How to Help Your Old Dog With Arthritis
It is inevitable that out pets will get older. Despite Cher’s utmost desires, we just haven’t figured out how to turn back time. While veterinarians are quick to point out that age is not a disease, with age does come a greater incidence of degenerative disease processes. Degenerative joint disease (“arthritis”) is an example of once such disease process.
While age-related arthritis is a disease that we generally manage as opposed to cure, appropriate management may allow your afflicted pet to live a long and comfortable life. Conversely, I tend to think the opposite is also true – that poorly managed arthritis is one of the most commonly under-managed diseases in our older pets. Unfortunately, many old dogs are just plain uncomfortable.
Does My Old Pet Hurt?
We did not evolve to speak the same language as our pets. This means we don’t always correctly interpret the signals they are sending us. I often have clients express disbelief that I believe their beloved pet to be uncomfortable, because they have not noticed common human manifestations of pain. They have not heard LuLuBelle cry out. Or, Sparky still gets up to go on his nightly walk.
This mindset underestimates the pain the feel from their arthritis. However, this is a bit of a conundrum. If we do not speak the same language, how do we know what they are telling us? The short answer is that we don’t, at least not always. However, there are some things you can look for to gauge whether your pet has arthritis pain.
- Is your pet limping? Regardless of whether he is vocalizing, limping is a clear sign of pain (or numbness in certain scenarios). If your pet is limping, we need to explore whether we can better manage his condition.
- Is your pet losing muscle mass? This may be something that you turn to your veterinarian for help to evaluate. If your pet is losing muscle mass weight – If he is looking skinny through his extremities due to muscle atrophy – he may also have arthritis related pain.
- Is your pet reluctant to do things he once did? Or, has your pet stopped jumping up into the car. Is he reluctant to go on his nightly walk. Is he less enthusiastic to get up at meal time or chase off the mailman? If your arthritis pet has experienced a change of behavior, he pain be in pain.
I Believe My Pet is in Pain. Now What?
1. Chat with your vet
The first step in managing arthritis in your pet involves a trip to your vet. While I will provide general tips and suggested products in the following article, only your vet can evaluate the needs of your specific pet to develop a custom plan. See, pain and inflammation associated with arthritis occurs in many different ways. This means that managing pain effectively involves a multiple step plan – something we refer to multimodal pain management.
While the below recommendations are generally available for over the counter implementation, prescription anti-inflammatories and straight pain medications are a mainstay of most plans to manage arthritis. Your local veterinarian can decide which combinations of interventions may work best for your fluffy friend. Schedule a consultation – I promise the results will be worth it.
2. Stay Away From Your Medicine Cabinet
The most important take away from this entire article is that many human pain medications are NOT safe to use in pets. In addition, medication that you give to your pets at home may adversely interact with commonly prescribed animal medications and can impact the ability of your veterinarian to prescribe their first choice medication.
Furthermore, the safety of medication may depend on the species or size of your pet. Typically, veterinary dosing correlates closely with the size of your pet and human medications may either under or over-dose your dog. In addition, certain medications are just plain toxic. Did you know that it is really bad for dogs to get Alleve or Advil? Cats and Tylenol? That is downright awful.
Please, before you administer any medication at home, please ask your veterinarian if it is both a safe and effective option.
3. Multimodal Approach to Pain Management
There is not just a single pathway through with your pet feels pain. Instead, think of it more as a starburst, with each of the rays representing a different sensory input or inflammatory pathway that ultimately converge on the end result – pain and inflammation.
As a result, there is likely not one single medication that will effectively manage your pet’s arthritis. Instead, it is better to take a cumulative approach by starting with an initial set of treatment options and adding additional therapies as the disease progresses. This is what we refer to as multimodal approach to pain management. I like to set this expectation from the start, so that you don’t fret if your dog ends up with his own shelf in your medicine cabinet.
4. Joint Supplements
One of the first recommendations I make towards tackling the issue of arthritis in pets is for owners to start their aging or arthritis-prone pet on joint supplements. An important disclaimer is that regulation of supplements are generally loose and basically you get what you pay for. Talk with your veterinarian or pharmacist regarding recommended supplements brands.
- Adequan (and generic equivalents) – Adequan is an injectable component of joint cartilage, which also has anti-inflammatory properties. Adequan has numerous beneficial effects for the arthritis patient including the inhibition of harmful enzymes involving joint cartilage destruction, stimulation of cartilage repair, and increasing joint lubrication. It is an injection that can be given either in the veterinarian office or at home.
- Glucosamine / Chondroitin – These cartilage building blocks are primarily derived from sea mollusks and provide the recipient with adequate building blocks needed for cartilage repair. In addition, they likely have some anti-inflammatory effects.
- ASUs – These are the non-fatty portions of Avocado and Soybean which remain after a process of saponification. They have anti-inflammatory properties and thus prevents inflammation-induced breakdown of joint cartilage.
- MSM – This is a sulfate source; a component of the glycosaminoglycan component of joint cartilage that enable it to hold fluid and thus cushion articulating bones. Thus, it is a building block for cartilage repair. It also likely provides some anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.
- Green-lipped mussel – Inflammation in the body is signaled by molecules called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Green-lipped mussel provides anti-inflammatory action by inhibiting the formation of certain leukotrienes.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Omega Three Fatty Acids have anti-inflammatory effects when administered long term and in higher doses.
