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About Eric Barchas, D.V.M.

Eric Barchas, DVM is a veterinarian who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. His emphasis is on small animal medicine, emergency medicine, hospice and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile.

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The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.

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Arthritis in Dogs

Animals Affected

Dogs

Overview

Arthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is a condition in which one or more joints in the body deteriorate.  Arthritis may occur as a result of trauma, natural aging, or syndromes called dysplasias in which the joints do not develop properly.

Arthritis causes progressive stiffness and pain in the affected joint or joints.   A large number of treatment and management options may be employed to help ease the symptoms of arthritis.  However, arthritis generally cannot be cured, and most dogs diagnosed with the syndrome experience varying degrees of symptoms for their entire lives.

Symptoms

The symptoms of arthritis usually develop gradually.   They may go unnoticed for many months or even years.  Because of this, many dogs have advanced arthritis by the time symptoms are first noted.

  • Limping on the affected leg or legs is the most common symptom of arthritis.  Dogs may have a stiff gait that is worse in the morning, after sleeping, in cold weather, or after strenuous exercise.
  • Dogs with arthritis may demonstrate reluctance or inability to run, jump, or navigate stairs.
  • Arthritis may lead to decreased enthusiasm for walks.
  • Dogs with arthritis may become lethargic and act "lazy."
  • Dogs with arthritis may require prolonged periods of time to sit, lie down, or rise.   They may be reluctant to get out of bed after resting.
  • Dogs may vocalize or try to bite when arthritic joints are manipulated.

Risk Factors and Prevention

  • Age is a leading risk factor for arthritis.  The syndrome is most common in middle-aged and elderly dogs.
  • Large breeds of dogs are most likely to experience the symptoms of arthritis. However, small dogs also suffer from the syndrome.
  • Overweight dogs are at increased risk of arthritis.
  • Hereditary or genetic factors appear to play a role in the development of arthritis.
  • Trauma to a joint often leads to arthritis in that joint later in life.
  • Dogs who suffer dysplasias, or abnormal joint development, usually develop arthritis in the affected joints.
  • Bacterial infections in joints may lead to chronic degenerative joint disease.
  • Irregularities in the function of the immune system can lead to arthritis in multiple joints.
  • Lyme disease and other diseases spread by ticks may cause arthritis in multiple joints.

Complications

Most cases of arthritis are manageable and tolerable for the pet.

In some individuals, arthritis may lead to chronic pain, decreased activity, and decreased quality of life.

Especially in large dogs, arthritis may cause an inability to walk or climb stairs.  In severe cases, this may lead to euthanasia.

Dogs with arthritis may urinate or defecate in the house if their mobility is restricted by the syndrome.  They also may be predisposed to urinary tract infections.

Diagnosis

Physical examination often reveals evidence of arthritis.  X-rays of affected joints may demonstrate signs of degenerative joint disease in advanced cases.   In rare instances, CT scans (also known as CAT scans) of one or more joints may be utilized to demonstrate arthritis.   Joint taps and arthroscopy are also employed in rare instances.

Treatment

A large number of options are available for the treatment of canine arthritis.   The methods that are used will depend on the severity of the syndrome.

  • Overweight dogs with arthritis generally benefit from weight loss.
  • Almost all dogs with arthritis benefit from physical therapy in the form of gentle massage and exercises in which the joints are gently taken through their normal ranges of motion several times each day.  Strength building exercises also may have a marked impact on the clinical condition of arthritic dogs.
  • Exercise modification is beneficial to most dogs.  Vigorous activities that lead to increased limping or other symptoms of arthritis should be avoided.  However, moderate activities such as leash walking or swimming are beneficial.
  • Many dog owners report that dietary supplementation with glucosamine helps to ease the symptoms and slow the progress of arthritis.  Injectable formulations of glucosamine (also known as polysulfated glycosaminoglycans) may provide potent relief from the symptoms of arthritis.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications such as carprofen (Rimadyl®), meloxicam (Metacam®), and deracoxib (Deramaxx®) are frequently used in the successful treatment of arthritis.
  • Rarely, steroids such as prednisone are used to treat arthritis.  These medicines generally are reserved for extreme cases or severe flare-ups of symptoms.
  • Rarely used but promising new treatment modalities for arthritis include stem cell therapy, extracorporeal shock wave therapy, therapeutic lasers, and the drugs amantadine and gabapentin.
  • Surgical procedures such as hip replacements or surgeries to correct dysplasias may be employed to treat or prevent arthritis in some cases.
  • In some areas, canine rehabilitation specialists are available to assist in the management of arthritis with advanced physical therapy techniques.

Follow-up

The goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and maintain a high quality of life.  Follow-up veterinary exams are common, and repeated X-rays occur occasionally.

Dogs that receive anti-inflammatory medicines on a regular basis should undergo periodic blood testing.

Miscellaneous

Arthritis of the hip joints is very common in elderly large dogs.  This type of arthritis is not necessarily the same as hip dysplasia.  Hip dysplasia is a syndrome in which dogs suffer arthritis in the hips at a premature age due to a developmental problem.

Although small dogs often develop degenerative joint disease, they tolerate the syndrome better than large dogs.  Therefore, they are less likely to show symptoms of arthritis.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.