Understanding canine arthritis
Joint pain secondary to arthritis in dogs is highly variable. A dog may have ‘terrible hips’ as seen on an x-ray, but not show any signs, while another dog may have one tiny bone chip in his elbow and refuse to use its leg. Arthritis is generally seen to be a greater problem in big dogs because they are, well, bigger. However, small dogs can develop chronic pain with arthritis as well1. Luxating patellas (slipping knee caps) is a common condition in toy breeds and can cause limping, bunny-hopping and pain in the hind limbs. For all dogs, arthritis can lead to obesity and obesity-related health problems because of an unwillingness to exercise, and if a dog’s joints are particularly painful, you might see changes in behaviour or signs of aggression develop.
What can cause arthritis in young dogs?
A common cause of arthritis in young dogs is joint dysplasia. Dysplasia means ‘abnormal growth’ - dysplastic joints grow abnormally and predispose dogs to developing arthritis at a young age. Hip and elbow dysplasia are commonly seen in large breed puppies and can cause the early onset of arthritis and pain if not treated2. Hip and elbow dysplasia are an especially common problem in large dogs, so watch out if your young pup is due to develop into a larger dog. Hip and elbow dysplasia are thought to be a genetic disease that are exacerbated by environmental conditions, such as improper nutrition or exercise in large breed puppies. Hip dysplasia is more common than elbow dysplasia and affects one or both hind limbs. Elbow dysplasia is a combination of four elbow defects that affect the front limbs and may affect one or both front legs. Despite these both being painful conditions for your dog, hip and elbow dysplasia can be rectified to an extent with surgical therapy, but can also be managed non-surgically.
In young dogs, arthritis is most commonly caused by trauma to a joint, or a developmental abnormality. Arthritis can also develop secondary to an infection, such as Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases, but this is less common than trauma or developmental diseases.
Symptoms to look out for
Symptoms of arthritis in young dogs include limping, holding one or more legs up, a stiff, stilted gait, reluctance to exercise, decreased interest in games, excessive licking, yelping, increased sleeping, paradoxical muscle gain in unaffected limbs, bunny-hopping, muscle loss over hind limbs, and increased aggression. So look out for any changes in their behaviour or everyday routines: are they doing anything differently, has their movement been effected at all, or do they not seem as affectionate as usual?
My young dog has arthritis, what next?
For dogs that are symptomatic, early intervention is the best way to maintain good quality of life and this usually requires some form of surgical invention. If the condition goes untreated, this can cause progression of the arthritis, lifelong pain and difficulty walking or running.
The most important way to take care of any young dog diagnosed with arthritis is to manage their weight. Dogs that are too heavy have greater stress and strain on their joints, will be less inclined to exercise and may be in chronic pain. A dog is at an ideal body condition (weight) when you can feel a dog’s ribs but not see them. An easy way to determine this is to use the ‘hand test’. Have your dog stand up and feel your dog’s ribs with your hands. If they feel like the back of your hand, your dog is at a healthy weight. If the ribs feel like your palm, your dog is too heavy, or if their sides feel like your knuckles, they may be underweight.
Dogs with painful, swollen joints also benefit from a supportive sleeping surface. When choosing a bed for your young dog, stay away from beds cushioned with box springs or polyfill and choose thick memory foam instead. There are specific dog bed manufacturers dedicated to making beds just for large dogs or provide additional support for fragile joints.
It is important for young dogs with arthritis to try and maintain healthy muscle mass in their legs. Muscle helps support joints, however running and other high-impact activities may be difficult for young dogs with arthritis. Swimming is a wonderful exercise for dogs with arthritis: it works their cardiovascular system, boosts metabolism and helps maintain healthy muscles and joints. Regular exercise also helps the joints stay mobile by increasing the production of joint fluid.
Medication, treatments and supplements
Young dogs with arthritis, or conditions that predispose them to the disease can also benefit from a high-quality fish oil supplement. The omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been scientifically proven to reduce the inflammation and pain seen with arthritis3. Choose a quality supplement, administering once a day, every day, for optimum effects.
In addition to prescription pain medications, there are other alternative treatments you can try to help your dog manage pain and inflammation. Class 4 cold therapy laser treatments are a non-invasive, cost-effective and relatively inexpensive way to reduce pain and inflammation. Veterinarians specially trained in canine rehabilitation can also provide young arthritic dogs with alternative therapies, including underwater treadmill therapy, acupuncture, balance board exercises, electro-therapy, therapeutic ultrasound and more.
1Dog Time (YEAR). Arthritis and the aging dog, DogTime.com
2Demko J, McLaughlin R. (2005). Developmental orthopedic disease, Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract
3Pets4Homes (no date). Should you give your dog a fish oil supplement?