Dr. Brianne Hagerty, Avery and Bjorn
Bjorn, our now mammoth sized German Shepherd “puppy”, had the fun of playing with his entire canine family recently. This included his equally now ginormous brother, his Mum and his Grandmum, Mocha Bean. Watching their play habits, social interactions and hierarchy put differences in age and mobility into perspective. Mocha enthusiastically would invite Bjorn to carefully play, tail wagging, bowing slowly to egg him on. However, her movements, hesitations and play style highlighted a very aged and slightly arthritic senior teaching a younger pup a few lessons. There was no true display of pain or lack of eagerness to take part, but her body clearly showed the wear and tear of time.
What is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease) is the most common form of arthritis seen in both human and pet populations. Arthritis is a chronic and degenerative disease of the joints. Commonly seen in such joints as the hips, elbows, shoulders, stifles (knees), carpus (wrist), hocks (ankles) or the intervertebral joints of the spine itself. Wear and tear due to age or trauma can cause damage to the cartilage (which is the shock absorbing, cushioning material within the joints). When cartilage is damaged, inflammation occurs within the joint which leads to continued destruction of the cartilage and damage and remodelling of the underlying bone. These progressive, destructive processes causes increasing pain, and reduced mobility.
Cartilage does not contain nerves, which means damage to the cartilage itself does not send pain signals to our pet’s brains, therefore by the time we see signs of pain in our four legged friend, damage and changes to the underlying bone has already begun!
Signs of Arthritis:
Dogs and cats are incredibly stoic. Most animals have deep rooted instincts to hide any pain or illness they may be experiencing as it shows weakness. In nature, an animal who is injured or infirm is vulnerable to attack and the “weakest link”. Although survival of the fittest isn’t really a factor for our couch loving, trick performing, furry life co-pilots, they still often have an overly tolerant nature. Therefore, when we do see signs of pain in our pet they are genuine and possibly even more debilitating then we are given insight into.
Signs of pain caused by osteoarthritis can be seen with a change in our pet’s ability to jump into the car, onto the sofa or onto our favourite chair or cat tree. You may notice that Fluffy isn’t bouncing at your heels and crowding you up the stairs anymore, but instead he’s carefully and slowly traversing the incline. There may be a change in the way they walk, is that a limp you see? Your feline friend may stop arching their back in delight and suddenly stop you from scratching their favourite spots. Mornings may no longer be filled with dog yoga posed stretches when coming to greet you, instead rising from sleeping may be a struggle. The signs may be subtle at first and therefore careful observation is needed; a hesitation before they jump, a few less rounds of chasing the ball or no longer sneaking a stealthy prowl of the kitchen counter. Although osteoarthritis is progressive and degenerative, there are many ways we can keep our companions comfortable.
What can we do to help?
Unwanted weight gain and management of overweight pets becomes increasingly import in the face of concurrent disease. Debilitating pain and marked physical limitations are consequences of osteoarthritis, and these issues are only amplified by excess weight that the musculoskeletal system is carrying, if the pet is overweight. Imagine being asked to run up a flight of stairs while carrying a recently purchased large bag of dog food. How does your body feel? What if your back or knees also hurt? Weight loss diets, nutritional management and careful tracking of your pets weight are all things to discuss with your veterinarian.
There is a typical Dutch saying I grew up hearing, which sums up both the stubborn nature of my heritage, as well as the exercise recommendations for our arthritic pets; “rust roest” This simply means “rest rusts”. Low-impact, controlled and consistent exercise can be helpful in maintaining healthy muscle mass to support ailing joints, keep unwanted kilograms off and mentally simulate our pets. Expectations should always be realistic and we should never push a painful pet to exercise. However, depending on the pet, careful leash walks, swimming (or even walking through shallow water) and even slow controlled jogging can be beneficial.
Today more and more options for food and supplements (nutraceuticals) are available to support joint health. Careful navigation of the plethora of different products is required, however scientific research does back a number of key components as aiding in supporting cartilage structure, preventing further deterioration and supressing inflammation and damage due to free radicals. Fish oils (omega-3 and 6 fatty acids), vitamin E and glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate combinations are a few of the more well studied products with proven benefits.
Pain Medications and Chondroprotective Agents:
Pain and inflammation relieving medications can be important tools in providing your dog with a better quality of life, depending on the severity of degeneration within their joints. Continued research on pain pathways and species-specific response to medications has improved the prescription medications now available for our pet’s pain needs. Additionally, there are newer injectable agents which work to protect and improve the health and integrity of the cartilage and other components of the joints, known as chondroprotectives agents. A pain assessment at your pet’s next vet visit, as well as possible blood tests depending on the medication wanting to be used, are the first steps in getting your pet on a new prescription for their pain. In addition to medications, ask your veterinarian about other alternative therapies now available.
Lastly, making daily routine “comfortable” is key. Simple things like making sure there is a soft and warm place to sleep, helping them in and out of the car, and considering adding a ramp or step stool to make once challenging locations less of a struggle, are ways we can make their day to day routine less painful, even when they are reluctant to tell us it hurts.