Joint problems in dogs are very common, especially as animals age. So, what are signs of joint problems, and is there anything you can do to prevent them?
What is a joint?
A joint is where two separate bones meet. We have several types of joints within the body. Some do not allow for movement of the bones (like the fused bones that make up the skull), but others allow for movement of the bones in relation to one another. The surfaces of the bones within the joint are layered with protective cartilage, and the space in between is termed the joint capsule. This space is full of a lubricating fluid called “synovial fluid”, which allows the bones to move past one another smoothly.
When a problem develops within the joint, it can damage these structures, which in turn causes inflammation and pain.
Symptoms of joint problems:
Pet parents often assume that the only sign of joint problems is limping. However,
dogs will present with a variety of different symptoms of joint pain including:
– Stiffness when rising i.e after sleep
– Slowing down on walks
– Sleeping more than usual
– Reluctance to play
– Difficulty getting upstairs, onto the sofa, or into the car
– Reluctance to walk on slippery or tiled surfaces
– Stiff or stilted movement
– Low head carriage
– Male dogs may no longer lift their leg to pee.
– Change in posture to poo, reduced frequency of going for a poo, or increased episodes of constipation (this is because it becomes painful to go to the toilet, so he will deliberately hold on as long as possible).
– Accidents (wee or poo) in the house
– Becoming more grumpy or less interactive than usual
If your dog is showing any of the signs above, it can indicate that they are in pain. Pet parents are often surprised to find this out; many assume that their pet would yelp if something hurts. Dogs, however, will rarely vocalise or yelp when they are suffering from joint problems. Many dogs will also continue to eat even when they are in pain. Severe lameness, where your dog is unwilling to place weight on the leg, can be a sign of a serious joint problem such as an infection, torn ligament, broken bone, or cancer. As such, if your dog cannot put weight on their leg, they should always be checked over by your local veterinarian urgently.
Types of Joint Problems in Dogs
Degenerative Joint Disease
Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is also termed arthritis or “osteoarthritis”. Arthritis in dogs results from gradual wear and tear leading to damage to the cartilage that lines the joint’s surface. This, in turn, leads to joint inflammation and pain. Sometimes, pieces of the cartilage can come loose in the joint due to the damage. DJD can also occur secondary to infections, bone injury, or surgeries. Dogs that carry excess bodyweight are more likely to develop DJD due to the extra strain on their joints. DJD is irreversible and progressive, worsening as your pet ages.
Immune-Mediated Joint Disease
Our immune system is responsible for fighting infection and ridding the body of things that shouldn’t be there. It consists of many different components that work together to keep us healthy. When things go wrong with this complex system, the body can turn on itself inappropriately and attack normal body structures.
Dogs can develop a problem where the immune system attacks the joints leading to pain and swelling. This can happen spontaneously or with broader diseases of the immune system. It can also result from infections or cancer elsewhere in the body, gut disease, and some medications. Some breeds, like Shar Peis and Akitas, are more likely to be affected by immune-mediated joint disease.
Infectious Joint Disease
Infectious joint disease is also called “septic arthritis” and occurs when bacteria (or rarely other infectious agents such as viruses, fungi, or parasites) enter the joint. Bacteria can enter the joint either via an injury or by hitching a ride in the
bloodstream. Some of the bacteria that can be involved include those carried by ticks, such as Lyme disease (caused by Borrelia burgdorferi), so it is vital to ensure you keep up to date with tick prevention.
Developing septic arthritis can signify that your pet’s immune system isn’t working as well as it should to prevent infections. A weakened immune system can be associated with diabetes or Addison’s disease (underactive adrenal glands). A reduction in immune system function can also be related to medications such as steroids and some cancer therapies.
Cancer of the joints
Sadly, our canine companions can also develop cancers affecting their joints. These types of cancer are rare compared to other types of bone cancer. Typically, they affect large breed, middle-age to older dogs. They can behave quite aggressively, growing and damaging the tissues in and around the joint. They can also spread to other areas in the body, with the most common areas of spread being the local nodes and the lungs.
Other types of Joint Diseases:
– Ligament damage: most commonly affected are the ligaments of the knee (“cruciate” ligaments). This often happens secondary to trauma, but not always.
– Overweight dogs are more at risk.
– Kneecap dislocation: this often affects small or toy breed dogs. Classically they will have an intermittent skip in their stride.
– Hip and elbow dysplasia: these result from the abnormal development of the joint in young dogs, which in turn leads to early-onset arthritis. These problems are hereditary, and when choosing a puppy, it is sensible to ensure the parents have been screened for joint problems if possible.
To prescribe the correct treatment for your canine companion, your vet may need to perform some further investigations to get to the bottom of why your dog’s joints are hurting. These tests may include:
– blood testing – to check organ function, blood cell counts, and to rule out infectious diseases
– imaging of the affected bones (this may be with x-ray or a CT scan)
– sampling the fluid within the joints to better understand the problem.
Treatment depends on the nature of the disease that is affecting the joint:
Whatever type of joint disease your pet is suffering from, your veterinarian will
recommend pain relief. With arthritis, some dogs will manage with a single drug. Many will need a combination of drugs to manage their comfort most effectively, especially as the disease progresses. It is important never to give human painkillers to dogs unless under the direct guidance of your veterinarian, as many can cause severe, even fatal, illness in your pet.
You can supplement your dog’s diet to include compounds known to improve joint health. Lovimals Hip and Joint chew “Move” uses proven ingredients like glucosamine, chondroitin, omega fatty acids, and green-lipped mussel extract to alleviate pain and improve or maintain hip and joint health. Although joint supplements can be use alleviate symptoms associated with joint pain, most vets recommend offering supplements as soon as you suspect a joint problem is developing.
Dogs with joint disease can benefit hugely from working with a licensed animal
physiotherapist to undertake specific exercises and swimming therapy to improve their joint mobility. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend a suitably qualified individual.
Acupuncture is growing in popularity and there is increasing evidence supporting its efficacy in the management of chronic pain. It should only be undertaken by a veterinary surgeon due to the risk of damage to vital nerves and tissues with incorrect needle placement.
An essential and often overlooked part of managing dogs suffering from joint disease is that of weight loss. Many dogs are overweight, and a controlled diet is vital to get your pet to a healthy body weight. Your veterinary clinic will be able to help advise you on a safe way to help your pet diet.
If your pet is a healthy weight and has joint problems, it is vital that you do not allow him to gain weight, especially as he is likely to become less active and require less food.
Providing a comfortable bed, non-slip flooring, and ramp access to cars or upstairs can hugely benefit affected dogs. Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with comprehensive, tailored lifestyle recommendations for your dog.
Specific medications may be necessary, depending on the disease with which your pet has been diagnosed. For example, animals with an infection may need antibiotics, and those with an overactive immune system may need drugs to dampen this down.
However, reducing the immune reaction if your pet has an infection can lead to a fatal condition called sepsis. Therefore, your veterinarian will recommend performing tests before prescribing medication to ensure an accurate diagnosis. If your pet has cancer of the joint, it may be your veterinarian recommends surgery or chemotherapy drugs. Some joint problems, such as ligament damage or dysplasia, may require an operation. Joint replacements are considered in extreme cases.
Joint disease can be extremely painful for our canine friends, but they will often do an excellent job of hiding this. If you are worried it is sensible to organise a consultation with your veterinarian. Early intervention can help delay disease progression and ensure your dog is comfortable. Canine arthritis is an incurable and progressive condition, but early, proactive, and dedicated management, can give dogs suffering from this condition an excellent quality of life for a long time.