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Arthritis

Arthritis is extremely common in dogs. Estimates vary, but it is clear that the majority of dogs of large size will suffer from it in one or more joints eventually during their life.
 
When people talk about arthritis they are normally referring to osteoarthritis, the degenerative form of the disease often related to injury, chronic use or misuse, and poor conformation (such as hip or elbow dysplasia). The other forms of arthritis such as septic arthritis, immune-mediated polyarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis also occur, but much less frequently.
 
Signs of arthritis can be pretty challenging to detect, given the dog’s unwillingness in most cases to show any signs of weakness or discomfort. This varies enormously with breed, but most working dogs are hardy individuals who do not usually make a fuss. This does not, however, mean it doesn’t hurt or that performance is not being impaired.
 
Stiffness and pain may present as an obvious lameness in a leg, or a reluctance to jump into (hind-legs) or out of (forelegs) a vehicle. The signs may be worse in cold or wet weather, and may improve with activity as the joints warm up.
 

Arthritis is progressive and at this time unstoppable. But there are many things you can do to improve your mates lot in life.

Painkillers
Glucosamine/chondroitin
These are still the mainstay of treatment for arthritis in dogs and people. Most of these drugs are from the aspirin family (COX-inhibitors), and there are several options available now for dogs. They are licensed for long-term use. There are two schools of thought on how to use them. Some believe they should be given all the time, in order to be in the dog’s system when the pain strikes. Pain associated with arthritis waxes and wanes, and is impossible to predict. There is no question that the effectiveness of painkillers is improved if they are given before the pain comes on, and that therefore significantly lower doses may be used. The second group believes in waiting until the pain is noticed, then giving the medication.
 
Along with many other vets, I do not believe the second option has much value for two reasons. Firstly, as stated before, dogs do not like to show pain, so waiting for this to happen means you will miss most of the episodes. Secondly, pain receptors undergo something called pain wind-up in which they become progressively easier to set off as the pain gets a hold. This means pain becomes more difficult to control once it has established itself.
 
I therefore advocate continuous low-dose painkillers for maintenance of arthritis, and increased doses either when pain is noticed or just before activity which is likely to worsen lameness, so that the increased dose is present when needed.
Supplements containing these compounds are extremely common and make broad claims about helping control arthritis pain. Studies showing benefit are very limited, and to date there are only one or two products in existence that have any data to support their claims at all. Prices vary widely, and unfortunately so do contents, given the lack of regulation surrounding their manufacture.

Pentosan
This is a series of injections that have been shown to help some dogs with arthritis.
   

Diets
Environment
Stem cell therapy
There are several “arthritis diets” on the market now. Some contain glucosamine/chondroitin, some contain essential fatty acids, some claim to manipulate genes. There is some evidence that these diets can help some dogs with arthritis. The main goal of diet therapy however is weight control, since obese arthritic dogs suffer a lot more. Obesity is not a major issue in working dogs though… Keep those arthritic old dogs on a comfortable bed out of draughts and out of the rain. There is no doubt that arthritis gets worse in cold, draughty, damp conditions. This is the latest treatment for arthritis. We take a fat sample from their abdomen, process it in our laboratory in Pukekohe, then inject the activated stem cells obtained from it back into the arthritic joints.
We have done three cases so far, all seriously arthritic dogs, and all cases appear to have responded extremely well.
     

Summary

Arthritis is common. It interferes with a dog’s ability to work and makes its life miserable, just the same as in people.

Multiple treatment options are available. The mainstay of treatment is painkillers, of which there are several types.

Continuous low dose therapy is effective, and normally cheaper than intermittent high dose therapy.
Please contact one of our clinics to discuss arthritis treatment in your dogs.

Paul Eason BVM&S MANZCVS (Surgery; Emergency and Critical Care Medicine)