Signs and Treatment of Arthritis in Dogs

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Arthritis in its early stages may cause stiffness and discomfort. However, over time that irritating issue often turns into a very painful disease. Unfortunately, this condition is not just exclusive to humans, also regularly affecting our favorite four-legged friends. 

When it comes to dogs, arthritis is one of the most common health issues. According to the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network, approximately 20% of dogs develop arthritis. Senior arthritic dogs are even more common, with 1 in 2 suffering from the disease. 

Spotting symptoms early offers the quickest pain relief to your dog. Keep reading to learn what to look for and which treatments you can pursue if arthritis affects your dog. 

What is Dog Arthritis? 

In general, dog arthritis refers to loose or inflamed joints. More specifically, osteoarthritis refers to deteriorating joint cartilage that causes painful movement for your dog. 

Often, osteoarthritis also goes by the term degenerative joint disease (DJD). 

While arthritis also comes in different forms, like the autoimmune disease version rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis is what most commonly affects dogs. 

Because the disease is typically due to hereditary factors, vets may notice a predisposition to osteoarthritis after the first few months of a dog's life. However, signs of dysplasia and developing arthritis are not always noticeable until later in a dog's growth when they start experiencing pain or acting abnormally.

Conditions Leading to Dog Arthritis 

Three conditions typically lead to dog arthritis: hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and knee dysplasia. Before breaking down the precursors, it is necessary to define dysplasia. The term dysplasia refers to tissues or organs showing abnormal growth or development. This condition often leads to osteoarthritis. 

Listed below are the various organs and tissue dysplasia effects in dogs. 

Hip Dysplasia 

With the first cause of dog arthritis, hip dysplasia stems from abnormal growth of the hip joint. Factors causing the issue are both genetic and environmental, with bad diets and frequent injuries or recent trauma making the problem worse. 

The deformity does not allow your dog's joints to fit snugly together, instead allowing the top of the thighbone to move around. This harms your dog's range of motion, balance and comfort level. 

When the ball and socket do not sit tightly together at the hip joint, movement causes harmful friction for your dog. The result is the degeneration of their joints, which often makes simple tasks like walking around the house or backyard a debilitating affair. 

Elbow Dysplasia 

Next, elbow dysplasia is a hereditary issue that usually concerns bones in the elbow improperly connecting to a dog's ulna, the body part more commonly known as the funny bone. 

The misalignment often leads to cartilage and bone damage. Subsequently, this causes constant inflammation in the elbow area. The American College of Veterinary Surgeons notes the condition affects both elbows in 8 out of 10 dogs. 

Elbow dysplasia is a progressive issue, with symptoms becoming more apparent and worsening over time. 

Knee Dysplasia

Finally, knee dysplasia refers to knee joints that did not form correctly. Often, when dogs have knee dysplasia, their knee caps will slide out of place. 

Luxating kneecaps are common in both humans and dogs and leave behind a feeling in the knee similar to sandpaper. While out of alignment, the knee is unstable and typically causes limping. 

Unlike elbow dysplasia, knee dysplasia is often characterized by a sudden dislocation. While making mobility more complicated, your dog is typically only in pain at the moment the knee slides out of place. Once moved out of position, the pain usually subsides. 

When knee dysplasia is not surgically corrected, the wear and tear on the knee over time leads to arthritis. 

Which dogs experience the highest risk of developing arthritis? 

All dogs can develop arthritis. However, individual factors like weight, breed and age contribute to a dog's risk of developing osteoarthritis. Listed below are the dogs with the highest arthritis risk.

Heavy Dogs 

Bigger dogs are at high risk of developing conditions like elbow dysplasia because they naturally weigh more than smaller dogs. Large dogs that are at high risk of developing arthritis include breeds like: 

  • Great Danes
  • German Shepherd
  • Labradors
  • Rottweilers 

As they age, the pressure on their joints gets consistently heavier and more damaging. Progressive deterioration or inflammation leads to many arthritis issues. 

