Arthritis, or more correctly osteoarthritis, is a very common condition in our canine companions. Osteoarthritis occurs due to “wear and tear” causing a loss of the cushioning layer of cartilage within a joint. This in turn leads to pain, stiffness and loss of mobility. Many older dogs suffer from these typical symptoms of arthritis, but a recent (2022) study has shown the problem to be widespread even amongst our younger dog populations with up to 38% of dogs aged greater than one year of age affected.

Osteoarthritis – a background

Most cases of osteoarthritis in dogs occur due to an underlying problem with the affected joint. This problem may be due to the joint not forming properly e.g. hip or elbow dysplasia, which puts abnormal stresses on the joint, or due to some injury or trauma to the joint that has caused damage. 

A vet will usually diagnose arthritis through a combination of signs you have noticed at home and examining your pet in the consult room. If  they are in any doubt they may also recommend further tests such as x-rays.  Initially most pets will start with medical management options for arthritis. This usually means lifestyle changes such as modifications to their diet and exercise regimes, physical therapies such as physiotherapy or hydrotherapy, and dietary supplements including chondroitin, omega-3 and glucosamine. Many dogs will also benefit from medication to manage their pain and this will often include things like anti-inflammatory medications, strong painkillers or drugs that block specific pain signals.

Surgical options

Surgery is a less common initial treatment option, however there are certain groups of dogs that may particularly benefit, such as dogs affected at a young age or those with very severe symptoms. Surgical treatments for arthritis fall into two main categories; firstly trying to prevent arthritis by correcting a problem with the joint, and secondly treatment of the joint once arthritis has occurred.

Prevention is generally better than cure 

For some joint problems surgical treatment at an early stage can slow the progression of arthritis and delay its onset. Conditions for which surgery can be useful include ligament ruptures, elbow and hip dysplasia, luxating patella and certain limb deformities as well as injuries such as fractures and dislocations of the joints. The aim is to improve the structure and function of the joint and allow it to function more normally. It is important, however, to note that none of these surgeries have been shown to completely prevent arthritis from occurring.

Repair surgeries

The second type of surgery is used once arthritis has occurred to try and reduce pain and improve the function of the affected limb. Joint replacement surgeries are commonplace in human medicine, but for dogs our options are more limited. Hip replacements are carried out with reasonable frequency. They are most commonly offered to pets who are not responding to the usual medical treatments, especially younger and large breed dogs who are severely affected. This is a very specialist surgery and is usually carried out within a referral hospital setting. Complications can be catastrophic, but joint replacement surgery is the closest we have to a cure for arthritis. Elbow replacement surgeries are also sometimes offered, and even knee and shoulder replacements are becoming more widely available.

“Salvage” surgeries

These are surgical procedures carried out because the arthritis is beyond “repair”, but a procedure may make your dog comfortable and mobile again. One commonly performed surgery is a Femoral Head and Neck Excision (FHNE). This is a surgical procedure carried out on severely disease or damaged hip joint where replacement is not possible. The head and neck of the femur is removed and over time a false hip joint is formed by scar tissue. This is often a good choice for smaller dogs and can alleviate pain and maintain a good, if not full, range of function.

Arthrodesis is another surgery that may be recommended for joints severely affected by arthritis. This procedure entails fusing the joint in a set position. It can be very effective at treating pain from an arthritic joint; but by its nature stops the joint from functioning normally. It is more suitable for some joints than others, and can work well in the carpus (wrist joint), digit (toe) and hock joints. It is known as a salvage operation because the joint will no longer function normally; so is usually a last resort. But it can be a good option for a pet that is struggling and in a lot of discomfort despite medication.

If you suspect your pet is showing signs of arthritis you should book an appointment with your vet. They will be able to confirm the diagnosis and discuss the treatments that are available. In certain cases your vet may suggest surgery to try and slow the progression or relieve the symptoms of arthritis. Surgery certainly carries risks and is not a quick fix. But it can be a great option for some pets to slow the progression of their disease, improve their mobility and maintain their quality of life.