All forms of chronic joint disease eventually result in some degree of arthritis. In older animals, one commonly sees these degenerative changes affecting the spine, hips and shoulders. The signs of arthritis are lameness involving the affected joint(s). Sometimes these joints are puffy and tender. Arthritic changes appear sooner in large breeds of dogs but are uncommon in cats and smaller dogs until they are quite old. Arthritis is diagnosed by an x-ray of the affected joint(s).
The problems that lead to arthritis begin quite early in the pet’s life but are not noticeable at that time. Smaller breeds of dogs tend to have fewer arthritic problems than the large breeds. It is important that you keep your pets toenails clipped correctly, so their normal gait is not restricted. Overgrown toenails could be thought of as wearing shoes with improperly shaped soles and heels – they place a strain on the joints that support them.
A critical caution in preventing or delaying arthritis in later life is not to overfeed puppies – especially puppies of larger breeds. Puppy shows, feed free choice (all they will eat) is not in the long-term interest of your pet. It has been found that if you feed less than the pet is willing to consume it will mature slower with stronger joints and ligaments and even live a longer life. Puppies that eat too much gain weight faster than their poorly calcified bones can support. They develop loose overly flexible joints, which are the starting point for arthritis.
Later in life, it is important that your pet remains trim and not overweight. Trim dogs develop less arthritis, and if they do, it occurs later in life. A moderate amount of daily exercise like taking walks with your pets also will delay arthritis. Hot tubs, whirlpools, and swimming, are great.
If your pet is already showing the morning stiffness and intermittent lameness that signals arthritis, what are some of the things you can do? First, if your pet is overweight try feeding less of a low caloric diet. Many low cal foods are marketed through supermarkets. If you are not strong willed enough to cut the pet’s total food intake, purchase a prescription, weight reduction diet or supplement its diet with low-calorie items such as cooked cabbage, green beans, and carrots.
There are a variety of nutritional supplements on the market today that might improve your pet’s joint function. Some are prepared from extracts of cartilage. Others are formulated from the glucosamine found in clams. Some have other ingredients added. Only a few have been adequately tested scientifically to prove that they work, but none will cause harm to your pet.
You can try daily doses of aspirin. I give about 5-10 mg per pound body weight twice a day. Others have used double this dose. Like people, some dogs tolerate aspirin well while others do not. Side effects are a lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea or dark stools. If any of these events occur, you must lower the dose or discontinue it altogether. Never give aspirin to cats! Aspirin and all other anti-arthritic drugs are often referred to as NSAIs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). All the older ones, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, phenylbutazone, and indomethacin are known for causing stomach problems in people and pets. Within the last few years, new NSAI medications, Rimadyl (carprofen, Pfizer) and Etogesic (etodolac, to helpWyeth), have been approved by the FDA. They have a lower rate of gastrointestinal irritation. The first is a twice a day product, the second, once a day. Most recently, deracoxib (Deramaxx, Novartis) and tepoxalin (Zubrin, Schering) have come onto the market. These to help really old dogs get about again. They cannot be used in cats.
There are many other scientifically unproven treatments for arthritis in people and pets. Everything from magnets to acupuncture have been used. I cannot tell you that they do work, but little is lost in trying them if you wish.
A point eventually comes when the NSAI drugs mentioned are not enough. In these pets the carefully supervised use of cortisone-type drugs will often buy extra mobility time for your pet. Steroids are powerful drugs. The most commonly used ones for arthritic problems are prednisone and prednisolone. They are best given no more frequently than every second or third day. They relieve inflammation throughout the body but also cause increased appetite and thirst, fluid retention, liver enlargement and other changes.
Do not fear cortisone drugs too much if they are properly used. These powerful drugs have saved many lives. Any person with an organ transplant remains on one of them the rest of their lives. The secret of success with them is to control weight through diet and to give as little of the medication as infrequently as possible so you can enjoy the company of your pet as long as possible.