The Two Most Common Causes of Pet Arthritis - and What to Do About Them

Pet massageIn traditional veterinary medicine, the usual treatment for arthritis in companion animals is drugs, specifically non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and opioid painkillers.

But there are a number of other helpful remedies available for pets with compromised liver or kidney function, as well as pets belonging to owners who don’t want to risk side effects and potential toxicity.

Glycosaminoglycan (glucosamine) has gained acceptance in most mainstream vet practices, as has acupuncture.

According to Nancy Scanlan, DVM, writing for Veterinary Practice News:

“Because complementary medicine acts in many different ways, rather than being various versions of the same basic action (as opposed to COX-2 inhibitors), practitioners often will find that using a number of different items works better than trying a single method.

The use of supplements that decrease cartilage degradation, reduce inflammation and help with muscle spasms - rather than just looking to decrease joint pain - often give the best long-term effects. Add physical therapy to increase flexibility and muscle strength, and the maximum benefit will be given.”

Dr. Becker's Comments:

It’s great to see a comprehensive article on the ways complementary medicine can help alleviate the symptoms of arthritis in pets suffering with the disease.

Dr. Scanlan’s information covers many of the integrative remedies available today to manage arthritic animals. But do you know what can cause arthritis in your pet? Or how you can help prevent it?

In humans, arthritis is most often an age-related condition. This is usually not the case with companion animals.

There are several causes of arthritis in pets, but two of the most common are developmental disorders and high calorie, carb-based diets.

Developmental Disorders like Hip Dysplasia Set the Stage for Arthritis

Hip dysplasia means ‘badly formed hip.’ It is caused by a subluxation or malformation in the hip joint, causing a separation of the two bones of the joint. In a pet without dysplasia, the ball at the top of the leg bone fits perfectly into a ‘slot’ or pocket in the hip bone. In animals with the condition, there is a less perfect fit and the bones separate.

This separation is the result of abnormal joint structure coupled with weak muscles, ligaments and connective tissue that support the joints.

Most dogs that wind up with dysplasia aren’t born with the problem -- it develops over a period of time. Dysplasia causes abnormal wear and erosion of the hip joint (sometimes just one hip, sometimes both), which leads to arthritis.

The disease is most common in large purebred dogs, but does occur in smaller dogs and mixed breeds as well – just not as often. Dogs with the highest incidence of hip dysplasia are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Rottweilers
  • Great Danes
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • Mastiffs
  • St. Bernard

Genetics plays a significant role in the condition. If one or both of your dog’s parents have the disease, your pet is more likely to develop it as well. If no sires or dams in your dog’s lineage are carriers, it is less likely your dog will wind up with the condition.

Obviously, careful breeding can reduce the incidence of dysplasia. If you plan to acquire a pup of a breed prone to the disorder, you should gather as much information as you can about the health of your prospective puppy’s parents and their parents, at a minimum. Dysplasia can skip generations, so try to research as far back in the puppy’s lineage as you can.

And if your dog has hip dysplasia, or the disease is in the lineage of your pet, he or she should not be bred. Careful breeding isn’t a foolproof solution, however, since there is evidence dysplasia is ‘polygenic,’ meaning it is caused by more than one gene. Because expression of this syndrome has both environmental and genetic factors, some dogs with no history of dysplasia in their lineage can still be dysplastic.

Cats can also develop dysplasia, but it’s a much less severe condition in kitties due to their smaller size and less strain on their joints.

High-Calorie, High Carb Diets Contribute to Rapid Growth and Obesity – Two Precursors of Arthritis

When a puppy gains size and weight too quickly, the cartilage in his body often can’t keep up with the growth of his frame, and cartilage deficits result. When imbalances of this type develop in a growing dog, they can contribute to hip dysplasia and other structural weaknesses that ultimately lead to arthritis.

High calorie diets, which are typically also high in carbohydrates, can cause too-rapid growth, especially in larger breed dogs.

In fact, research indicates the amount of calories a dog consumes, especially from the age of three to ten months, can have a significant impact on whether a pup genetically prone to hip dysplasia will develop the condition.

In a 1997 study of Labrador Retriever puppies, the dogs fed ‘free choice’ (from an all day, all-you-can-eat-buffet) had a much higher rate of hip dysplasia than their littermates who were fed the same food, but in controlled portions that amounted to 25 percent less than the free fed pups.

The retriever study results and conclusions as reported here by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:

Prevalence of radiographic evidence of hip joint osteoarthritis in all dogs increased linearly throughout the study, from an overall prevalence of 15% at 2 years to 67% by 14 years. Restricted-fed dogs had lower prevalence and later onset of hip joint osteoarthritis.

Median age at first identification of radiographic evidence of hip joint osteoarthritis was significantly lower in the control-fed group (6 years), compared with the restricted-fed group (12 years).

