Definitely Not the Long-Term Death Sentence You May Think It Is

osteoarthritis dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • The most common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease
  • Osteoarthritis can be a primary disease associated with aging, or secondary disease with a wide range of causes
  • Three persistent myths about OA are that it occurs only in old dogs, that dogs with the condition should not exercise and that OA is a long-term death sentence
  • Dogs with OA can live long, good-quality lives when they are kept lean and well-conditioned, receive an individualized treatment protocol and are monitored regularly for mobility and comfort

By Dr. Becker

There are several different forms of arthritis that occur in dogs, but by far the most common is osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD) or degenerative arthritis. This type of arthritis causes progressive, long-term, permanent deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the joints.

OA can be a primary or secondary disease. Symptoms of primary osteoarthritis typically occur as part of the aging process. Secondary OA, on the other hand, can have a wide range of causes, including trauma, abnormal wear and tear on the joints and cartilage or an inherited defect present at birth such as hip dysplasia. Additional causes of secondary OA include:

Abnormal development of joints, commonly the hip or elbow (exacerbated by irregular growth and development, as well as vaccine reactions) Dislocation of the kneecap or subluxation of the kneecap or shoulder
Osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD), a condition in which a flap of cartilage develops abnormally within the joint Obesity, which increases stress on the joints
Diabetes Prolonged steroid therapy
Excessive laxity (looseness) of the joints

Symptoms of osteoarthritis vary and include reduced activity level, occasional lameness and a stiff gait that gets worse after exercise, long periods of activity and in cold weather.

Myths About Osteoarthritis

According to veterinary surgeon and rehabilitation specialist Dr. Denis Marcellin-Little, writing for veterinary journal dvm360, there are three common misconceptions about OA:1

Myth No. 1 — Osteoarthritis only affects older dogs. Many people don't realize that OA has more to do with genetics and a dog's development than normal wear and tear on the joints of the body. In fact, joint degeneration often begins as puppies experience a rapid growth spurt during the first 4 to 6 months of life.

"Although it's present early on," says Marcellin-Little, "it tends to pass under the radar for years and be diagnosed only when its impact is much more profound later in life."

I recommend feeding a nutritionally balanced diet that meets FEDIAF (the European Pet Food Industry Federation — the European equivalent to AAFCO) standards for large breed puppies (early and late growth) because those standards are more appropriate for large and giant breeds.

Myth No. 2 — Dogs with OA shouldn't be physically active. Actually, the opposite is true. Exercise is tremendously important in helping dogs forestall progression of the disease. Studies show that people with OA who exercise regularly are less depressed, less anxious, need fewer drugs and function and feel better. The same is true for dogs.

Myth No. 3 — OA is a long-term death sentence. Dogs with degenerative joint disease can enjoy long, full, good-quality lives when their condition is diagnosed early and managed effectively. This absolutely includes keeping them active and well-conditioned. It's also important to regularly monitor the mobility and comfort of your dog's joints so that her treatment protocol can be adjusted as needed.

A Lean Weight and Good Muscle Tone Are Crucial for Dogs With OA

Arthritic dogs who are also overweight or obese have a much more difficult time with pain and mobility than lean animals, and in addition, it's important to know that overfeeding puppies may play a role in causing OA.

In a lifetime study of Labrador Retrievers, 25 percent of the dogs who were overweight at age 2 developed arthritis of the hip. However, the calorie-restricted (ideal weight) Labs had just a 4 percent occurrence rate.2 By the age of 6, the overweight dogs had 1.5 times the incidence of shoulder arthritis as the calorie-restricted dogs.3

In an 18-week study of 14 overweight dogs with hip dysplasia and arthritis, the dogs were placed on a weight loss program. By the end of the study, the dogs had lost an average of almost 9 percent of their body weight, and 82 percent showed improvement in lameness.4 These results demonstrate that when an overweight dog reaches about a 6 percent decrease in body weight, lameness is significantly decreased. Additional improvement is seen as additional weight is lost.

Maintaining your dog's muscle tone as he grows older can be difficult due to age-related sarcopenia (muscle wasting/atrophy). And while some "shrinking" is expected, as dogs move from senior to geriatric, many pet parents assume they need less exercise, which is simply incorrect.

To offset how quickly atrophy is occurring, you need to move your dog's body MORE with age — not less. Although the intensity, duration and type of exercise will change with age, daily activity is still crucial to prevent profound musculo­skeletal weakness.

Customizing a Treatment Protocol for Your Arthritic Dog

Chondroprotective agents (CPAs) that protect the joints, including glucosamine sulfate, MSM, eggshell membrane, perna mussel (green-lipped clam), Adequan and cetyl myristoleate are essential for pets with arthritis. CPAs slow the rate of cartilage degeneration, which is critical. The form, dose and type of CPA your veterinarian prescribes should be based on a careful assessment of your dog's or cat's individual needs. CPAs should be blended with pain control options as necessary.

Pain can sometimes be managed with cold and heat therapy, and acupuncture. Fortunately, there are also many wonderful natural treatments and remedies for arthritis that can reduce or eliminate the need for painkilling drugs. Some of the therapies I've used successfully with arthritic patients include:

A high-quality omega-3 supplement (krill oil) CBD oil Chiropractic care
Turmeric Massage Supergreen foods (spirulina, astaxanthin)
Acupuncture Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes, nutraceuticals, TCM formulas) EFAC complex
Homeopathic remedies (Rhus tox, Arnica) Laser therapy Assisi loop

Additional Recommendations

There are ayurvedic and Chinese herbs as well as homeopathic remedies and nutraceuticals that can be very beneficial for dogs with OA, depending on their individual symptoms. It's important to monitor your pet's symptoms on an ongoing basis, because arthritis progresses over time. Your dog's body is constantly changing, and her treatment protocol will need to evolve as well.

I recommend bringing your pet for a wellness checkup with your veterinarian at least twice a year to review the status of her health, and to check the range of motion in her joints, the muscle mass she is either gaining or losing and to make adjustments to her protocol as necessary to ensure her quality of life is optimal.

I have always found that a multimodal approach to managing arthritis is critical for slowing its progression. Incorporating maintenance chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, daily stretching and mild exercise along with an oral protocol to manage pain and inflammation will yield the best results possible for an arthritic dog.