5. Help with a Harness
Often times, there are specific scenarios that arthritis dogs struggle with: Getting up on the wood floors, climbing up into bed, or jumping into a car. Lift harnesses provide a means to support your pet when they needed it most. These harnesses can be divided into four groups:
- Chest Harness – These are harness that are worn around the chest and have a handle on which you can lift up on your pet – think of it as a doggy purse. While this is the harness type that people are most familiar with, I actually think it is of limited use in pets with rear leg arthritis. When you think about it, as you lift up on your pet from the back of the chest, there is a tendency for their rear legs to slide beneath them – the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. However, this type of harness is essential for pets with collapsing trachea or neck problems. Chest Harness
- Abdominal support – This refers to a fabric back that slides under your pet’s belly and allows you to provide some support while walking. It is probably best used for short term use and can also be accomplished with a rolled up towel or blanket. Abdominal Support Band
- Hip Support Harness – This is a harness that fits just around the pelvis of your dog, providing a means for you to lift up on their back end. This works great for providing a quick boost to dogs that struggle to rise on their rear end and can also be used for continued support when walking. Hip Harness
- Full Body Support Harness – Particularly helpful are those full body harnesses that provide additional pelvic support. I have seen a number of pets with spinal cord disease, hip dysplasia, and torn cruciate ligament injury benefit tremendously from these harnesses. You can find my favorite below. I like this product because it can be worn all the time and allows you to customize the support that your are providing for your pet. Full Support Harness – 30-49 lbs Full Support Harness – 50-69 lbs Full Support Harness – 70+ Lbs
6. Give ‘Em Grip
I practice in the Southwest – pretty much everything is tiled. This tends to pose a problem for dogs that are weak on one or more of their limbs. Often times, owners report that their pet slips on smooth surfaces and thus has trouble rising. There are some ways to improve this.
- Area rugs – I know. Not everyone is a fan of area rugs. But, consider it a retirement present to your aging pooch and place area rugs in high traffic areas.
- Keep Nails Short – Long nails have a tendency to exacerbate the poor traction, keep those nails trimmed. If your dog is click-clacking, it is probably time to hit up the salon for a pedicure.
- Booties – I’m just going to say it – I have a soft spot for old dogs in boots. But, they are not just stinkin’ cute. They serve a purpose to prevent slipping (and where I live, can protect against thermal concrete burns in the hot summer months). My favorite at the moment are these thin, rubber socks.
- Sticky Pad Covers – There are a variety of products made to apply to paw pads in order to increase traction. Some are a rubber liquid (think a cross between nail polish and rubber cement). Anecdotally, my clients have had the best results with these sticky paw pad covers.
- Nail Caps – These genius rubber donuts fit over the ends of your pets nails to provide rubber grip on slippery floors.
7. Shed The Pounds
If you take away one point from the article, let it be this. Our pets don’t have their own willpower to battle in the struggle to maintain an ideal body weight. You are in charge of the calories they receive. While it is important for all pets to maintain an ideal body condition, it is imperative that those struggling osteoarthritis are kept lean. It will reduce the impact on their damaged joints and effectively reduce the medication required to keep them comfortable.
Are you struggling in getting their weight off? The first step is to rule out medical cause for an overweight pet. For example, hypothyroidism is a disease seen in dogs that can cause weight-gain. If no medical reason is found, it is time to look at calories in versus calories out and tip the scales in favor of weight-loss. This is how you do it.
- DO NOT USE THE BAG RECOMMENDATIONS TO DETERMINE HOW MUCH TO FEED. (Yep. I was shouting. That part was important.)
- Ask your veterinarian for a custom daily calorie requirement or use an online calorie calculator to estimate it on your own. This number is likely lower than you expected.
- Look-up the nutritional information for the pet food that you feed and all treats that you give. Jot down this information so that it is readily available.
- Do the math. I like to subtract 50-100 kCal from the required daily intake to save for treats and extras. I am a big believer in the importance of an occasional treat.
- Calculate as follows:
- kCal (Daily Allowance) / kCal (per Cup of food) = Total daily food intake (Cups)
- Total daily food intake (Cups) / # meals = Cups fed per meal
- Partition up the treat allowance in a similar manner and spread those treats throughout the day. Note that the treat allowance amounts to a lot more green beans than bacon, and your dog will likely learn to love those green beans. Just saying.
8. Keep on Moving
How does that commercial go? A joint in motion….stays in motion. I have no idea of the drug being sold in that commercial, but the phrase has stuck with me. It is often something I repeat to clients. While it may be counterintuitive, I actually want you to continue low impact exercise of your arthritic dog. Here are the reasons.
First, although I already harped on weight above, I will quickly mention it again. Dogs that a lean have a statistically significant decrease in need for NSAID therapy to manage their pain. Researchers at some of the fancy shmancy veterinary colleges have used force plate analysis to measure the downward force a pet places on their limbs in comparison to weight.
They found this force is increased in arthritic limbs when a pet’s weight is decreased. Skinny dogs hurt less so they use the leg more. Exercise aids in maintaining a lean body condition. A higher dose of anti-inflammatory medications is required to get the same results in chubbier dogs.
Second, you can think of your joint cartilage as a thirsty sponge in a bowl of water. As you squeeze that sponge and release, new water is drawn into the sponge. Thus is the case with joint cartilage. Movement draws joint fluid into the cartilage, lubricating and providing important nutrients to the cartilage in ensure its health and longevity.
On a Final Note…
If you have made it to the end of this post, you deserve a pat on the back. This is a complicated topic. In reality, I have barely scratched the surface of the management of degenerative joint disease in pets.
Pleased stay tuned for addition information on the topic. Next up is an introduction on alternative medicine therapies for the management of osteoarthritis.