Restricted feeding delayed or prevented development of radiographic signs of hip joint osteoarthritis in this cohort of Labrador Retrievers. Lifetime maintenance of 25% diet restriction delayed onset and reduced severity of hip joint osteoarthritis, thus favorably affecting both duration and quality of life.

In addition, the data indicated that development of hip joint osteoarthritis was not bimodal in these dogs but occurred as a continuum throughout life.

The free-fed dogs were also quite a bit heavier as adults than the controlled portions group -- by about 22 pounds on average.

Research indicates obesity can increase the severity of dysplasia and arthritis, which only makes sense. Extra weight can accelerate the degeneration of joints. Dogs born with genes that make them prone to hip dysplasia, if allowed to grow overweight, will be at much higher risk of developing the disease, and subsequently, arthritis as well.

In a more recent study on the effects of diet on body composition, bone and cartilage health in large breed puppies evaluated from the age of two months to 18 months, researchers concluded that:

The food that was proportionately higher in protein, calcium, n-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants increased lean body mass and may have positively affected cartilage turnover as maturity was attained. Whether the rate of cartilage turnover during growth affects development of orthopedic disease or arthritis in adulthood has yet to be determined.

Exercise as Preventive Medicine

There is also evidence over-exercising large breed dogs at a young age may be a risk factor for dysplasia. Additionally, activities that require your dog to jump and land can apply a great deal of force to his joints. However, moderate exercise such as jogging and especially swimming, will help your pup maintain good muscle mass, which has been shown to decrease the incidence and severity of the disease.

Your cat needs exercise too, for both her physical and mental well-being. Getting a kitty physically active can be challenge, so prepare to get creative. We use a laser pointer at my house to encourage our kitties to exercise.

Animals are natural athletes. If your pet doesn’t have the opportunity to go on walks with you, run, play and get regular aerobic exercise, she can end up with any number of debilitating conditions affecting her bones, joints, muscles and internal organs.

Once your pet is skeletally mature, she should get at least 20 minutes of sustained, heart-thumping exercise three times a week. Thirty minutes is better than 20 -- six or seven days a week is better than three.

If your dog is genetically prone to dysplasia, three very important things you can do to reduce his risk of developing the disease are to:

  1. Control the rate at which he grows during his first year (three to ten months of age)
  2. Keep him at a trim, healthy weight throughout his life
  3. Exercise him regularly with activities that maintain and build muscle mass but don’t put undue stress on his joints

A portion-controlled, balanced, species-appropriate diet will provide your pet with the right nutrition in the right amounts to help you achieve all three goals. Another reason to carb proof your pet is because carbs promote inflammation and arthritis is an inflammatory condition.

Help for Arthritic Pets

As Dr. Scanlan’s article points out, there are many things that can be done to vastly improve the quality of life of an arthritic dog or cat. Some additional recommendations:

  • If your dog or cat gets injured, take him to a pet chiropractor. Chiropractic treatments can be an effective, affordable way to realign your pet’s spine so that he will not develop a compensating injury along with his primary injury. I recommend maintenance chiropractic care proactively for all of my patients to reduce the risks of injury and joint degeneration.
  • Give your pet massages to alleviate inflammation of damaged tissues and prevent further injury through compensation. Giving your dog or cat regular massages is also a great way to increase the bond between you.
  • Stretching your pet is another way to increase the health and mobility of his joints, tendons and ligaments. Massages and stretching, along with consistent, appropriate exercise will preserve your dog’s or cat’s range of motion, which is an extremely important quality of life consideration for arthritic pets.
  • Low-level laser therapy is used to improve wound healing, reduce post-trauma swelling, and facilitate long lasting pain relief by stimulating the release of your dog’s own pain killing chemicals like endorphins.
  • Acupuncture and Prolo therapy can be tremendously beneficial for both cats and dogs with degenerative joint disease.
  • Aquatic therapy, also known as hydrotherapy, uses an underwater treadmill to take pressure off your dog’s injured or painful joints. Water therapy also improves your pet’s cardiovascular health, muscle strength and range of motion. Swimming uses natural canine motions to improve mobility.
  • Adding certain supplements to your pet’s diet can provide the raw materials for cartilage repair and maintenance, among them:
    • Glucosamine sulfate with MSM
    • Homeopathic Rhus Tox
    • Omega-3 fats, such as krill oil
    • Ubiquinol
    • Supergreen foods, such as Spirulina
    • Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)
    • Work with your holistic veterinarian to determine how to best treat the inflammation and pain caused by your pet’s arthritis, as well as how to nourish remaining cartilage.
    • Also ask your vet about Adequan injections, which can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis.

If you currently are giving your pet drugs to help alleviate pain and inflammation, I recommend you work with a holistic vet to determine what alternative treatments might also be of benefit. Often when an integrative approach is taken to managing an animal’s arthritis, safe supplements and therapies can reduce or replace the need for potentially toxic drugs.

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