Arthritis in Dogs, a Guide to Spot Early Signs and Symptoms

Pictures of dog arthritis, images not so easy to shake

When  your dog has been diagnosed with arthritis it most likely will leave you worried about how this will affect his quality of life experience but more so are NSAID like Rimadyl a safe pain relief treatment for arthritis in dogs

How do you know if your dog has arthritis?

Arthritis in dogs is one of the more common age related diseases in older dogs and most often it is the result of a breakdown of cartilage within the joint which triggers a process of inflammation and further damage gradually results in a painful disease of arthritis.

Arthritis in Dogs - Labrador Retriever

Image Source: http://www.medrego.com

Unfortunately due to contemporary breeding methods  arthritis has become mainly a disease of elderly large breed dogs. However, as our abilities to recognise arthritis in dogs has tremendously improved over the years is also is clear that arthritis is not only related to old age and there are certainly individuals who are at greater risk of suffering from this very painful disease,

High ranking on the list of breeds that are predisposed to arthritis  are breeds such as the Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd who regrettably are  prone to develop a condition called hip dysplasia, that is a deformation of the hip joint resulting in the joint not forming properly.

However, not only the bigger dog breeds are prone to develop arthritis as other, smaller, breeds have intentionally been bred with shortened and twisted legs resulting in misformatted joints and abnormal forces acting through them resulting in (too) heavy wear that in time absolutely will take its toll,

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The next major issue on the list of (possible) reasons of why dogs can develop joint problems over time is obesity and unfortunately it is a given sign of time dogs becoming overweight is more and more of a problem with up to fifty four percent of our dogs being overweight or obese. The negative effects of obesity in dogs should never be underestimated as it had become clear that overweight dogs are at serious risk of developing arthritis three years earlier from the same dog were it to maintain a normal body weight.   

Arthritis in Dogs - German ShepherdThere are of course other conditions that make the development of arthritis more likely, such as previous joint damage as result of fractures and / or  joint infections and /  or ligament injuries. Unfortunately, the bigger breeds again can be found at the top of the list as cruciate ligament damage is  one of the main reasons for young growing large breed dogs to develop osteochondrosis which is a joint developmental abnormality.

Regarding the issue of longevity I guess we all want our dogs to stay with us for a much longer time than the ten to twelve years they on average are allowed the be a part of our life. However, age perhaps is the final biggest risk factor for our dogs to develop arthritis and, as we all know too well, we can’t turn back the clock.

We briefly touched upon the topic of what is arthritis, why certain breeds of dogs are more prone to develop this painful disease and how contemporary breeding methods are linked to not only the development but also the continued existence of this illness.

To broaden our understanding of arthritis in dogs we now will take this one step further and take a look at the (clinical) signs and symptoms of this disease and later on we will talk about what options are available for treating this illness and why not every  treatment plan is appropriate for every individual dog and why treatment plans will have to change over time.

The anatomy of a (healthy) joint

A normal joint is made up of bone covered with a layer of cartilage –  a tough, elastic, connective tissue, produced by special cells, acting as a lubricant to insure the smooth friction free movement of the joints.

During  the early stage of arthritis the surface of the cartilage layer becomes disrupted and a breakdown of the cartilage structure normally will follow. In a reaction to the breakdown of the cartilage layer the (healthy) body will try to counteract this by producing more cartilage cells to repair the already increasing damage. Unfortunately in most cases the dog’s body will not be able to keep up with the damage being done to the cartilage layer and eventually to the underlying bone structure.

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When the cartilage layer is  becoming too thin it will lose its protective function exposing the underlying bone which, in response to this, will start to form new bone cells to compensate for no longer being protected by the cartilage. The boost in new bone matter will result in thickening the affected areas in an effort to stabilse the joint. With the receding of the cartilage the joint will no longer be “lubricated”  causing an increasing level of friction between the bones in the joint. Movement, once smooth, is quickly becoming into a – literally – bone grinding exercise which in itself will increase inflammation in the joint.

From here things will start to deteriorate quickly as a downward spiral of inflammation, cartilage breakdown,  formation of new bone and then further inflammation has been entered.

Depending on the underlying cause or problem the process of deterioration can develop very quickly sometimes it will be even a matter of months or in other situations it can be a slowly moving  process taking several years to progress into completion.

Spotting early arthritis

How do we know dog has arthritis? Well, the easy answer would be because it will start limping. Although, over simplified as it may be, the answer by itself is not completely wrong or right, for that matter. The thing is our dogs are individuals and as such well capable of displaying a full array of personal traits and behaviour, not in the least in letting us know they’re in pain. Therefore, the following can only describe (some of) the on average symptoms of early arthritis and you, being a responsible owner, will have to draw upon everything you know about your dog’s behaviour to translate (and expand upon) this to your dog’s communications with you.

In most cases often the first sign is a mild intermittent lameness or limping that happens after a long walk or other amount of exercise. Sometimes the first signs of lameness may be seen shortly after  returning from the walk, but more often – just like with us humans – it will be actually not before having had a good rest that our dog will appear to be (somewhat) stiff or even the first signs of lameness. Therefore it is most likely the first symptoms of the early stage of arthritis will manifest themselves not until that evening or even the following morning, this of course depending on the time of the walk.

After showing the first signs of early arthritis the frequency as well as the severity of the lameness will increase rapidly and quickly the point will be reached where your dog can only endure short walks not being able to keep up with your usual speed of walking.

There are of course many other reasons for our dogs to appear to be (a little) stiff or even develop a (slight) lameness which will make drawing the right conclusion about our dog is suffering from a beginning arthritis not a simple task at all.

However, there are some signals that can guide us in interpreting our dogs’ body language, that is, during the early stages of arthritis it may look like all stiffness will disappear after our dog will give its muscles a thorough stretching once it feels well rested. The weather can also be a factor of importance as lower temperatures and wet conditions may trigger early signs of arthritis or may an existing condition seem worse.

Unfortunately neither of the above mentioned can be mistaken for what is the real cause of our dog becoming stiff and lame as the illness will progress into the advanced stages of arthritis where the stiffness and lameness will become of a more permanent nature.

I think you will agree with me in saying that arthritis, as a disease, is too serious and painful for our dog to not take any early signs seriously and to seek advice from a qualified veterinarian as quickly as possible.

At the beginning of this article the question was raised whether NSAID medication like Rimadyl can be considered a safe treatment for dogs suffering with arthritis and although the pharmaceutical companies and associated vets over the years have done their utmost best selling NSAID medication to all of us as the best pain relief treatment for arthritis in dogs the number of complaints from dog owners claiming to have lost their dog to Rimadyl haven been on a steady increase as well.

Make sure to read the post 350 Real Life Stories from dog owners and decide for yourself if Rimadyl and other NSAID medication can really be considerate as a safe pain relief treatment for dogs suffering with arthritis.

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