Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), or in layman’s terms, simply “arthritis”, is the progressive and permanent long-term deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the affected joints. With affected four-legged animals, this happens especially in the major or larger joints such as the hip joints, elbow joints and hock joints.
Arthritis vs. osteoarthritis in dogs
Joints consist of many structures, including muscles, ligaments, a capsule, joint fluid and cartilage. Arthritis is the medical term for inflammation of the entire joint. Arthritis can be due to many causes including infection, autoimmune diseases, trauma etc. Osteoarthritis on the other hand, is the medical term for long-term joint inflammation due to deterioration of joint cartilage. For the condition discussed here, veterinarians prefer to use the term “osteoarthritis”.
How do I see osteoarthritis in my dog?
All the clinical signs and symptoms seen due to osteoarthritis are due to pain. Although symptoms of osteoarthritis vary, the common symptoms will include decreased activity, occasional limping and lameness, a stiff gait and shrinking of the muscles responsible for moving the legs. All these symptoms usually worsen with exercise and may increase with long periods of inactivity or cold weather. Although any size and age dogs and even cats can get osteoarthritis, middle-aged to older large-breed dogs are over presented.
What else can look like osteoarthritis?
Bone cancer, fractures, joint, bone and surrounding tissue infections, physiological bone abnormalities and trauma of the soft tissue surrounding the bone can also look and act like osteoarthritis. A diagnosis of osteoarthritis is based on an experienced clinical examination by a veterinarian, your dog’s clinical history and a history from the owner. If the history and symptoms are not clear, the attending veterinarian might advise to take radiographs.
What causes osteoarthritis in dogs?
Osteoarthritis in dogs is usually the long-term consequence of any or a combination of either an abnormal joint or abnormal forces on a normal joint.
The best example of abnormal joints is dysplasia, meaning the joint did not develop correctly. Joints can also be damaged by many things, including direct trauma, for example fractures in the joint. Obesity, which puts excess strain on the joint, is a good example of abnormal force on a normal joint.
Obesity and dysplasia are probably the two most common factors I deal with in my practice.
Treatment of osteoarthritis
Treatment can be either medical or surgical. Apart from the exact reason for osteoarthritis and the severity, other factors that dictate treatment include financial limitations (here is another good example where pet medical insurance will help significantly), severity of the pain and the age of the patient.
Options to treat osteoarthritis will change over time. The best treatment plan will be discussed by the attending veterinarian at the time of diagnosis.
Medical treatment is mainly aimed at alleviating joint pain. This is usually done with a combination of anti-inflammatory medication (painkillers), chondroprotectants to help lubricate the joint, weight management and by keeping the remaining cartilage healthy.
Surgical treatment options include joint removal, joint replacement and the surgical removal of pieces of bone inside the affected joint. Joint surgery is very often referred to orthopaedic specialists.
Currently there is no cure for osteoarthritis in dogs – once it’s there, it’s there. The only way to remove the damaged cartilage in the joint is by removing the entire joint.
In addition to treatment, physiotherapy designed to maintain or increase joint motion also helps a lot. At home, owners can massage and do various full motion exercises on affected joints. Swimming is also very beneficial to get joints moving.
- Ongoing monitoring of symptoms. Remember, if the joint is not removed or replaced, the damage to cartilage will continue – potentially up to a point where medication is not effective anymore.
- Limit your dog’s activity. No more running and unrestrained walkies. Swimming is good.
- Weight reduction and monitoring, especially while limiting activity.
- Regular follow-up visits will be recommended by your family veterinarian to monitor pain and re-prescribe scheduled medicines.