Osteoarthritis affects 1 in 5 dogs, and its prevalence increases as dogs age; it is unfortunately therefore very likely your dog has or will get osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a common pathology that causes stiff, painful, and swollen joints. It is a progressive condition, meaning it slowly worsens over time and makes moving around difficult and uncomfortable.
This rheumatic disorder needs life-long management. It cannot be cured but there are several treatment options to slow its progression and moderate pain. When well-managed, most dogs can live comfortable and happy for many years after diagnosis.
What is osteoarthritis?
Arthritis is a general term that describes inflammation in joints. Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis.
In a healthy joint, the intermediate surfaces between the two bones are smooth and even. These surfaces, called cartilage, serves as protective cushions preventing the bones from rubbing against each other. It allows the joint’s different components to slide and to produce quality movement without restrictions.
A joint with osteoarthritis has an uneven and worn intermediate surface. Movement will create friction between the bones which will deteriorate over time. The cartilage will wear down to the point of sometimes disappearing while excess bone (osteophytes) will be produced.
Each movement then causes a sharp pain and often stiffness which will prevent the animal from moving as they pleases. There may be swelling or deformities around the joint which is caused by osteophytes and cartilage debris in the joint cavity.
The first signs of osteoarthritis appear late in the development of the disease, mainly because the initial changes are within the joint and therefore not visible, but also because of the dog’s ability to shift weight, change posture and cope with pain. Owners can however be on the lookout for typical symptoms:
- Rising slower, especially on the morning
- Limping / lameness
- Enlarged or swollen joints
- Pain or discomfort near certain joints
- Finds certain positions uncomfortable
- Reluctance to jump, climb stairs, or run
- Abnormal gait, “bunny hopping”
- Licking or chewing affected joint
- Narrowing of the hips and back end
- Slowing down on walks
- Being quiet, grumpy or sleeping more
- Low energy/lethargy
It is important to act quickly upon detection of these symptoms and make an appointment with the vet. The faster the implementation of a treatment strategy, the more effective it will be.
This is a pathology generally associated with age. However, osteoarthritis can arise from various other causes such as:
- Genetics/ hypertypes: some breeds of dog are born with an increased risk of developing arthritis. Certain dogs are genetically predisposed to have abnormally formed joints which become apparent as they grow. Among these dogs we find Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Springer Spaniels, Rottweilers, and Bernese mountain dogs that are all often affected on their hips and elbows. German Shepherds tend to be affected along their spine as well. Screening schemes are in place for some of these breeds to try to improve their genetics, for example those operated by the British Veterinary Association and Kennel Club.
- Traumatic injuries: Inflammation occurring immediately after joint injury plays a key role in the onset of chronic post-traumatic arthritis and an early local anti-inflammatory therapy may represent an effective treatment option to avoid it. Post-traumatic osteoarthritis is not clinically diagnosed until the onset of the symptomatic phase, which is highly variable. It may occur early, in a few months’ time or remain asymptomatic for a long period of time, even years after the trauma.
- Immune mediated disease targeting the joint, or infections within the joint
- Abnormally shaped bones or cartilage
Pain relief: Anti-inflammatory drugs reduce swelling and pain. They are usually given as an ongoing daily dose, or in pulses for a few weeks at a time.
If anti-inflammatory medication does not give enough pain relief, other types of pain relief may be an option. Your vet will be able to recommend which might be appropriate for your dog.
Joint supplements: Joint supplements are not a replacement for medications, and do not work for all dogs. It can be used at the same time than most other medicines. Your vet will be able to advise on a suitable product.
Surgery: If your dog's arthritic pain is severe and uncontrollable, joint surgeries such as arthrodesis or replacements may be considered. These surgeries are often only available at specialist veterinary hospitals.
Home care: Besides medications and treatments, there are things you can do to make your dog more comfortable.
Short but more frequent walks, preferably on flat ground, will help maintain your dog’s physical and mental health while slowing down the joint’s withering. Ultimately, the important thing for your animal is to move. Unless your vet advises otherwise, encourage your dog to get up and stay active throughout the day. However, a sudden increase in exercise could make your dog stiff and painful. Allow your dog to walk and run a little but do not let them jump, skid, chase balls, or run-on uneven ground.
