5 Ways to Better Manage your Dog’s Arthritis

There are several ways you can support your arthritic dog, improve their quality of life and slow down the degenerative process so you furry family member can live a longer and happier life. We call this a multimodal approach which means we draw on multiple modalities, methods and interventions to manage our dog’s arthritis.

1. Weight Management

There is clear evidence in both human and veterinary science that shows excess body weight to be detrimental to arthritic joints. Not only does the sheer weight contribute to pain and quicker degeneration of the joint but the fat itself releases proteins (called cytokines) which cause inflammation in the body, and make existing joint inflammation even worse.

Take away: Helping your dog loose weight is one of the most important steps you can take to manage their arthritis. It not only reduces the stress on their joints but also controls inflammation in the affected joints, and the body overall. 

2. Modifying Exercise Routines

High impact exercises which involve hard braking, quick acceleration, jumping, twisting and turning put unnecessary stress and strain on already aching joints and should be avoided at all cost. A common misconception is that if your dog ‘decides’ to, for instance, chase the ball despite painful joints, it can’t be so bad after all. This cannot be further from the truth. Most dogs will tolerate discomfort and moderate pain because the activity – ball fetching – is a high value activity; in other words, it is an activity that is exciting and joyful. Who doesn’t want to engage in a joyful and exciting activity? Moreover, when your dog exercises, their body releases chemicals called endorphins which interact with your dog’s brain receptors responsible for reducing the perception of pain. So whilst it is true that your dog does not feel as much pain whilst engaging in a high value activity, they will suffer the consequences afterwards.

Take away: Stop high-impact and high-intensity activities and replace them with mentally stimulating challenges. Read 6 Mentally Stimulating Exercises for Your Dog if you need some ideas.

3. Adjusting Home Environment

As your dog’s arthritis progresses, they become weaker and more unstable on their feet. Negotiating steps, stairs and slippery floors can be difficult and sometimes even painful, and can lead to injuries in addition to their arthritis. If your dog is allowed on the couch or your bed, the jump up might be not as easy anymore. Similarly, the jump in and out of the car might be painful if there is arthritis present in the hips and stifle, or the elbows. Adjusting your dog’s home environment to a more navigable and safer space will decrease your dog’s discomfort, reduce arthritis ‘flare ups’ and will slow down the degenerative process. Read 6 Ways to Adjust Your Home for your Senior Dog for more details.

Take away: Use a ramp to get your dog in and out of the car; use doggy stairs if your dog is allowed on the couch and bed; if you have floor boards or tiles consider putting down rugs or mats in high traffic areas; play only on non-slippery surface; use a ramp if there is a step out into the backyard; limit access to stairs in the house and make sure they are non-slippery.

4. Complementary Therapies

There are a number of complementary therapies available to support your arthritic dog. A combination of hydrotherapy, myotherapy and laser therapy has proven to be quite effective in building strength, improving mobility and reducing pain.

Hydrotherapy is very effective in rehabilitating weak muscles. Exercising in water provides both buoyancy and resistance which helps to build strength without placing stress on the already aching joints.

Myotherapy is fantastic as it includes treatments such as massage, myofascial pain release, trigger point therapy and acupressure therapy to release pain and tension in those areas your dog would have been compensating with for their aching joints. It also includes passive range of motion exercises taking the affected joint through its full potential range of motion to prevent stiffness of the joint and tightening of the surrounding muscle groups. Further, low impact rehabilitative strengthening exercises can target specific atrophied muscles which are responsible for supporting the arthritic joint(s). Acupressure points are used to reduce inflammation.

Laser Therapy is a non-invasive modality that uses a special light which penetrates the skin and tissue to help reduce inflammation in the affected joint(s) and  control the pain of osteoarthritis. It stimulates the body’s own healing capacity through photobiomodulation. There is evidence in clinical research that laser therapy can reduce chronic pain and joint-inflammation in dogs.

Take away: Complementary therapies such as hydrotherapy, myotherapy and laser therapy can help with pain alleviation, building strength and regain mobility.

5. Pain Management

There have been many myths about dogs and their pain tolerance including the misconception that dogs perceive pain differently to humans. Nowadays we have a much better understanding of pain pathways and we know that dogs have very similar if not the same neural pain pathways than us humans. What is different and sometimes confusing, however, is the way dogs communicate their pain. We often assume that if they do not verbalise their pain, they must not be in pain. Similarly we often believe that if they were in pain, they wouldn’t engage in an activity that causes pain. We can’t be further from the truth.

The first thing we need to learn is how to determine whether our dog is in pain. Please see this blog post for further details. It is a fair assumption to make, however, that a dog with a chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis is in some sort of discomfort or pain.

There are amazing natural supplements which can help your dog control the inflammation and reduce pain in the early stages of the arthritis. However, when the condition is more progressed, natural supplements are unfortunately often not sufficient anymore. It is imperative then that your dog’s pain is managed appropriately with either non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or other pain medication.

If the pain is not managed appropriately, there is a risk of what is called the Wind-up Phenomenon which can lead to chronic neuropathic pain. When spinal neurons are subjected to repeated high intensity pain stimulus and this is not controlled with appropriate pain medication, they become gradually more ‘excitable’ even after the stimulus may be removed. Part of the wind-up process is also the involvement of processing areas that normally transmit signals such as pressure, temperature and vibration among others. The result is that nerve signaling for touch or temperature, for example, now signals for pain instead. In other words, many signals are being send to the brain, including touch, temperature, movement, position and vibration but they are all being interpreted by the brain as pain. If pain is left unmanaged for too long, there is a risk that patients may stop responding to common pain relieving medication.

Take away: Make sure you understand when your dog is in pain and manage their pain appropriately. If left unmanaged for too long, the brain starts to interpret other signals (i.e. touch, temperature etc) as pain and your dog is at risk to stop responding to common pain medication.