How to Diagnose and Treat Osteoarthritis in Your Dog

What's with dogs and old bones?

By March 06 | See Comments

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How to Diagnose and Treat Osteoarthritis in Your Dog
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Osteoarthritis can have a tremendous impact on your dog’s quality of life. Otherwise known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthritis produces several symptoms in dogs, all of which can be painful for your pup and severely detract from their overall health.

One of the main problems with osteoarthritis (OA for short), is that it limits how active your dog can be. If your dog has OA, it won’t be able to exercise as much (or even perform basic movements), which can lead to other health issues. Lameness and lack of mobility are the two main symptoms, but there are several other ways that a dog can be affected by OA.

If you’re wondering whether or not your dog has DJD, or how to manage its DJD (if it does have it), we’ve created this expertly researched guide to help dissect all of the helpful (yet sometimes conflicting) information on the web. Symptoms, tell-tale signs, and treatment/management options are all covered below.

The Details Behind Degenerative Joint Disease

Two types of arthritis can appear in dogs: degenerative and developmental. As the terms imply, degenerative is when a dog’s joints degenerate over time due to age, activity, etc. Whereas developmental arthritis is when a dog is born with a genetic predisposition for joint problems, or their joints just otherwise don’t develop normally.

From a clinical point of view, DJD is when a certain part of a dog’s joints deteriorates to such a point where the limb cannot be normally used. The large majority of dogs will develop arthritis over the course of their lives (especially now that veterinary care has advanced to the point where dogs are living longer than ever before). Below is a list of details regarding the specific mechanism behind arthritis, and what actually happens to your dog’s body during the development of DJD:

  • The part that deteriorates is called articular cartilage, and is what separates the end of bones from coming into contact with each other.
  • With DJD, the articular cartilage in your dog’s joints slowly erodes over time (from physical activity, age, genetics, etc.), until eventually there is so little material left that the cartilage has the potential to fall off the bone.
  • This is why DJD can be so painful for your dog (because its bones are essentially rubbing against each other with virtually zero support).

How to Tell if Your Dog has Osteoarthritis

The tell-tale sign of DJD is lameness in one (or more) of your dog’s limbs. Beyond lameness though, several other symptoms are common in dogs with DJD. If you notice any of the following symptoms, it’s possible that your dog might have arthritis (and it’s recommended to schedule an appointment with your vet):

  • If they’re sitting or laying with their back legs behind them (stretched).
  • Inability or aversion to performing movements that require effort (e.g. jumping onto or off of furniture).
  • Moving with their head lower than normal (or their tail).
  • Not being able to get up from a lying position as fast as they usually do.
  • An increase in having “accidents” inside the house, or not being able to sit while performing bowel movements (e.g. walking instead).
  • Noticeable increase in lethargy and/or laziness (as opposed to their normal activity levels).
  • Sleeping for longer than normal, or taking an abnormal number of naps during the day.

Tips for Preventing Degenerative Joint Disease in Your Dog

Unfortunately, most of the dogs that come to veterinary clinics (and are subsequently diagnosed with DJD) suffer from obesity or are otherwise overweight. Therefore, one of the very best ways to prevent DJD in your dog is to make sure that their weight is maintained at a healthy level. Managing your dog’s diet is essential for keeping it at a healthy weight.

Additionally, the possibility of DJD occurring in your dog can be minimized by ensuring they receive an adequate amount of exercise. Strong muscles and bones result in strong joints, which is why exercise is essential to supporting (and building) your dog’s health.

Treating and Managing DJD

Tissue that degenerates within the body is usually unable to be regenerated, and this rings true for the cartilage that’s lost from DJD. So, treatment for DJD (especially advanced DJD) typically revolves around managing your dog’s pain levels, and trying to make them as comfortable as possible.

There are several different specific treatment options that a vet can prescribe your dog. The specific treatment plan for your dog will depend on their medical history, age, breed, activity level, and level of DJD. The most common types are listed below:

  • NSAIDs for dealing with inflammation and minor/moderate pain.  
  • Gabapentin for pain management and associated issues.
  • Tramadol for additional pain management.
  • Amantadine is used in conjunction with other pain medications for enhanced pain control.
  • Oral supplements featuring a blend of ingredients designed to improve your dog’s joint health (e.g. Dasuquin Joint Health Supplement for dogs).
  • Various dietary supplements such as glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, and chondroitin.

As the last bullet point states, dietary-based treatments have become popular over the past decade. Owners are utilizing supplements such as those mentioned above, in addition to special dog food recipes (formulated for joint-related problems) to help manage their dog’s pain from DJD.

NSAIDs coupled with other pain medications (as well as Amantadine) are what most vets start with. Depending on how advanced your dog’s DJD is, the vet may recommend just one prescription (or several all at once), it really comes down to how long the DJD has been developing in your dog.

Unfortunately, the early warning signs for DJD can be very difficult to identify (even for vets), so by the time the owner realizes something might be wrong with their dog’s joints, the DJD has already progressed to a level that makes it difficult to fully heal. Pain management is the main strategy behind most OA treatment plans.

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