Genetically-Modified Dogs 

Also associated with breed is conformation, which refers to a dog's outward appearance and expected attitude. Many dogs are bred with the intent of producing pronounced or downsized features to achieve a certain aesthetic. 

For example, breeders often alter the genetics of smaller dogs to create a "teacup" size. However, stunted development brings on its own set of joint issues. Dog breeds that are commonly altered into a teacup size and regularly develop arthritis are:

  • Poodles
  • Yorkies
  • Pugs
  • Shih Tzus
  • Maltese
  • Pomeranians

In this case, being too small instead of too large is the cause of lifelong arthritis problems. Extra tiny dogs simply do not have enough space in their bodies for proper joint alignment. 

Older dogs

Like we mentioned above, senior dogs over the age of seven typically have the highest risk and are affected by arthritis about 50 percent of the time. 

With that said, the different causes of arthritis above also affect dogs at various stages of their lives. For example, knee dysplasia is usually noticed in young dogs, while hip and elbow dysplasia may worsen and become more apparent over time. 

Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs

Spotting the symptoms early will help provide your dog the quickest medical intervention and relief. Here are some of the most common signs arthritis may be affecting your dog: 

Reluctance to Exercise 

If your dog rushes typically to the door when they hear the word "walk," a sudden reluctance to exercise is a signal that something may be wrong. If your dog is suffering from a painful dysplasia condition or already developing arthritis, they likely will not want to move more than they have to. 

Also, pay close attention to your dog's attitude when it comes to stairs and jumping. If they show reluctance when it comes to these tasks, this may be indicative of onset arthritis. 

Limping and Lameness 

In addition to staying stationary, your dog may also show signs of limping or lameness when they are required to move from their spot. You can typically notice limping or lameness in your dog's hind legs, hips and elbows. 

Uneven Postures 

While limping redistributes your dog's weight away from the painful area, dogs often apply the same concept to sitting or lying down. 

Often, dog's suffering from arthritis discomfort or pain will carefully position their bodies while resting to avoid added pressure. This may include pulling their feet closer together rather than with their hips and feet aligned evenly and leaning to one side. 

Rapid Weight Gain 

If work calls you away from home daily, you may not always be around to see your dog's decreased movement. The other way to notice a change in your dog's routine is by paying attention to their weight. Rapid weight gain may be signaling a sudden change in behavior. 

Muscle Changes 

Weight loss may also signal a problem. After all, your dog's muscles also contribute to their overall weight. Decreased activity quickly leads to muscle loss. 

On the other hand, if your dog is still moving around but experiencing a limp in their back legs, inevitably weight distributes to their front legs. In this case, you may see increased muscle mass in the shoulders. 

Unusual sounds 

In addition to visual symptoms, also keep your ears alert for popping and cracking noises. When your dog suffers from misaligned joints, often bones float around in spaces they should not. This commonly leads to snapping sounds as your dog moves around.

Depression 

Dogs get depressed too. The physical strain caused by dysplasia and arthritis mentally strains your dog as well. When they cannot move properly, dogs often show their depression by sleeping more than usual and showing disinterest in their favorite toys.

How is Dog Arthritis Diagnosed? 

Typically when you visit a veterinarian's office to confirm or deny dog arthritis symptom suspicions, they will begin by asking you questions about your dog's daily routine. 

If concerns arise, they will then run a series of tests to determine the base of your dog's unusual recent behaviors. This includes collecting information from your dog's medical record and first conducting a standard physical exam. 

However, a physical exam alone cannot always diagnose the problem. Vets also commonly request blood tests, joint fluid samples, and X-rays to confirm whether or not your dog has arthritis.

Conditions like dysplasia are often diagnosed after the first few months of a dog's life. However, milder cases may slip through unnoticed until your dog experiences pain. Unfortunately, later intervention makes arthritis development nearly inevitable.

