Pain Relief Options for Dogs with Arthritis

Many owners become aware of their ageing dog's development of osteoarthritis slowly over time. Whilst some animals will suffer an acute injury which will result in arthritic changes in a specific joint, many cases of osteoarthritis are a result of chronic wear-and-tear and are age-related changes in the dog's joints. Dog arthritis has common presenting symptoms which include lameness which is often worse in the mornings or after a rest, reluctance to exercise, or reduced exercise capacity due to lameness, stiffening gait, difficulty rising or walking up stairs and pain.

Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, involves the progressive degradation of articular cartilage, changes in the bone at joint margins and changes in the synovial membrane of the joint. These changes cause pain and reduced mobility of affected joints. Restricted use of the affected limb/s causes muscle atrophy to occur.

Osteoarthritis/Degenerative Joint Disease can severely impact the quality of life experienced by a dog. Whilst the dog arthritis changes are irreversible, management programs can easily be implemented to reduce both the clinical signs and pain, and also to reduce the impact on the animal's quality of life.

Management of dog arthritis is generally medical (although surgical options are available for a few specific cases). Management programs should be multifaceted and will need to be devised in conjunction with your veterinarian. The focus will generally be on:

  • Pain relief
  • Increasing mobility
  • Reducing excess weight
  • Initiating any possible partial repair to the cartilage damage, and restricting the development of further damage
  • Providing general comfort and improved quality of life.

Pain relief is primarily offered through the use of pharmaceutical products prescribed by your veterinarian. The use of a class of medications known as NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) is a common approach to provide pain relief. Many different products are available for dog arthritis in tablet and oral liquid forms. These medications can help provide relief with dosing schedules varying between different medications. Another medication, containing Pentosan Polysulphate, is given as a series of injections. These are generally given weekly for 4 weeks then the ongoing effect can be reassessed by a veterinarian. Improvement with this injectable form may not be seen immediately but the series of injections generally provides an ongoing residual effect after the dosing schedule is completed. Glucocorticoids may be used for short term pain relief but care needs to be taken as long term treatment with corticosteroids can produce unwanted systemic side effects. Many other products now exist which, as a general rule, are more efficacious and have reduced side effect profiles compared to glucocorticoids.

Although numerous dog arthritis pet medications are available to reduce inflammation and pain in affected joints, many owners and veterinary practitioners use products containing chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine to help manage the joint changes. These supplements are often used in conjunction with other medical interventions and are generally referred to as chondroprotective agents. These agents help protect and where possible repair damaged cartilage within joints. Many of the supplements in use combine chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine within the one product, with some adding other active ingredients to enhance the results. Some of the products available include Glyde for dogs, Jointguard and Cosequin. Glyde and Jointguard are powders which can be sprinkled over food, whilst Cosequin is packaged in a capsule form but it can also be opened and sprinkled over food. Chondroitin sulphate is a glycosaminoglycan found in connective tissue, especially cartilage. It is an important structural component of cartilage and provides much of its resistance to compression. Glucosamine is a precursor of glycosaminoglycans, a major component of joint cartilage.

The positive effects of glucosamine for dogs in osteoarthritis are considered to be a result of its anti-inflammatory activity, reduction in cartilage degradation and damage and stimulation of the lubricating fluid within a joint. These supplements are not used to give immediate relief of symptoms as their periods of onset of action can be longer than conventional veterinary medications as has been shown in clinical studies. Manufacturers also recommend long term treatment as being required with an initial dosing schedule which involves a higher dosage of product for the first 4-6 weeks, followed by the implementation of a management dose at a lower rate.

By combining pain relief and longer term cartilage repair the dog will begin to enjoy an increase in mobility. Your veterinarian will discuss how to increase your dog's exercise slowly to make use of this increased mobility and to help strengthen the weakened and atrophied muscles which occurred due to lack of use due to the dog arthritis. It is vital to balance the need for moderate exercise with preventing exercise-induced exacerbation of symptoms in dogs with osteoarthritis.

A dog's joints will be under undue stress if the dog is carrying excess weight. The impact on the joints is obviously increased in these cases and this will hasten the wear-and-tear on the joints. Your veterinarian will be able to assess your dog's weight and if it is overweight it is important to consider a tailored weight reduction plan to remove the unwanted kilos. Since osteoarthritis itself reduces a dog's mobility, increasing exercise may not be a possibility initially. The primary focus will be on reducing caloric intake in the initial phases of the weight reduction program which may involve changing dog food. Many fully balanced commercial diets are available to help with weight reduction in dogs. By reducing the excess weight and additional impact through the dog's joints, the wear-and-tear on the joints will be reduced and the exacerbation of existing symptoms will also be reduced.

There are also some simple day to day changes which can assist an arthritic dog to have an improved quality of life and less discomfort. Providing bedding which is warm and preferably raised off the ground (but not so high as to make it difficult to get into), can help reduce the conduction of cold from the floor to the animal as it sleeps. Many suitable pet beds are available to meet this need. Ensure the sleeping area itself is not in a cold or windy location where possible indoors is ideal. Owners may also need to increase their commitment to dog grooming. Due to restricted movement some animals may not be able to self-groom adequately and may require more regular pet grooming.

Managing arthritis in dogs requires a multifaceted approach. Pain relief, improved mobility and an overall improvement in the quality of life of your dog are the primary aims of treatment. By combining management strategies with medical approaches under the guidance of a veterinarian, your dog should be able to enjoy its golden years in a lot more comfort than if the osteoarthritis is not managed effectively.