like rampsstairs, or a lift harness can also help. Proper exercise keeps the joints supple and the muscles around the damaged joint in good condition. Canine physiotherapy is another great option, so consider asking your veterinarian about certified canine rehabilitation therapists in your area.

Finally, there are many complementary therapies available, from acupuncture to herbal remedies. Even your choice of dog food can have an impact on your arthritic dog’s quality of life. Look for joint health or senior formulas with additives, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and antioxidants like vitamin E. These may help reduce inflammation in your dog’s joints, minimize damage to cartilage, and ease symptoms of arthritis. However, as with any supplement or alternative therapy, look for treatments backed by scientific research and consult your veterinarian before starting something new.

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