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Arthritis in Dogs: Symptoms and Causes

Arthritis is a degenerative condition that affects one or more joints. Most cases occur in dogs with an inherited orthopedic disease such as osteochondrosis or hip dysplasia, or those with a joint injury. Some cases of arthritis are related to an immune-mediated joint disease or a joint infection.

Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease)

Osteoarthritis is a common disease that affects one out of five dogs during their lifetime. The problem isn’t confined to older dogs. Hip dysplasia, ruptured cruciate ligaments, patella luxation, joint trauma, and other joint conditions can cause degenerative arthritis, even in young dogs. Large-breed dogs are affected more often than small dogs. Heavy dogs are more likely to experience symptoms because of the extra strain placed on ligaments and joints.

Dogs with degenerative arthritis experience varying degrees of lameness, stiffness, and joint pain, which is more apparent in the morning and after getting up from a nap. They often exhibit irritability and behavioral changes associated with increasing disability. Cold and damp surroundings increase pain and stiffness. Degenerative arthritis is progressive, and in time makes the dog’s life miserable.

The diagnosis is made by joint X-rays that show bone spurs at points where the ligaments and the joint capsule attach to the bone. There may be varying degrees of joint space narrowing and increased density of bone around the joint.

Treating Osteoarthritis

Degenerative joint disease is incurable, but treatment can substantially improve the dog’s life. Treatment involves physical therapy and weight control, the use of analgesics and corticosteroids to relieve pain and improve function, and the use of chondroprotective agents to repair joint cartilage and prevent further damage. Acupuncture is another therapy that has shown good results for arthritic dogs. All of these should be used at the same time.

Acupuncture and physical therapy are alternative or additional ways to make arthritic dogs comfortable.

In severe cases, surgical fusion of painful joints, such as the hock or elbow, relieves pain and restores limb movement in some dogs.

Physical Therapy

Moderate exercise is beneficial because it maintains muscle mass and preserves joint flexibility. Excessive exercise, however, is counterproductive. Arthritic dogs should not be allowed to jump up and down and should never be encouraged to stand up on their back legs. Dogs with pain and lameness should be exercised on a leash or a harness. There are veterinary physical therapists who can help design an exercise (and weight loss) program.

Swimming is an excellent exercise that improves muscle mass without overstressing the joints. Exercise can be increased as the dog improves with the use of medications.

Overweight dogs should be encouraged to lose weight. Being overweight seriously complicates the treatment of osteoarthritis.

Immune-Mediated Arthritis

This is an unusual group of diseases in which antibodies are directed against the dog’s own connective tissue, resulting in either an erosive or nonerosive arthritis. In erosive arthritis, cartilage and joint surfaces are destroyed. In nonerosive arthritis, there is inflammation but no tissue destruction.

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