Osteoarthritis in dogs.

Stiffness in older dogs may be due to osteoarthritis which could be treated.

Stiffness in older dogs may be due to osteoarthritis which could be treated.

This week I met a lovely 12 year old Labrador called Amber, who has been suffering for some time now with osteoarthritis. She is on a combination of two treatments, which keep her quality of life good although her condition is getting worse.

This is a very common complaint in dogs, especially middle-aged and elderly ones, but the good news is that the treatments available are improving all the time.

One of the most common findings in a routine examination of an older dog is stiffness of one or more joints. On questioning the owner, we often find that there is occasional lameness or difficulty getting into the car, or stiffness for the first few minutes of exercise before the dog “gets going”. One of the most likely causes of such symptoms, although not the only one, is osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease. Most people just call it arthritis, although there are other kinds of arthritis as well.

Medium to large breeds are most commonly affected by arthritis, but it can happen in any size of dog. Usually the onset is quite slow and may not be noticed at first by owners, or just put down to the inevitable process of ageing. Unfortunately this can mean that owners are not aware that their pet is in pain, or underestimate how much pain they have. Owners are often surprised when it is suggested that their dog has arthritis that would benefit from treatment, and equally surprised by the improvement they see when treatment starts. A very common reaction is that he/she is “like a new dog”. This is mainly because their joint pain has been removed or reduced.

Arthritis is a degenerative condition of the joints, where the cartilage overlying the bone becomes rough instead of smooth and movement of the joint becomes difficult and painful. The fibrous capsule surrounding the joint becomes thickened and restricts the amount of movement the joint can make. New pieces of bone called osteophytes can grow on the damaged surface, further restricting movement. The joints may make clicking or crunching noises when the dog walks, and the joints may also be swollen.

Diagnosis of arthritis is by a mixture of examination of the dog, history taking (asking the owner about the dog’s exercise tolerance etc) and further examinations such as x-rays. It may not always be necessary to take x-rays, but it can be very helpful to rule out other conditions which might also be treatable, but would require a completely different type of treatment. As well as helping to make the right diagnosis, the changes seen can help decide on the best treatment. While the dog is anaesthetised, the joints can be manipulated much more thoroughly than when the dog is awake, so a more thorough examination can be made.

Regular short walks are advised for affected dogs.

Regular short walks are advised for affected dogs.

Once the diagnosis of arthritis has been made, treatment can begin. Before even thinking about drugs, the vet will want to consider whether changes need to be made to the dog’s weight and exercise regime. Being overweight puts increased strain on all the leg joints, so slimming down if necessary should be considered as part of the treatment. Rest can also be very important. Regular, frequent, short walks will be tolerated much more easily than an occasional long run.

Often the first line of treatment involves “chondroprotective agents” like glucosamine and chondroitin. These can be given in tablet form or can be included in the diet. They help to repair the cartilage and maintain the lubricating fluid of the joint, the synovial fluid. Two points worth remembering about these are, firstly, that the full effects may not be seen until six weeks after starting, and secondly, the formulations on sale for human use may not be as effective in dogs as those formulated for dogs.

Another very common group of drugs used to treat arthritis are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or NSAIDs for short. These reduce pain and inflammation and can be given as tablets, liquids or injections. These drugs are generally very safe, but if used for a long time it is sensible to monitor the dog’s liver function as a healthy liver is needed to metabolise these drugs. A routine blood test is carried out every 6 months or as recommended by your own vet. Like all drugs there can be side effects, including the possibility of diarrhoea and vomiting in some dogs. If your dog develops any new symptoms while taking any drugs, it is advisable to seek advice from your veterinary surgery.

In some more serious cases other drugs may need to be used, such as steroids or strong painkillers.

Surgical treatments can also be used in the treatment of arthritis. Operations which have been common in human medicine for many years, like hip replacements, are now more widely available to dogs too. In severe cases of hip arthritis, this can allow enormous improvements in quality of life. In younger dogs where arthritis may be the result of a developmental problem in a joint, surgery may be recommended. Not all veterinary practices carry out these sorts of procedures so your dog might need to be referred to a local specialist in orthopaedics.

Amber is a lucky dog in that her symptoms are well controlled even though her exercise is restricted. She has an examination and a weight check every 3 months and a blood test every 6 months. She spent a lot of our consultation lying on her back having her tummy tickled, and I had no doubts that she is still leading an enjoyable life.

If you are concerned about arthritis, stiffness or lameness in your dog, or any other health issues, contact your vet or use our Interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.

  • Neil says:

    You mention that owners may not be aware or underestimate the level of pain their dog might have.
    Apart from the obvious audible indications of pain, what other signs of pain can an owner look for?

  • Jenny says:

    Hi Neal,
    I think in arthritis you very rarely get audible signs of pain, like crying or grunting, unless things have got quite severe. Earlier on the signs are much more subtle which is why I think they can be easily missed. Look out for things like reluctance to walk so far, stiffness on first getting up, difficulty going up steps or getting into the car, being subdued the day after a long walk or just not greeting people as enthusiastically as before. If your dog has these sorts of symtoms, or any lameness, then it is a good idea to have them examined by your vet.

  • Duncan says:

    My baby boy ( Kip) has just been diagnozed with osteoarthritis. I knew he was having trouble getting up from a lying down position…. this had been happening for a few months. I just assumed he was getting old since he had no trouble walking and running. The past couple of weeks he cries quietly when trying to stand and can no longer jump up on the bed…. hence my visit to the vet. We’ve been prescribed Carprofen. I’ve read up on it on the net and have heard some real horror stories re: side effects….. but also some miracles… I’m really torn. Help

  • Jenny says:

    Hello Duncan,
    Sorry to hear that Kip has been diagnosed with osteo-arthritis, but the good
    news is that there are lots of safe and effective treatments available. The
    drug you mention, Carprophen, has been widely used in the UK for many years
    and has helped many dogs. Like all drugs, there is a small risk of side
    effects which must be weighed up against the likely benefits of using it.
    The best person to discuss this with in more detail would be your own vet
    who knows your dog’s medical history and will take that into account. Whilst
    I would never say that any drug is 100% free from side effects, I do think
    these things can sometimes get blown up out of all proportion in internet
    forums so I would be cautious about believing everything you read. Sometimes
    unrelated things can get blamed on a drug unfairly. For example, last week I
    had a client forget to turn up for their vaccination appointment for their
    puppy, the next day the puppy became very ill and I know that if we HAD
    vaccinated it the day before, there would have been a reasonable but
    incorrect suspicion that the illness was a result of the vaccination.
    Do please talk to your vet again about any specific worries you have about
    using this drug before making your decision, and I hope that whichever
    treatment you and your vet decide upon will make a big difference to Kip and
    his enjoyment of life.

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