Often just called arthritis, osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition in which the joint’s ligaments break down, resulting in progressively worse inflammation, pain, instability, and impaired mobility. This type of arthritis isn’t the same as rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the joints.
Osteoarthritis is the most common health problem and cause of chronic pain in older dogs, affecting about 20 percent of adults, and even more in dogs over the age of 7. Larger breeds are more susceptible, so if you have one of the common larger service dog breeds, like a German shepherd, Labrador retriever, golden retriever, collie, or Irish setter, your canine companion is at increased risk.
Because this is a painful, incurable disease that can cause considerable and ever-increasing suffering, it’s important to be proactive about prevention and management. Of course, chronic pain, associated mood problems, and impaired mobility can also mean your assistance dog is unable to continue performing all her tasks. If your service dog develops arthritis, you’ll need to ease off the physical demands and work closely with your vet to create a plan to alleviate your dog’s discomfort and the demands placed on her.
Signs and Symptoms of Canine Arthritis
As a degenerative condition, osteoarthritis signs and symptoms generally start out subtle and get progressively more significant. Stiffness and intermittent lameness in affected limbs are major signs. You may notice your service dog holding up a leg, limping, standing oddly, or becoming more reluctant to run, perform physically demanding tasks, or otherwise be active. She may also struggle to get up from a sitting or lying position or to walk up and down stairs. These sorts of problems are usually more pronounced after she’s been lying down for a while and in cold and/or damp weather.
Your assistance dog’s joints may become noticeably inflamed, meaning you can feel swelling and warmth. She may flinch or become aggressive in reaction to pain when affected joints are touched. In later stages, joints can become deformed. Decreased activity, increased sleep, weight gain, irritability, social withdrawal, depression, and lethargy are commonly seen as the disease progresses.
Diagnosing Osteoarthritis in Dogs
Your veterinarian will listen to your account of the signs and symptoms you’ve noticed. Provide as much detailed information as possible, including what you’ve seen, when you started seeing it, how it’s progressed, and what changes there have been in your service dog. Your descriptions, combined with your dog’s medical history and a physical exam paying particular attention to the joints, should give your vet a good idea of whether arthritis or something else may be the problem.
Blood work and urinalysis will probably be run to check for evidence of other possible causes of your assistance dog’s symptoms. X-rays or other imaging tests may also be used to examine the joints for signs of arthritic damage.
Treating Your Assistance Dog’s Arthritis
Arthritis can’t be cured, so the goals of treatment are to manage symptoms, minimize suffering, and slow progression of the joint disease. Work with your vet to devise a safe and effective treatment plan. Some of the most basic management involves simply making your service dog more comfortable by reducing painful activities, helping her stay warm and offering extra cold-weather care, and providing comfortable bedding.
If your service dog is overweight—which, along with a genetic predisposition, is one of the biggest risk factors for developing arthritis—helping her achieve and maintain a healthy body weight is a key part of managing the condition. Excess weight puts more stress on the joints, exacerbating the discomfort and degeneration. It’s important that she stay as active as possible with low-impact activities like walking and swimming.
Your vet may prescribe medication to alleviate pain and inflammation, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or more potent painkillers like opioids. Various supplements are often given to strengthen the joints and reduce inflammation. Some of those more commonly used for arthritis include chondroitin, glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E, and fish oil for its omega-3 fatty acids. Remember, only use drugs or supplements as prescribed by your veterinarian.
In advanced cases, surgical treatments may be called for. These might include arthroscopic joint cleaning or joint replacement.
Professional veterinary massage and acupuncture are two alternative therapies relatively widely used to help reduce the symptoms and progression of arthritis. They offer a variety of benefits, including increased blood flow and oxygenation, reduced inflammation, pain and stress reduction, and boosted immune function. As natural touch therapies, massage and acupuncture are generally safe, even for dogs taking drugs or supplements.
Preventing Arthritis in Your Service Dog
Genetics play a significant role in the development of arthritis, and there’s no guaranteed way to prevent your assistance dog from developing this degenerative joint disease.
Making sure your dog maintains a healthy body weight is the best single measure to reduce your dog’s risk. If your service dog is overweight, consult your vet about safely cutting her calories and increasing her physical activity. If your disability prevents you from allowing your dog enough exercise, seek help from a relative, friend, neighbor, or professional dog walker.
Work with Your Veterinarian
Whether you’re trying to prevent arthritis or manage it in your assistance dog, always follow your vet’s recommendations. Your vet should oversee any dietary or activity changes. Don’t administer drugs or supplements on your own; there are potential interactions, even with natural supplements, that can pose dangers.