7 Frequently Asked Questions About Canine Osteoarthritis
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7 Frequently Asked Questions About Canine Osteoarthritis

My 11-year-old Australian Shepherd, Bashir, has arthritis in his right shoulder.

Years ago, when herding goats, a large goat butted him hard in that shoulder. Although no bones were broken, Bashir's shoulder was sore and bruised. Now that Bashir is older, that previous injury caused arthritis to develop. Finding out what Bashir needs to be comfortable as he grows older meant I needed to learn more about arthritis. Here are some of the questions I asked my vet.

Exactly What is Osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a degenerative disease that affects your dog's joints. As your dog grows older, the healing process that keep the joints healthy and moving smoothly is less able to keep up with any damage already present. If you think of a joint as a hinge, all the parts of the hinge must move correctly for it to work well. If any part of the joint is damaged (the fascia, ligaments, or the bones, for example), it will no longer work as it should. As the damage increases, inflammation ensues, the pain increases and even more damage happens. Osteoarthritis, or arthritis, can begin early in life if the dog has a malformed bone or joint, incorrect nutrition, an injury, or obesity. Generally though, older dogs develop arthritis. It is the most common health problem seen in senior dogs.

What are the Symptoms of Arthritis?

The most common symptom of arthritis is pain. Initially the pain may be mild and shows up as some stiffness after sleep or exercise. Once your dog moves and stretches, he may be fine. As the arthritis progresses, however, he may have a spot that is sore to the touch. He may whine or cry if that spot is petted or manipulated. He may have reduced mobility, may limp, or will be less eager to participate in activities he used to enjoy. Behavior changes are also a symptom in some dogs. Pained dogs may become grumpy, growl, or avoid your touch or petting. Some dogs will hide.
©istockphoto/Cristie Guevara ©istockphoto/Cristie Guevara

How is Arthritis Diagnosed?

Tell your veterinarian of any changes you've seen in your dog. Limping, changes in gait, reluctance to move, reluctance to participate in activities and other changes are all clues to help the veterinarian make a diagnosis. X-rays to show changes in the bones and any joint damage can provide a more definitive diagnosis.

Should I Continue to Exercise an Arthritic Dog?

Yes, your dog needs to keep moving. Not only will movement help maintain blood flow to the joint so at least some healing can take place, but movement also keeps the joint working. Exercise, tailored to your dog's abilities and needs, will also keep muscles strong. These muscles support the joint and when strong, will help stabilize it. Although your older dog may not be able to jump for the ball tossed high, he'll probably enjoy a ball tossed low. He may not want to do much running but walks are great. Swimming in a heated pool is wonderful as there is little stress on his joints and the warmth will make him feel good. Don't ask him to jump or climb much; if you ask him to do something and he hesitates, then redirect him so he does something easier. Your dog may try to do something that is now beyond his abilities just because he wants to please you. In the process of doing that, he may hurt himself. Watch your dog and ask him to keep moving but keep his abilities in mind as you do. If you have any doubt about how much exercise your dog needs or what activities he should do, talk to your veterinarian.

How Can I Help My Dog at Home?

Provide your arthritic dog with a nice padded bed. Even if he's preferred to lie on the hard floor all his life, he's going to be uncomfortable there now and a thick, stuffed bed will give his old bones and joints some padding. When the weather (or house) is chilly, give him a blanket to help him stay warm. If your dog is used to sleeping with you or cuddling with you on the sofa, a ramp can help him get up there without stress. Although he will probably use the ramp going up, you may have to encourage him to go down the ramp. Many older dogs prefer to jump down and that will stress the shoulders and back. Elevated food and water bowls will make eating and drinking easier especially if he has arthritis in his neck, shoulders, and back. Since every dog is different and each case of arthritis is also unique, just watch your dog and see where he's uncomfortable and where you can help him.
©istockphoto/Ysbrand Cosijn ©istockphoto/Ysbrand Cosijn

How Will My Veterinarian Treat the Arthritis?

Although arthritis is not curable, there are a few ways your veterinarian can help your dog. The primary goal is to reduce inflammation, eliminate pain if possible and to provide your dog with a good quality of life as he grows older. There are a number of medications available but which one is appropriate for you dog will depend on many factors. Talk to your veterinarian. Your vet may also recommend low-level laser therapy. Although studies vary about the laser's effectiveness at reducing inflammation, many veterinarians and dog owners feel that it's a good therapy used in conjunction with medications your vet may prescribe. Supplements are also often suggested. Glucosamine chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids are often recommended for dogs just as they are for people suffering from arthritis. If your vet suggests them, he'll tell you how much of each of these is right for your dog as well as any potential side effects.

What Else Can I do for My Dog?

Keeping your dog lean is very important. Any extra weight will simply stress his bones and joints more than they already are. Talk to your vet about your dog's weight and ask if he should be thinner. If so, ask how much. Most dogs with arthritis appreciate a good massage to keep the blood flowing into the muscles and joints and to keep things as limber as possible. Start gently to let your dog get used to it. As he grows comfortable with the massage and you learn what he likes and what is painful to him, you can hone your technique. The most important thing you can do for your dog is to pay attention to him. Watch his reactions to things that happen in his life and make changes as he needs them. Arthritis can sometimes be slowed with medications, supplements, exercise, and other supportive measures but it does eventually progress. This means your dog's needs and abilities will change as time goes on.
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