Arthritis in dogs
Does your dog limp intermittently? Does he sometimes get up and stretch or act stiff? Does he hesitate before jumping up onto the couch or walking up or down a flight of stairs? Is your dog having trouble going on long walks now that he is 3? 6? 10? Or 15 years old? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then your dog may be showing signs of pain. Often, this is due to arthritis. How long can a dog live with arthritis? Your dog’s body condition, your dog’s overall health or underlying conditions, early recognition by you and your veterinarian that it exists, and proper pain management and additional therapies to support your pet will affect how long Fido lives and his quality of life. No one wants to have their friends be in pain!
What does arthritis mean in dogs?
What is arthritis? Simply arthritis is a process that over time causes the breakdown of a joint(s). It is a progressive disease. It causes loss of joint structure and over time there is just bone on bone, and this leads to inflammation and pain in the joint and surrounding areas. Some dogs are born with the problem (hip dysplasia, for example), others develop arthritis in specific joints after injury, others develop it as they age due to poor nutrition or obesity, carrying too much weight on the joints. Regardless of the cause, it is extremely common. Studies show that while not all dogs may show signs of arthritis a large percentage, over 60% will have changes on their X-rays at some point in their lives. It is quite common. It can affect any breed of dog and start at any age. Additional information
Signs of pain in dogs
Signs of pain in dogs may not be what you expect. Sometimes it is obvious, they are playing fetch and then land funny on their leg, it breaks, and they scream out in pain. But most of the time, dogs don’t vocalize with everyday pain.
Signs of pain may include:
- Stiffness when getting up
- Limping (all the time, intermittently)
- Panting when not exercising or out in the heat
- Hesitating to jump up on things or when going up or down the stairs
- “Crankiness” – They may be less tolerant of other younger pets or children in the home and may not want to be brushed or picked up like they used to.
- They may slow down on their eating, but many will eat even with significant pain
- Increased sleeping or hiding,
- Sleeping less, restlessness, or pacing
- Overgrooming or licking one area, such as the hip or wrist could suggest pain in that joint
Is your dog in pain? See this checklist
Let’s clear up a few myths about arthritis in dogs
MYTH 1: Getting old is a disease
TRUTH 1: Just as we age, we may slow down with our pace, or be stiff after sitting in a position for too long. Dogs aren’t any different. But this isn’t just aging. Age isn’t a disease. It could be a variety of causes that “slow us down.” A combination of stiffness, decreased joint movement, arthritis, underlying kidney, dental disease, or other disease processes, and may contribute to a pet’s slowing down. However, that doesn’t mean that this pain should be written off and ignored. Saying my dog is just old doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Myth 2: Dogs who still eat normally and willingly go on walks aren’t in pain
TRUTH 2: Animals tolerate and hide pain much better than humans. Just because they are still doing their normal activities, albeit maybe less enthusiastically, doesn’t mean that they are not in pain.
How long a dog will live with arthritis depends on how painful they are, how well their pain is managed, how much exercise they get, their overall body condition (not too fat and not too thin), and other medical conditions. There is not a one size fits all answer. Some pets may live a short time, others for years. The key should not be how long you can keep your best four-legged friend around, but instead should be how long you can have your friend with a GOOD quality of life. Sometimes that means a shorter life but a fulfilling and happy one, with pain management and other therapies to manage pain and inflammation.
MYTH 3: Dogs in pain, dogs who slow down, dogs with a limp, do not need treatment.
TRUTH 3: If we wait until a dog is blatantly painful, they stop eating, they don’t want to get up, they don’t want to play or interact, then we have waited too long. We want to help them early on so they don’t develop chronic, untreatable pain, and so they can live a long healthy life. How long can a dog live? A lot longer with appropriate therapy. We need to be advocates for our furry friends. Do you take something if you get a bad headache or sprain your ankle or break a bone? Why shouldn’t they?
MYTH 4: Exercise is bad for my dog with arthritis.
