Osteoarthritis is the most commonly diagnosed joint disease in both human and Veterinary medicine. Similar to humans, dogs with arthritis can experience good and bad days. This article will explore canine arthritis and will aim to explain why dogs experience arthritis ‘flare ups.’
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a chronic, debilitating, painful and progressive condition caused by inflammation within joints. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis, affecting up to 75% of adult medium-size and large dogs (Anderson et al, 2018). OA occurs as a result of cartilage degeneration, leading to bone on bone contact and then consequently inflammation (Ortolano and Wenz 2014).
OA is often described as a multifactorial disease, meaning that there can be multiple factors which lead to this disease such as genetic and lifestyle components.
I won’t dive into other species today but it is very important to be aware that arthritis also affects other mammalian species including rabbits and also our feline counterparts.
Why does arthritis come and go?
As mentioned above, dogs with OA can have good and bad days. An OA “flare up” is when a dog experiences a relapse of their OA clinical signs and joint pain; sadly, these OA flare ups commonly occur in chronically arthritic patients. So, what causes OA to worsen and suddenly flare up?
Sometimes there is no definitive cause, however, too much exercise and unmanaged pain can be triggering factors.
Recognising a flare up
OA flare ups can be acutely painful and it is vitally important that as their Owners and caregivers you recognise when your dog is having a bad day because there are ways in which we can support them. Below is a list of clinical signs that your dog might display when they are experiencing an arthritis ‘flare up’ (this list is not exclusive):
Dogs suffering from OA will often already be demonstrating mobility changes and stiffness. However, dogs experiencing an OA flare up will likely be limping worse than usual.
Dogs in pain are more likely to be grumpy and less tolerant, as humans would also be! Any change in behaviour can be a subtle sign of pain and it is important not to ignore these changes. Additionally, dogs with severe OA may struggle to rise unaided and Owners may notice that they are sleeping more and interacting less.
During a flare up OA joints can become even more inflamed, this can sometimes result in swollen joints that are hot to the touch. If you notice your dog has swollen joints then contact your Vet immediately: while normally due to osteoarthritis, this can also be associated with serious joint infections.
I often hear owners telling me that their dog is ‘slowing down.’ If your dog used to be bouncy and enthusiastic during their walks but is now walking slower and taking regular pauses, this should be a huge red flag for OA!
If you notice any of these signs then please contact your local Vet for advice. Your Vet will likely prescribe appropriate pain relief such as anti-inflammatories and will advise resting your dog for a few days followed by a gradual return of exercise once they feel better. If your dog is already on arthritis medication, your Vet may prescribe additional medications. When combinations of medications and methods are used in scenarios like OA, we call this a ‘multimodal’ approach.
How is canine arthritis managed?
As canine OA is a multifactorial condition, the way we manage it is also multifactorial. I could write and talk about OA management all day (as I do with Clients!) but in this article I will only briefly touch on some of the basic principles. Your Vet will assist you in formulating an appropriate management plan for your canine friend.
The initial aim of OA management as their Vet and Owner should be to prioritise pain management. Nowadays there are many different medication options available and your Vet will help you to select the most appropriate choice for your dog. As OA is a lifelong condition your dog will therefore require lifelong support. Secondly, obesity can be a contributing factor and weight loss can be an effective treatment for OA in affected overweight and obese dogs (Marshall et al, 2009). Additional OA treatments include hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, acupuncture and joint supplements.
To conclude, as a practising small animal Vet I see arthritic dogs every single day and it is important to recognise any signs of OA in your pet. If you think that your dog may be arthritic, please do not just think they are ‘getting old’ because there are so many ways in which we can now support them to improve their overall quality of life. If you see them limping it should get you thinking!
- Anderson, K, L. O’Neill, D. Brodbelt, D, C. Church, D, B. Meeson, R, L. Sargan, D. Summer, J, F. Zulch, H. Collins, L, M. 2018. Prevalence, duration and risk factors for appendicular osteoarthritis in a UK dog population under primary veterinary care. Sci Rep. 8: 5641.
- Marshall, W. Bockstahler, B. Hulse, D. Carmichael, S. 2009. A review of osteoarthritis and obesity: Current understanding of the relationship and benefit of obesity treatment and prevention in the dog. Veterinary and Comparative Orthopaedics and Traumatology. 22(5):339-45
- Ortolano, G, A. Wenz, B. 2014 A review of the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis and the use of intra-articular platelet therapy for joint disease in animals and humans. Bone and Tissue Insights. 2014:5
- Canine Arthritis Management