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Osteoarthritis in the Dog

(Why Is My Dog So Gimpy, Doc?)

Arthritis, degenerative join disease, and osteoarthritis are terms commonly used to describe the loss of joint health, flexibility and comfort in the dog. This process can involve one or multiple joints, and has many causes. Healthy cartilage, the smooth weight-bearing tissue within a joint, is critical for maintaining normal function. When the cartilage is damaged, the underlying bone becomes exposed, leading to further inflammation and pain. Joint fluid, the lubricant of the joint, becomes less slippery, causing even more damage to the cartilage. Once this syndrome has started, it can become a classic “vicious circle” with progressive changes and symptoms in our patients.

Multiple factors lead to the development of arthritis in the dog. Heredity can influence the incidence of arthritis, with hip dysplasia (lack of proper anatomy of the hip joints) being the most well-known. The elbows, shoulders and knees of certain breeds are prone to develop genetically based problems. Instability in a joint leading to damage to joint tissues can be the result of trauma (automobile accident) or tearing of ligaments within the joint. The most common injury of this type is rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament within the knee or stifle of the dog. This is a common injury of active large breed dogs, often associated with “explosive” activities such as playing Frisbee, chasing squirrels or rabbits, and jumping for balls.

The diagnosis of arthritis is made following careful examination and palpation of the joints. Often it is necessary to take radiographs (x-rays) to confirm the diagnosis of a specific joint problem. In some cases, sedation or even anesthesia may be required to position our patients for these radiographs. Further palpation of affected joints can be performed under sedation, avoiding unnecessary discomfort or duress. For many of the serious joint problems, surgical intervention is strongly recommended. Recent advances in veterinary surgery and the presence of surgical specialists in Albuquerque allow us to offer our clients many options for the treatment of joint problems.

Obesity can influence both the development and the progression of arthritis. In young dogs the effect of excessive calorie intake is well documented. In puppies prone to hip dysplasia the incidence of the problem is much higher in youngsters that are allowed to become “chunky” during their first two years. By keeping a puppy slightly slender, the chances of dysplasia are significantly reduced. In dogs that already have arthritis excessive weight places an unnecessary burden on diseased joints, leading to further pain. For this reason we strongly emphasize weight control for both puppies and adult dogs. This does not mean, however, that we veterinarians are not allowed to give several treats in the exam room!

When a dog has developed arthritis, we have many options to help ease their discomfort. The use of chondroprotective agents has become widespread. The most common of these compounds are glucosamine and chondroitin, and are available in Dasuquin (which we carry at our office) and other over the counter forms. An injectable medication called Adequan is an additional type of medication used in our clinic. It is thought that these agents stimulate production of healthy joint fluid and may promote partial healing of damaged cartilage. Recent studies have shown that these compounds can significantly slow the progression of arthritis. Dogs that have certain injuries or are known to have potential for joint problems, we are recommending starting these agents early, before arthritis develops.

When arthritis is established or significant, many dogs benefit from the use of anti-inflammatory medication. Buffered aspirin can be used initially, but often requires giving three daily doses to provide comfort. The incidence of stomach upset or bleeding is quite high with aspirin, and we often need stronger medication with fewer side effects. Rimadyl, Deramaxx, and Previcox are prescription medications that are given once or twice daily and are much more potent than aspirin. Although very safe in most dogs, each of these drugs has potential side effects which should be discussed with your veterinarian prior to their use. In some cases, monitoring blood work is recommended for older dogs on these medications long term. Medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) should be avoided in the dog, as kidney damage is commonly reported with their use. Always discuss any medication with your veterinarian before giving it to your dog.

Once our patients are on the joint supplements and an anti-inflammatory agent, we often will add pain blocking medications to improve their comfort level. Tramadol, an opiate and Gabapentin, a central acting pain blocker can be added to existing supplements and medications to help our patients deal with progressing pain. Finally we suggest consideration of an acupuncture trial or physical therapy if our client is interested in these approaches.

Aging gracefully is not always easy for our canine companions, and even young dogs can develop significant joint disease. By careful attention to body weight, provision of appropriate moderate exercise, and the use of medication to relieve pain, we have the ability to greatly impact the duration and quality of life for our dogs. Don’t hesitate to discuss these recommendations with us, and bear with us when we start to lecture you about weight control. We want you to have your canine friends around for a long time, even if they are a bit “gimpy.”

– Dr. Barbara McGuire