Conditions

ArthritisOsteoarthritis

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What is it?

When we talk about "arthritis", we usually mean "osteoarthritis", also called "Degenerative Joint Disease". This is the type of arthritis that older dogs (and people!) get from a lifetime of wear-and-tear. It's probably the commonest single disorder of the older dog, and the commonest threat to their welfare and wellbeing.Osteoarthritis, also called "Degenerative Joint Disease", is the type of arthritis that older dogs (and people!) get from a lifetime of wear-and-tear. It's probably the commonest single disorder of the older dog, and the commonest threat to their welfare and wellbeing.

What causes it?

As a rule of thumb, there are three causes of this common type of arthritis - normal weight bearing on an abnormal joint (e.g. in Hip Dysplasia); abnormal weight bearing on a normal joint (e.g. obese or overweight dogs); and normal weight bearing on a normal joint for an abnormal length of time (e.g. old dogs). Whatever the cause, however, the process is the same - the joint cartilage becomes damaged, leading to inflammation, pain and further damage. At the same time, extra bone forms around the joints to try and stabilise them, but this restricts the range of motion.As a rule of thumb, there are three causes of osteoarthritis - normal weight bearing on an abnormal joint (e.g. in Hip Dysplasia); abnormal weight bearing on a normal joint (e.g. obese or overweight dogs); and normal weight bearing on a normal joint for an abnormal length of time (e.g. old dogs). Whatever the cause, however, the process is the same - the joint cartilage becomes damaged, leading to inflammation, pain and further damage. At the same time, extra bone forms around the joints to try and stabilise them, but this restricts the range of motion.

What dogs are at risk?

Any older dog, especially if they are overweight, have orthopaedic problems (e.g. hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or a poorly healed injury), or are "high mileage", e.g. working or highly active dogs, are at increased risk. However, arthritis may occur in any dog under some circumstances.Any older dog, especially if they are overweight, have orthopaedic problems (e.g. hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or a poorly healed injury), or are "high mileage", e.g. working or highly active dogs.

What are the symptoms?

The most common early symptom is "stiffness" and a reduced desire for exercise or activity. This may initially be misdiagnosed as simply "getting older" or "slowing down", but it is in fact due to joint pain. It typically progresses to difficulty rising or ascending stairs or slopes, and then definite and obvious lameness (although this is usually present in more than one leg). A characteristic feature is that the lameness or stiffness is usually worst immediately after getting up, and it then decreases or "works off". It is also often worse the day after strenuous exercise.

How is it diagnosed?

In many cases, arthritis can be diagnosed simply from the history and a good description of the symptoms. The most useful additional test is often a "Range of movement examination" where the vet will see how far in each direction a joint can be moved without pain - this is usually reduced in patients with advanced arthritis. To fully assess the joint(s), it is necessary to carry out X-rays and look at the bone ends and joint spaces; however, this isn't always appropriate in an old or ill dog.In many cases, osteoarthritis can be diagnosed simply from the history and a good description of the symptoms. The most useful additional test is often a "Range of movement examination" where the vet will see how far in each direction a joint can be moved without pain - this is usually reduced in patients with advanced arthritis. To fully assess the joint(s), it is necessary to carry out X-rays and look at the bone ends and joint spaces; however, this isn't always appropriate in an old or ill dog.

How can it be treated or managed?

Strictly speaking, there is no cure for arthritis; however, it is possible to replace some joints - hip and elbow replacements are now fairly common. That said, arthritis is rarely so severe that this is required, at least initially, and it can usually be managed with a combination of techniques.

At home, the owners can make the dog's life a lot easier with some simple modification - ramps instead of steps, a comfortable bed to lie on, and keeping their sleeping areas warm. In addition, weight loss can be a very powerful tool in the overweight dog - it is estimated that a reduction of one body condition score point is as effective as a dose of a painkiller! Physiotherapy and hydrotherapy can also be very helpful.

However, the mainstay of managing arthritis patients is with medication - usually anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs. Remember, there are no over-the-counter painkillers for dogs for long-term use, and human products are often lethally poisonous to dogs. Nutritional supplements (such as glucosamine or chondroitin) are also widely used - the evidence for their effectiveness is weak, but they do seem to help some dogs, especially if given with a large meal (to reduce their breakdown by the stomach acids).

Strictly speaking, there is no cure for osteoarthritis; however, it is possible to replace some joints - hip and elbow replacements are now fairly common. That said, arthritis is rarely so severe that this is required, at least initially, and it can usually be managed with a combination of techniques. At home, the owners can make the dog's life a lot easier with some simple modification - ramps instead of steps, a comfortable bed to lie on, and keeping their sleeping areas warm. In addition, weight loss can be a very powerful tool in the overweight dog - it is estimated that a reduction of one body condition score point is as effective as a dose of a painkiller! Physiotherapy and hydrotherapy can also be very helpful; however, the mainstay of managing arthritis patients is with medication - usually anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs. Remember, there are no over-the-counter painkillers for dogs, and human products are often lethally poisonous to dogs. Nutritional supplements (such as glucosamine or chondroitin) are also widely used - the evidence for their effectiveness is weak, but they do seem to help some dogs, especially if given with a large meal (to reduce their breakdown by the stomach acids).

Can it be prevented?

Arthritis will probably develop eventually in most dogs; however, it can be delayed and slowed down with proper care throughout life. This would include weight control, regular exercise, and getting and lameness or other orthopaedic disorders diagnosed and treated as early as possible.Osteoarthritis will probably develop eventually in most dogs; however, it can be delayed and slowed down with proper care throughout life. This would include weight control, regular exercise, and getting and lameness or other orthopaedic disorders diagnosed and treated as early as possible.