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Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Osteoarthritis is the degeneration of the joint cartilage and bone that leads to inflammation and pain. As in people, it affects our pets and the Royal Veterinary College state that around 38% of dogs are affected. The majority of these dogs will be elderly (often over 8 years old), although arthritis in not confined to just older animals and it can be present in younger pets.

An arthritic joint may be stiff to move or have a reduced range of movement and not be able to bend as much as it used to. It may be thickened, and in many cases will be painful. Exercise is often reduced and this can lead to muscle loss and weight gain, both of which are detrimental to the condition.

Arthritis is often a secondary change following an underlying joint condition. A dog may be known to have suffered from a condition such as hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia from a young age, or to have damaged the cruciate ligament in the knee, but in some cases the arthritis develops without any previously noted disorder.

Once arthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease or “DJD”), develops, treatment is aimed at improving an animals mobility by reducing pain to ultimately improve their quality of life. Animals will not always display any signs to suggest they are in pain, but you may notice they are less keen to go for walks, are uncomfortable or struggle to sit or lie down, are no longer climbing up stairs or onto the sofa! There may be more obvious signs such as yelping if they slip or as they stand up from lying down.

Imaging may be required to assess a painful joint. Radiographs (“X-rays”) may show new bone formation to suggest arthritis or a malformed joint. Some subtle conditions require advanced imaging such as CT or MRI scans, and may even require arthroscopy (a camera looking inside a joint). In older animals, the assessment of a joint during a consultation with a vet may be enough to suggest trialing some treatment.

There are many ways that we can improve the situation for our pets, some of which don’t cost anything!

It is vital that animals are kept to a sensible weight. Sadly, many pets are overweight and this in itself can get worse if animals are less keen to exercise due to arthritic pain. Many animals will feel much more comfortable if their weight can be kept to a sensible target. Our nurses are happy to help with weight reduction programs and offer free nurse clinics at many of our surgeries. An overweight dog with arthritis will be significantly more comfortable once it has lost weight. Try running your fingers along the ribs of your dog, you should be able to comfortably feel each rib without there being a significant fat barrier over them!

Sensible exercise regimes are also beneficial, not only to help them stay lean (or reduce unwanted weight), but will also increase muscle that can help support a damaged joint. You may need to start with slow gentle lead walks several times a day before building up to longer ones. You may even find several short walks a day are more comfortable for your companion than a single long walk. If your pet is coming home more lame, then reduce the amount of exercise you are doing before seeing if you can gradually slowly increase it again in the future.

Hydrotherapy and physiotherapy are both useful aids to improving your pet’s mobility. This can be beneficial after a surgical procedure, as well as for long term management of an arthritic animal. We can advise you on local hydrotherapy and physiotherapy centres. You are likely to need consent from a veterinary surgeon to attend a centre, so you may benefit from an appointment with one of our vets to discuss whether this treatment would be good for your dog. If you have a pet insurance policy, your cover may allow a certain amount of complementary therapy.

Painkillers are often important treatments for animals suffering from osteoarthritis. They may just be required when there is an acute flare up of pain in some cases, but many dogs with arthritis will be more comfortable if they are on long term medication. Most painkillers used in animals are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs). In the vast majority of cases, NSAIDs can be safely used in pets without significant side effects. The benefit nearly always outweighs the potential risks. The most common side-effects seen are usually gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting or diarrhea. There is a low risk of upsetting the liver or kidneys and running blood tests periodically on animals taking NSAIDs is a sensible precaution, especially in older animals that may have geriatric related liver or kidney problems that we would want to avoid making worse. An occasional simple urine test can also be useful to monitor for signs of problems in older animals.

There are other painkillers that we sometimes prescribe that have been used in people for a long time. Some of these are not currently licensed for use in pets so are prescribed “off licence”.

Supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin and/or essential fatty acids may be helpful in animals with arthritis. It is often worth trialing them for a few months and seeing if they have any beneficial effect. They are not likely to provide an instant response as most of them aim to help support joint cartilage repair.

Some modern treatments are being trialed involving stem cells/regenerative medicine. This generally remains an experimental area, but some orthopaedic specialist centres are providing treatments. There are two main treatments currently available, one involves taking a blood sample and separating platelets that are then infused into a damaged joint. The other involves taking adipose tissue (fat) from the abdomen in one procedure and then this sample is treated to remove stem cells that are injected into a damaged joint at a separate procedure. These treatments may provide an anti-inflammatory response for a period of time when, if beneficial, the treatment can be repeated. Milton Keynes Veterinary Group can offer platelet therapy for clients interested in this area of medicine.

There are some situations when surgery may be recommended. If a dog has severe hip pain then referral for a total hip replacement may be considered. An animal with a ruptured cruciate ligament may benefit from surgery to stabilize the joint. Some animals may be more comfortable after salvage procedures such as fusing a joint that is painful or removing the ball part of the ball and socket hip joint.

Although people and animals can all suffer with painful joints, there are certainly some effective treatments available to help improve activity and happiness!

If you are worried your dog has arthritis, please make an appointment with one of our vets who will be happy to advise you on the best options to help.

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Rory Burke

Rory Burke

Rory Burke BVetMed CertSAS MRCVS - Rory qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 1996 and joined the group in September that year. He has attended surgical and radiology courses including two year structured modular courses in both subjects. Rory achieved the RCVS Certificate in Small Animal Surgery in 2005 involving both orthopaedic and soft tissue surgery. He has a particular interest in orthopaedics and now performs most orthopaedic procedures within the practice. Rory joined the partnership in July 2006 and works mostly at our Hospital and Stony Stratford branch.
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