Have you heard in conversation someone mentioning their older dog slowing down with the comment ‘oh, they're just old.’ Or mention that they sleep all the time and no longer prefer to go on walks but also chalk it up to age. Age itself is not a disease but canine osteoarthritis (OA) is. The chronic pain resulting from OA can significantly reduce the quality of life in senior pets. With all the advances in medicine older dogs can live long healthy lives without chronic pain which is why it is so important to recognize the signs of canine osteoarthritis.
OA is a very common illness with studies showing that 80% of dogs over 8 years of age have it to some degree and potentially affects 35% of dogs of all ages (https://caninearthritis.co.uk). The American College of Veterinary Surgeons defines OA as “... a chronic joint disease characterized by loss of joint cartilage, thickening of the joint capsule and new bone formation around the joint … and ultimately leading to pain and limb dysfunction.” Essentially this means that with OA the joint undergoes a lot of wear and tear reducing the cartilage around their joint and causes inflammation which produces reactionary changes including new bone formation that reduces the function of that joint. Most dogs who develop OA develop it secondary to developmental orthopedic disease, such as cranial cruciate ligament disease, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, etc. In a small percentage of dogs, OA occurs with no obvious cause and is linked to genetics and age. Other contributing factors to OA include bodyweight, obesity, gender, exercise, and diet (https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/osteoarthritis-in-dogs). Anytime a patient comes through our surgery service for an orthopedic procedure we discuss the risk of arthritis development as well as preventative measures to ensure that we can slow down the development and lessen the severity as they age. Weight management is often a cornerstone both for the prevention and the management of OA.
As a veterinarian the symptoms of both chronic and acute pain can be quite variable. Dogs like humans have individual tolerances for pain and some are a lot more stoic than others. A lot of dogs do not exhibit signs of overt pain and symptoms of progressive OA can be more subtle which is difficult to detect or interpret. Common signs one might notice at home include slowing down on a day-to-day basis, stiffness in the affected legs especially after getting up from rest or after playing, appetite changes, not wanting to use stairs/climb on furniture, excessive sleeping, lethargy, and behavioral changes. Behavioral changes often include unusual aggression, loss of interest in their normal day-to-day activities, and anxiety (https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/osteoarthritis-in-dogs/). Dogs are uncomfortable and do not know how to express their pain so it turns into anxious or unusual behavior which I hear commonly as the primary complaint from owners. One patient I had developed such severe anxiety from chronic pain that she would stand on the night stand next to the bed and stare at the owner.
There will also be physical changes. Dogs will often exhibit a stiffened gait, shortness of stride in the affected leg(s), limping, bunny hopping, swollen joints, and muscle atrophy or loss of muscle from not using the leg. Occasionally you will see weakness such as shaking or tremoring, difficulty posturing to use the bathroom, licking their joints, and potentially biting or nipping when touched in reaction to pain or the anticipation of pain. Some physical changes may only be fully appreciated during a physical exam especially if your pet is attempting to hide or guard a painful area; alternatively these changes may be so small that they are easy to miss when you are seeing your dog every day.
The good news is that in dogs we can use supplements and alternate therapies to slow down age-or trauma related joint change. As OA progresses, a multimodal approach can be taken to manage the symptoms and effects of osteoarthritic pain which will be discussed in our next post.
Dr. Shannon Stephenson