Like aging humans, senior dogs are prone to developing arthritis, a painful inflammation of the joints. Arthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage, which is the body’s natural cushioning material for the joints. This breakdown of cartilage can occur due to repetitive stress, injury, poor conformation, or normal aging processes. As the joint damage progresses, it can cause stiffness, lameness, and difficulty getting up or using stairs. Arthritic dogs are often reluctant to move and may choose to forgo their favorite activities in favor of staying in a warm bed. Arthritis is a progressive condition that worsens as joints deteriorate with age and use. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this disease, but there are things you can do at home to slow the progression and help your senior dog stay active.
The first step to improving your dog’s mobility is a visit to your veterinarian. Many medical conditions, such as tick-borne disease, traumatic injuries, and certain types of cancer, can present with the same clinical signs as arthritis. Thus, it is important to have your dog evaluated to determine whether any other medical conditions are contributing to his pain and stiffness. The veterinarian will perform a full physical examination and may recommend additional testing such as x-rays to evaluate your dog’s bones and joints, or blood work to rule out underlying diseases. These diagnostics will help ensure that your dog receives the proper treatment to maintain his health and quality of life.
If your veterinarian determines that your dog is suffering from arthritis, there are a variety of options for treatment. Treatment typically starts with good pain control to help your dog feel better. While this does not cure the underlying problem, it can provide significant improvement to your dog’s mobility. Often a pain control regimen will also include an anti-inflammatory medication to decrease inflammation in the joints. Never give your dog any over the counter medications or medications intended for humans. Dogs do not metabolize these medications the same way we do, and some of them can be toxic even at low doses. Always consult with your veterinarian prior to starting a new medication for your dog.
In addition to pain control, your veterinarian may recommend a joint supplement to help slow the progression of the disease. These supplements often contain compounds such as fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussel, polyphenols, and milk proteins, among others. These compounds help decrease joint damage by slowing the breakdown of cartilage and providing some anti-inflammatory properties. Some dogs also benefit from injections of polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PGAGs). These are molecules which occur naturally in the cartilage throughout your dog’s body. PGAGs are involved in cushioning of the joint, production of lubricating joint fluid, and enzymatic processes that help repair joint damage. Supplementing PGAGs can improve cushioning of the joint and reduce pain, and many dog owners can learn to give these injections at home. Your veterinarian can advise you on the best treatment plan for your dog based on his pain level, lifestyle, and concurrent medical conditions.
Carrying extra weight around on damaged joints is undoubtedly painful. Getting your dog down to a healthy weight can have a profound impact on his mobility and energy level. If your dog is overweight, your veterinarian can help you determine the appropriate amount of food to feed daily. Just like in humans, weight loss for dogs starts with good portion control and exercise. Portion control is particularly important in senior dogs, who may not be able to exercise as much or as vigorously as their younger counterparts. Using puzzle toys or slow feeder bowls are a great way to encourage your dog to be more active while also limiting his daily caloric intake. In some cases, your dog may also benefit from a prescription veterinary diet designed to facilitate weight loss or improve joint health. Whatever diet you choose for your dog, remember to always make sure he has free access to clean, fresh water.
Regular exercise can not only help your dog lose weight, but can also help improve mobility. Exercise improves circulation, helps maintain muscle mass, and can even improve cognitive function. If your dog suffers from stiff and painful joints, low impact exercises are best to reduce the stress on the joints. Some options for low-impact activity include walking, swimming, underwater treadmills, and scent work. If your dog has previously been a couch potato, start with small amounts of light activity and increase gradually over several weeks to prevent injury. Aim to build up to at least one hour of activity daily. High energy breeds and working dogs may require more daily activity to keep them stimulated. Using the Fi smart collar will allow you to track your dog’s daily activity and set daily, weekly, and monthly goals for him to meet. Always be sure to stop activity before your dog gets too tired, and limit activity during the hottest parts of the day.
Rehabilitation is a relatively new specialty within veterinary medicine, but many patients can benefit from it. Rehabilitation veterinarians focus on improving pain, mobility, and quality of life for animals with a wide variety injuries and illnesses. Common rehabilitation therapies for senior dogs with mobility issues include acupuncture, therapeutic laser, spinal manipulative therapy, and therapeutic massage, among others. If you are curious whether your dog could benefit from rehabilitation therapy, you can find a certified rehabilitation veterinarian in your area through the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians directory here: http://www.rehabvets.org/directory.lasso
If your dog is suffering from stiffness, painful joints, and a loss of mobility, a multimodal approach to treatment is usually the best way to get him back on his feet. Consult your veterinarian to determine the best treatment plan for your dog’s individual lifestyle and needs. Although arthritis is a progressive condition, the progression can be slowed and your dog’s quality of life can be improved with a combination of good veterinary care, diet, and exercise.