Canine Osteoarthritis: Treatment though the Different Stages of Progression

As our canine companions age one of the most common issues they can face is Arthritis with osteoarthritis being the most commonly present joint disease, affecting over a quarter of the furry population!

What type of arthritis does your dog have? Understanding degenerative joint disease

There are several types of canine arthritis and understanding which one is crucial in developing the right treatment plan.

Osteoarthritis (OA):

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that occurs when the protective cartilage within the joint wears down, resulting in bone-on-bone contact and inflammation, ultimately leading to pain and limb dysfunction.

Osteoarthritis (OA) commonly affects dogs that have other orthopedic diseases like cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) disease, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and patella dislocation. There are cases where OA occurs without a clear primary cause and can be linked to genetics and age, but it isn’t biased affecting dogs of all sizes and breeds(some more than others) and it is the most sneaky of joint problems your pup could get.

Rheumatoid Arthritis:

Although less prevalent than osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, otherwise known as Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis(IMPA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation in the joints. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, including the joints causing inflammation, pain and lameness.

Infectious Arthritis:

Caused by bacterial, viral, or fungal infections, infectious arthritis develops when microorganisms enter the joint, leading to inflammation and joint damage. It can occur as a result of a primary infection or in some cases as a secondary complication of another condition.

Immune-Mediated Arthritis:

This form of arthritis is caused by an abnormal immune response that targets the joints, leading to inflammation and joint damage. The exact cause of immune-mediated arthritis is not well understood, but it is believed to have a genetic component.

Traumatic Arthritis:

Traumatic arthritis develops as a result of a joint injury, such as fractures, ligament tears, or dislocations. The trauma disrupts the normal structure and function of the joint, leading to arthritis.

Hypertrophic Arthritis:

When there is an abnormal growth of bone in the joint, causing pain, reduced mobility, and joint deformities it is hypertrophic arthritis and it is most commonly seen in large and giant breeds, such as Great Danes and Mastiffs.

Understanding OA – from the roots

To comprehend the alterations in joint anatomy that occur in canine osteoarthritis, it is essential to grasp the normal structure of a joint.

Cartilage, Bone, and Joint Fluid:

The ends of the bones forming a joint are typically covered by a layer of soft cartilage. The joint capsule contains synovial fluid, which lubricates and nourishes the joint. Together, the cartilage and synovial fluid protect the subchondral bone (the bone beneath the cartilage) from damage caused by pressure and friction during movement. These components provide smooth surfaces that allow for smooth gliding of the joint.

Joint Capsule:

The joint capsule is made up of a fibrous layer that acts as a physical barrier, containing the synovial fluid within the joint space. Additionally, there is an inner layer called the synovium, which produces the synovial fluid.

In cases of osteoarthritis, physical changes in the joint structure occur. The cartilage starts to deteriorate, and the synovium becomes thickened and swollen. Consequently, the body responds by generating new bone tissue to stabilize the affected joint part.

As a result, irregular surfaces form on the bones due to the growth of new bone pieces (osteophytes). When cartilage loss or osteophyte formation causes bone-on-bone contact within the joint, significant pain can occur. The degenerative process also leads to inflammation within the joint.

Causes of Osteoarthritis in Dogs:

Multiple factors can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis in dogs:

1. Body Weight:

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of arthritis. Not only does the excess weight put additional pressure on your dog’s joints, leading to cartilage breakdown, but the extra fat also causes increased inflammation of the joints as fat tissues produce hormones – like leptin – that cause and increase inflammation.
What makes up a healthy diet for an arthritic dog?

2. Age:

As the general functioning slows down as dogs get older, it can be hard for them to keep up with repairing everyday general wear and tear. While more common in older dogs, younger dogs aren’t completely exempted. Dogs that lead an active lifestyle also subject their joints to excessive wear and tear,

3. Previous Injury or Disease:

Dogs with previous joint injuries (e.g., torn CCL) or joint diseases (e.g., hip dysplasia) are more prone to developing osteoarthritis in those affected joints. The injury or disease alters joint mechanics, leading to compensatory changes and eventual arthritis.

