Osteoarthritis is the progressive and permanent deterioration of joint cartilage. This can happen over time with age, and/or may be secondary to underlying congenial bone or joint abnormalities. It develops slowly in both older dogs and cats; symptoms can be easily missed, especially in the earlier stages. Large breed canines (dogs weighing over 50 lbs.) tend to have more severe problems.
Problems can start with difficulty or a delay in getting up and down. Dogs or cats may not jump on and off of furniture with the same ease as in the past. Over time muscle loss can take place along the back legs, front legs, or along spine. Limping at a walk or run can happen occasionally or frequently. Difficulty posturing to have a bowel movement is also fairly common. Pets may not want to be as active as in the past: less likely to play fetch, or go on long walks. On examination, there is generally some degree of tenderness at the hips, shoulders, elbows, knees, and/or along the back. Colder weather does seem to aggravate this condition.
Pet owners are sometimes surprised when I discuss finding signs of pain during the examination. People tell me on a daily basis that their dog or cat doesn’t cry out in pain. Just because a dog or cat doesn’t vocalize in pain does not mean he or she is not hurting. Many pet owners associate the abovementioned changes as a normal part of aging in their pets, not realizing that significant joint destruction that is taking place.
Treatment can involve multiple therapies, and recommendations will vary depending on the severity of problems, size of a pet, and the underlying cause of the problem. Corrective orthopedic surgery may be recommended. This will do the most to resolve a problem in the quickest way possible; but may not be a practical option for all pet owners due to price or the level of care required postoperatively.
Pain medications are the mainstay of therapy. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories/Nsaids are recommended to decrease both pain and inflammation. Lab work will generally be run before starting these medications as well as annual screening because they can affect the liver and kidney, and also can result in intestinal upset. Other medications that are similar to Morphine exist that are just for deep pain, and do not help with inflammation. There are also medications for deep nerve pain.
Glucosamine is a supplement that helps to repair the damage that has been done to the cartilage, and helps to keep it healthy. It is not specifically for pain; but helps to reduce the level of pain over time. The best time to start glucosamine is before any symptoms occur. I recommend this for all large breed dogs starting at 4 years of age as a preventative.
Routine exercise is very beneficial to keep muscles strong. Even short walks can make a big difference. Range of motion exercise also helps to keep muscle tone healthy. Swimming is also a great activity that doesn’t put a lot of stress on the joints.
Cold laser therapy is great to help with decreasing pain and inflammation as well as repairing damaged tissue and stimulating blood flow. I have seen great success in patients with arthritis with this at our clinic. Chiropractic and Acupuncture treatments are also options to consider. Your veterinarian can help design a treatment program for your cherished companion. Comfort level and prognosis is much better for your buddy if you can prevent problems, or treat at the earlier stages if possible.