My Dog is Showing Signs of Arthritis. What Should I do Next? 

If your pooch starts experiencing abnormal behaviors or signs of pain, it is essential to consult a veterinarian. While there is no current cure for dog arthritis, conditions that lead to it like knee dysplasia can be treated with surgery.

The more vigilant you stay in watching your dog's behavior, the quicker a vet can diagnose onset issues. While senior arthritic dogs are most common, the condition often starts in the puppy stage. It can be significantly reduced with immediate treatment. 

Which Arthritis Treatments Can I Seek for my Dog? 

As we mentioned above, dog arthritis is not a curable disease. However, that does not mean it cannot be treated. To provide your dog relief, check out the tips below on how to treat arthritis in dogs.

1. Surgery

Surgery targets dysplasia more than it does arthritis. While it cannot cure arthritis, surgery helps treat the underlying cause. However, there are also more natural methods to reduce inflammation and pain.

2. Diet Changes

The easiest way for your dog to drop extra pounds is to put them on a lean-muscle diet. Adding foods high in omega-3 fatty acids is useful when treating dog arthritis. Many dog foods containing fish products are high in omega-3 fatty acids. 

3. Increased Exercise

Increasing your dog's activity often makes the vet's checklist for reasons other than weight loss. After all, good exercise also helps to regain your dog's flexibility and range of motion. Also, it helps the rest of your dog's organs function properly. This may include taking your dog to physical therapy treatments or merely spending some extra time at the park. With sensitive joint damage, it is essential not to push your dog beyond their limits. Opt for low- impact workouts that will strengthen joints rather than strenuous high-impact running and jumping. To provide more support, your vet may also recommend a dog brace for increased activity. 

4. Medications

When natural treatments are not enough, your vet may recommend additional help from drugs. These will be tailored to your dog's specific needs, including anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties. These medications are often referred to as non-steroidal. 

5. Extreme Treatments

Other treatments air on the extreme side, including stem cell therapy and more unusual methods. Scientists and specialists use everything from lasers to water to needles to reduce joint pain and damage. 

What if Your Arthritic Dog is not Responding Well to Treatment? 

When it comes to old arthritic dogs, sometimes the best thing you can do is simply make them more comfortable. After a lifetime of moving bones and sliding joints, older dogs may not respond as strongly to the treatments above. 

While there is less room for movement improvement, supportive orthopedic foam beds provide pain relief and comfort that improves your dog's quality of life.  

Orthopedic Dog Bed Features

  • Heat: If you've ever used a heating pad or electric blanket, you know how comforting heat can be on your aches and pains. The same concept applies to your older dog. Certain styles of orthopedic canine beds can plugin or heat up in the microwave to keep your dog warm and reduce their pain. 
  • Memory foam: This type of mattress is useful for conditions like dysplasia and arthritis because it curves to your dog's individual posture needs. Moreover, memory foam is typically stiffer than traditional dog beds. This makes the transfer from dog bed to floor easier for older dogs.
  • Support: Proper support is also important to relieve joint issues. Your dog's bed should be able to house their entire body when stretched out to offer ideal comfort. Also, it is better to have extra cushion rather than not enough cushion. An average dog needs around a 4-inch cushion, while a larger dog may need double the padding.   
  • Cleanliness: From the causes, symptoms, and treatments above, you likely gathered that arthritic dogs do not move well. This is even more true for senior arthritic dogs and applies to their essential functions, like getting up to relieve themselves. Because they often cannot make it in time, dog bed accidents may be frequent. For this reason, it is vital to invest in a washable orthopedic dog bed.

Final considerations 

If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, do not panic. An incurable disease may sound alarming. However, it is essential to remember the various available treatment options and just how common the condition is. 

Being able to spot the signs and engaging in early intervention offers your dog the best treatment option. However, even with a late response, there are effective ways to keep your dog comfortable and allow them to live out a fulfilling life.

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