4. Genetics:

Certain breeds or genetic lines, such as German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers, have a predisposition to developing osteoarthritis. Improperly formed joints from birth, particularly in breeds prone to hip and elbow dysplasia, can lead to early-onset arthritis.

Joints Commonly Affected by Osteoarthritis:

While osteoarthritis can affect any joint, the following joints are commonly involved:

  • Hip

  • Stifle (knee)

  • Shoulder

  • Elbow

  • Spine

  • Carpus (wrist)

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis in Dogs:

Identifying signs of pain in dogs can be challenging, as they may hide their discomfort and most times it takes a symptom be acute for us to even notice it. However, watch out for these common symptoms of arthritis:

  • Limping on one or more legs

  • Shifting weight from one leg to another while standing

  • Holding a leg up or only a toe-touching the ground while standing

  • Restless sleeping and frequent position changes

  • Licking a specific joint or leg

  • Pain or resistance when touched near a joint

  • Difficulty standing up

  • Easily fatigued during walks

  • Avoiding or struggling with stairs

  • Difficulty jumping up onto furniture or other higher places like a car.

  • Panting or whining while at rest or trying to sleep

  • Collapsing of the back legs

If you observe any of these signs, consult with a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate management of your dog’s osteoarthritis.

It is important that you don’t diagnose your dog yourself as all the types or arthritis share common symptoms and improper diagnosis can affect how your pooch reacts to their treatment plan.

Stages of Canine Osteoarthritis- A Canine osteoarthritis staging tool

Canine OA is a progressive disease and has four stages, each characterized by varying degrees of joint degeneration and clinical signs. You can use the following canine osteoarthritis staging tool to help you get a better understanding of where your pet falls.

1. Pre-osteosrthritis (Stage 0-1):

Stages 0 and 1 are the preclinical stages used to define dogs- usually younger dogs that are completely normal but are at risk to develop osteoarthritis due to the presence of one or more risk factors, these risk factors are usually breed disposition, joint injury, intense activity, or joint trauma.

2. Mild Osteoarthritis (Stage 2):

Stage 2 is the early stages, where initial signs like the decreased range of movement, subtle stiffness, altered gait, lameness and changes in weight distribution can be observed. Your dog’s mobility is likely affected during some activities, like going on long walks and high-impact movements like jumping or playing fetch.

It is also in this stage that the early signs are misunderstood for natural aging. It is best to err on the side of caution and have your pup checked out as early treatment is key to improving the quality of life for your canine with OA in the long run.

3. Moderate Osteoarthritis (Stage 3):

Most commonly observed in middle-aged dogs, the signs of discomfort, joint inflammation and pain become clearly visible. Your dog might display an obvious preference for one leg over the other, stiffness in gait, a reduction in the use of the affected limb and will display consistent abnormalities during daily activities.

4. Severe osteoarthritis (Stage 4)

With advancing age, your dog could fall under severe osteoarthritis, especially if it has gone undetected before. Senior dogs in advanced stages experience severe joint pain, limited mobility, and visible lameness. The joints may become deformed, and daily activities such as walking or standing may become challenging. Muscle atrophy may also occur due to decreased usage of affected limbs.

How quickly does Osteoarthritis progress in dogs?

The osteoarthritis (OA) progression in dogs can vary widely depending on several factors, including the underlying cause, the dog’s breed, age, overall health, and the management of the condition.

In some cases, osteoarthritis may progress slowly, with gradual joint degeneration and a gradual increase in symptoms over months or even years. On the other hand, certain factors can accelerate the progression of OA, such as obesity, excessive or repetitive stress on the joints, inadequate exercise, and poor joint health management.

It’s important to note that while osteoarthritis is generally a progressive condition, early intervention, proper veterinary care, and appropriate management strategies can help slow down the progression, alleviate symptoms, and improve your dog’s quality of life.

Regular veterinary check-ups, weight loss and management, joint supplements, pain management medications are some of the approaches used to manage osteoarthritis in dogs and potentially slow its progression.

Treatment Options for Canine Arthritis:

Currently, there is no known cure for arthritis in dogs (or humans). However, it is possible to effectively manage the disease and its symptoms to ensure a good quality of life for your beloved pet.