TRUTH 4: Appropriate exercise is critical to maintain good body weight, strengthen and build bone, and maintain lean muscle mass. Even if it is a short leash walk for 5 minutes up and down the driveway a few times a day, structured exercise can be extremely beneficial over time.
MYTH 5: I don’t have to worry about my dog’s weight. He’s getting older he can eat what he wants.
TRUTH 5: This is far from true. Dogs, like people, can have many problems from carrying too much or not having enough body weight. You should be able to feel your pet’s ribs easily and he should have a waist at the end of his ribcage when looking down on his back. The ideal body condition for your dog can be seen here. A 9/9 score, think foot ottoman, vs a perfect 4.5/9 think of an hourglass when looking down on them from above.
How long can a dog can live with arthritis is impacted by a dog’s overall nutrition and body weight relative to his size. If a dog should be 20 pounds but is instead 40 pounds, compare that to a human that should be 100 but is 200 pounds. Think about how much more difficult it is to do things carrying that extra weight and the negative health consequences.
Please follow up with your veterinarian if you are concerned your pet is too heavy or underweight and before making any changes to your pet’s diet. Do not simply cut calories or add calories as this can negatively affect their health and overall nutrition. Some dogs need prescription food to lose weight properly, some may benefit from food that also supports the joints.
Treatments and supportive care to help your dog live longer with arthritis
So, what can you do for your dog with arthritis?
Ideally, we want to prevent arthritis from even starting. We do that by keeping our pet at the perfect body condition, providing well-balanced good quality food, providing regular exercise, and ensuring regular annual pet visits with a veterinarian. There are many supplements out there and treats that say they can prevent arthritis. Follow up with your veterinarian to discuss those treats and supplements which products they recommend because not all are created equal. Veterinarians will usually recommend products with scientific studies and evidence to back up the claims of their benefits.
What medications may be used to support dogs with arthritis?
These can include NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory pain medications) but as with supplements, these too, are not all created equal. Never give your pet over the counter human medications unless directed to by your veterinarian. Years ago, veterinarians recommended that Aspirin be used but studies today show that most dogs develop GI bleeding from the drug and it isn’t very effective in dogs anyway. Dog specific NSAIDs are much safer and more effective. Drugs like Ibuprofen and Aleve among others are TOXIC to dogs and should never be used.
Other medications can be used to treat pain and they treat different pathways of pain. So, they won’t address the inflammation in the joint itself but may help with the sore muscles or the sluggishness or improve mood and well-being. Examples include Gabapentin, Methocarbamol, Amantadine, or Codeine.
Not all medications are created equal. Not all medications are right for all pets. Often, a combination of medications is used in time to minimize the side effects and fully control a pet’s pain. Discuss with your veterinarian the side effects of the medications and together you can determine if the risks outweigh the benefits or vice versa.
What non-medication alternatives are there?
In addition to medications, or sometimes as a first step if the pain is mild, other modalities can help your dog live longer with arthritis. These include cold laser therapy, acupuncture, massage, water therapy (underwater treadmill), and even surgery depending on the underlying cause of arthritis or its severity. Additional support also includes assisting an arthritic dog to stand with a bath towel slung under the belly, or better yet a harness, such as the Help-Em-up Harness or walking aid
Finally, there are also prescription veterinary diets that are formulated with high levels of omega 3 fatty acids. In large quantities, studies show that they have anti-inflammatory effects and help reduce the number of pain medications needed over time. They would have to take the equivalent of a bottle a day almost to get the benefit of eating it as part of their normal daily meal.
Recognizing your dog’s arthritis is key to a comfortable life
How long can a dog live with arthritis? There isn’t a single answer. How long your dog lives with arthritis, ultimately, depends on you. Recognize early that your pet is showing changes and consult with your veterinarian. Starting supplements and a weight loss program, for instance, early on, can prevent damage and chronic pain as your pet ages. Work with your veterinarian to ensure that you are managing your pet’s pain well and know that your dog’s arthritis doesn’t have to mean not playing or having any fun. With proper pain management, supplements, alternative therapies, we have a lot of options to help your friend and your family remain together enjoying a good quality of life.