Goals of Treating Canine Arthritis
Arthritis is a painful condition and when an owner suspects that his aging dog may be suffering from arthritis, it is time to get a veterinarian’s assessment of the dog’s overall health and physical status. Fortunately, a number of medications and dietary supplements are available to help alleviate much of the discomfort associated with this condition and manage the disease’s progression. The goals of treating arthritis are to relieve pain, improve mechanical joint function, slow progression of the disease and stimulate the body’s ability to repair affected joints, if possible.
Surgical and non-surgical options are available to help manage canine arthritis. These procedures can dramatically improve a dog’s comfort and quality of life. Surgery is usually a last resort, because the consequences of surgery can include pain and other debilitating symptoms that are already associated with the disorder.
Non-surgical treatment options include administration of:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), to reduce inflammation and reduce pain
- Chondroprotective agents, to promote heathy cartilage repair (polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronan, Vitamin C, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and MSM, among others)
- Opioids, to reduce pain (butorphanol, tramadol, others)
In many cases, dietary modification and weight loss alone will decrease the discomfort associated with arthritis, since overweight arthritic dogs tend to suffer more than fit dogs. Moderate exercise can stimulate cartilage repair and help delay joint degeneration; long, controlled, low-impact on-leash walks in early or mild cases of arthritis may also help delay atrophy of muscle mass. Physical therapy, including hydrotherapy (swimming and other water exercises) and passive flexion and extension of affected limbs are often incorporated into long-term management of arthritis.
Other, less traditional techniques and products may or may not benefit affected dogs by helping to ease pain, increase circulation, speed healing and promote wellness, comfort and relaxation. These include: massage therapy to stimulate blood flow and reduce stress; acupuncture; acupressure; chiropractic adjustment; and use of herbal or other non-regulated supplements (“homeopathic remedies”). Many of these adjunct treatments lack controlled studies of their effectiveness and may not have established quality control methods or ways to assess their benefit to arthritic dogs. Chiropractic manipulation of dogs with musculoskeletal abnormalities is highly controversial among veterinary professionals and should only be performed by or under the direct supervision of a veterinarian with extensive orthopedic expertise.
When a dog’s joints have become so severely damaged that non-surgical treatment options don’t resolve its discomfort, surgical options may be considered. These include arthroscopic and open surgical joint replacement, joint repair and joint fusion. Arthroscopy is the most minimally-invasive surgery currently available for arthritic dogs and can be used to repair damaged shoulders, elbows, stifles (knees) and ankle joints. The surgeon makes small cuts over the joint and inserts tiny cameras through the incisions to assess joint damage and plan surgical repair, which may also be done through the incisions with specialized instruments. Sometimes, arthroscopy can’t be performed due to excessive joint swelling or leakage.
Elbow and hip replacements are available for dogs at specialized hospitals. These surgeries are expensive and require a long recovery time (approximately 2-3 months). However, over 90% of joint replacements successfully resolve the dog’s symptoms. Damaged wrist, toe and spine joints can be fused surgically using metal implants. Unfortunately, the implants can cause complications.
Prognosis for Dogs with Arthritis
Although arthritis is a progressive and irreversible, non-surgical and surgical therapies often help affected dogs maintain a good quality of life. Overweight and very old arthritic dogs are not good surgical candidates. A veterinarian can give dog owners an idea of what they can, and cannot, expect from these management options.