The key to achieving these goals is through a multidirectional approach, which involves utilizing various treatment methods in combination. This may include a combination of medication and physical therapy, among other options.

Early diagnosis plays a crucial role in the success of treatment. If you observe any subtle changes in your dog’s behavior, it is essential to consult your veterinarian ASAP. Their recommendations can potentially slow down the progression of the disease and help your dog maintain their comfort and mobility.

The treatment approach for osteoarthritis in dogs aims to decrease pain and reduce inflammation in the affected joints and improve joint function. The choice and course of treatment depend on the stage of arthritis and the specific needs of your dog. Here are some common treatment options:

1. Preventative measures:

Joint issues can occur at a very young age – as early as 10 months! Hip & elbow dysplasia, patella luxation, and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) are common in puppies of large breed dogs. A good first step is understanding your dogs breed and their needs and any predispositions that come along.

Early detection and treatment can significantly impact the ability and extent of degeneration if your dog is prone to osteoarthritis and it is never too early to start your dog on effective joint care.

2. Lifestyle Modifications:

Making necessary adjustments to your dog’s daily routine can greatly improve their joint health. Apart from factors like increased wear and tear that working dogs experience or genetic predisposition. Obesity can cause and worsen osteoarthritis. Being overweight increases the stress on the joints which can cause the cartilage to breakdown faster than it can be repaired.

Weight management, balanced nutrition and regular exercise (low-impact activities like swimming or gentle walks) help reduce stress on the joints and reduce joint pain.

3. Medications:

Medical management usually involves nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or NSAID therapy for pain management and to reduce inflammation in dogs with arthritis. Additionally, supplementing your dog’s diet with glucosamine, MSM and chondroitin can reduce pain by supporting joint cartilage repair, and lubrication, reducing inflammation and boosting overall joint health.

3. Physical Therapy:

Techniques, including massage, hydrotherapy, laser therapy, and therapeutic exercises, can help improve joint mobility, muscle mass, strength and range of motion. It is particularly beneficial in the early and moderate stages of arthritis.

4. Acupuncture:

This alternative therapy involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the release of natural pain-relieving substances to help alleviate pain and improve mobility.

5. Surgical Intervention:

In the most advanced stages of osteoarthritis where conservative treatments have not provided sufficient relief, surgery may be considered. Procedures such as joint replacement, arthroscopy, or joint fusion can be beneficial for reducing pain and improving joint function.

How can I help my dog with advanced osteoarthritis?

Assistive Devices and Mobility Aids:

Depending on your dog’s specific needs, your veterinarian may recommend assistive devices like ramps, orthopedic beds, or harnesses to assist with mobility and minimize joint stress. Adding a brace, especially if the affected area is the knee joint, can help stabilise the joint and prevent further damage.

Environmental Modifications:

Make necessary adjustments in your home environment to make it more accessible for your arthritic dog. Provide comfortable bedding, eliminate slippery surfaces, and ensure easy access to food, water, and potty areas.

Warmth and Comfort:

Cold hard floors can worsen symptoms and as your pooch gets older the floors become more uncomfortable. Especially if your dogs symptoms are worse at night or are worse over the colder months.

Keeping your dog warm and providing a comfortable resting area will help soothe achy joints, so consider using blankets or heated pads (specifically designed for pets, or ensure the heating pad doesn’t come directly in contact with your dog) to provide additional comfort.

Regular Veterinary Check-ups:

Schedule regular check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor your dog’s condition and will allow you to adjust the treatment plan if needed while addressing any concerns or complications that may arise.

How long can a dog live with osteoarthritis?

The lifespan of a dog with arthritis is largely influenced by the quality of care provided and the stage of the disease. While osteoarthritis cannot be cured, it is not considered as a “terminal” condition. By implementing a multimodal approach to arthritis management, many dogs can lead long fulfilling lives.

In severe cases, osteoarthritis can cause significant pain and potentially restrict a dog’s ability to enjoy life. However, with proper management, the condition can often be controlled for many years, allowing you to spend more precious time with your beloved canine companion!