Keeping your dog slim is important. When your animal is overweight, it amplifies the pressure on their joints, but it has also an effect on the inflammation within the joints due to the compounds that live in the fat. If your dog’s Body Condition Score is over 5 out of 9, weight reduction alone will significantly improve their condition.
Check-up your dog’s Body Condition Score (click on the dog):
Allow your dog to choose a comfortable bed, whether to snuggle in an enclosed bed or stretch out on a flat mattress. Memory foam beds for dogs are kind to joints.
It is important to keep your dog warm, heat soothes painful joints. A heat pad under your dog’s bed may help your pet get full rest while keeping the joints warm which will allow your animal to wake up more gently. Always dry your dog after wet walks.
Arrange your dog's environment. Set up several soft, non-slippery surfaces as rugs, carpets and/or anti-slip mats in the main rooms in which your dog has access or spends most of their time. Slippery floors are a common contributory factor to deterioration for osteoarthritis and can cause various injuries. Avoid your animal having to climb stairs regularly. If possible, organize your dog living space on one floor or carry them up and down the stairs (when your pet's weight allows it). Likewise, getting in and out of a car is proving to be a real challenge for your dog with osteoarthritis. You always have the option of carrying your pet when entering and exiting the car, but there is also an efficient and effortless option which is the telescopic ramp. It will allow your dog to access the car safely.
Alternative therapies: Alternative therapies as osteopathy, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy can do a great deal to reduce pain, ease swelling and improve range of joint movement. These treatments are aimed at improving mobility and reducing inflammation by using gentle, manual techniques on joints, muscles, and ligaments.
The role of Osteopathy
Osteopathic treatment can do a great deal to reduce pain, ease swelling and improve mobility and range of joint movement.
Osteoarthritis can be the cause but can also be the consequence of an unbalanced joint, in restriction of movement by compensation for pain or because of stress on this joint. Osteopathy can restore some movement in the joint in order to decrease the pain and the progression of osteoarthritis in addition to maintain the body's homeostasis and limit compensations. The faster we act, the more the joint keeps a symmetrical movement in the three planes of space and the more cartilage is preserved.
Set up an osteopathic care for a dog with osteoarthritis limit the intake of drugs that are sometimes difficult to bear, especially in elderly animals whose bodies are already tired.
Osteoarthritis is presented as a degenerative disease that evolves along two axes: a temporal axis and a spatial axis:
- The temporal axis: a joint affected by osteoarthritis always and systematically progresses towards deterioration, despite the development of factors limiting this development. Thus, the use of food supplements based on chondroprotective substances does not stop the progression of joint degradation but slows it down.
- The spatial axis: The body responds to the discomfort and pain of an osteoarthritis joint by limiting its movements. For example, a dog suffering from hip osteoarthritis - following hip-femoral dysplasia in particular - may develop a swaying gait in order to limit the range of motion of the affected hip without shortening the steps: this is compensation. The lumbosacral hinge is the one that undergoes the most stress: the walking movement makes this area work in latero-flexion, whereas it is rather designed to work in rotation. Excessive strain on the dysfunctional joint will cause the muscles to contract and result in restriction of movement of this joint, which will lead to the development of ankylosis and then osteoarthritis. This newly affected area is repeated as long as the body is able to create biomechanical compensation for its pain. This demonstrates the "domino" effect which is the principle behind the spatial evolution of osteoarthritis disease.
The very definition of Osteopathy is to help remove restrictions on joint movement.
Osteopathy will not be able to switch off the degenerative temporal evolution of an already affected joint, but regular monitoring can greatly slow down or even stop its spatial development. Using "joint pumping" techniques, the synovial fluids inside the joints will be revived, which will lubricate the joints affected by osteoarthritis and nourish the articular cartilage. This will keep some mobility in the joints. On average, research shows that two annual osteopathic consultations are sufficient to obtain control of the spatial influence of osteoarthritis disease when the treatment has been started early on in the disease progression.
Osteopathic sessions can be set up in prevention (recommended) or from the first signs of osteoarthritis, then regularly with a follow-up every 2 to 3 months, or less often depending on the individual and pathology’s severity.
Post-traumatic arthritis: overview on pathogenic mechanisms and role of inflammation, 2016
Prevalence, duration and risk factors for appendicular osteoarthritis in a UK dog population under primary veterinary care, 2018