When it hurts to move

31st Jul, 2016

We noticed recently that our adopted 10-year-old Border Collie limps if she plays too hard or goes on long walks. After a thorough vet check, she has been diagnosed with arthritis; fortunately, her health is otherwise excellent – it seems this is due to her age.

As advised by our vet, she takes arthritis supplements, and we’re looking into moving her onto a joint-specific dog food which our vet recommended.

She really loves her walks and playtime, and we don’t want to deprive her of this although we are keeping her walks shorter now – we don’t want to hurt or damage her further. We worry as sometimes she still limps a little after a walk. Should we stop the walks? Is there anything else we can do to alleviate her arthritis?

Jason Manning – Hartbeespoort, Gauteng

Dr Mirjam van der Wel of the Animal Anti Cruelty League Port Elizabeth advises...

It sounds like you are basically doing everything right! I would just suggest that you ask your vet to provide some drugs for days when she is really uncomfortable and sore. It should not be necessary to stop her exercise completely, but you will need to keep it low-impact, short but regular. Osteoarthritis (OA) – the full name for arthritis – is not uncommon in older dogs, and there’s a lot you can do to help her.

In a healthy joint the cartilage acts as a cushion and the synovial fluid (joint fluid) lubricates the joint. In dogs with OA, the cartilage gets broken down, causing the bones to rub directly on each other (pain) and the synovial fluid thins, reducing its lubricant properties (stiffness). It is a degenerative disease, which means it will worsen over time. The treatment options are there to slow down the rate of degeneration, help with cartilage formation, and reduce the pain the patient experiences.

Although OA often affects older dogs, it can also been seen in younger dogs as a result of an injury, problems such as hip/elbow dysplasia, and obesity. Arthritis is often seen as an inevitable result of ageing; we may not be able to ‘cure’ old age, but a pet’s age is no excuse to leave osteoarthritis untreated.

Weight management and exercise:

Overweight dogs are straining their joints, thereby causing or worsening the effects of OA. If an arthritic pet is overweight, consult with your vet for the best way to help them lose weight, especially in elderly pets.

Exercise is important, especially if your dog loves it – it must provide a good range of motion for the joints as well as muscle building. Aim for regular, low-impact exercise, such as walking or swimming. Running, rough playing and jumping are best avoided. Limit the use of steps and stairs or use a ramp to facilitate movement – and no jumping onto beds or into your car! Special harnesses are available that fasten around your dog’s back end so that you can help her get up or walk if she really struggles.

Physical therapy (including hydrotherapy/swimming) and massage can be part of the exercise package. If needed, chiropractic and acupuncture can assist. Your vet should be able to suggest someone who specialises in this.

Nutraceuticals/joint diets:

Frequently used supplements include glucosamine, chondroitin, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and various marine extracts (such as green lipped mussel). The aim is to help repair cartilage and reduce inflammation. They are not a ‘quick fix’ and you won’t see results overnight. However, their long-term use (either as a separate supplement or as part of a ‘joint-diet’) will reduce the rate of joint degeneration and keep your pet happy for longer.

Joint-specific foods are available; these usually contain some of the above-mentioned nutraceuticals along with low-allergen, low-acidity ingredients, and are also designed to help with weight control. Raw food diets are also popular in controlling inflammation but must be carefully planned. Refined carbohydrates (like bread), dairy products and sugar (none of which our pets should eat anyway), and poor-quality, grain-based pet food can increase inflammation so these should be avoided.

Anti-inflammatory drugs:

There are various drugs that reduce swelling and pain in the joints. The most commonly prescribed are Rimadyl, Petcam/Metacam, and, sometimes, cortisone. They should only be used under veterinary supervision in combination with other lifestyle changes (diet, exercise) and supplements (nutraceuticals/joint diets). DO NOT open your human first-aid kit and administer human painkillers to your pets. Just because it’s safe for a child does not mean it’s safe for a dog!

The management of Osteoarthritis is multimodal and very much dependent on the individual patient.

Consult your vet to choose what’s right for your dog.