By Allen M. Schoen, D.V.M., M.S.
It is amazing to see how many dogs suffer from arthritis. A recent study sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health showed that approximately 20% of adult dogs may be affected by arthritis. The old belief systems that all one could do for arthritis for dogs was to give them aspirin or cortisone, is obsolete. There are many different approaches to help animals suffering from the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. Before we look at the different approaches and how to develop a comprehensive holistic approach to keeping your arthritic pet as healthy, happy and pain free as possible, let’s make sure we know what to look for to see if they are arthritic. They don’t just come up to you and say “hey, I am stiff and in pain in my back or in my legs. Or do they?
Animals talk to us in many ways other than English. There is a vast amount of nonverbal and physical communication that we can be aware of to know if our pet is beginning to be arthritic. Some of the first signs include a decrease in their activity level or not wanting to be touched or handled as much or being a bit grouchy or aggressive when being touched. Other mild signs include : slight stiffness or lameness when walking, mild pain around the affected joint, painful yelping when putting weight on an affected leg or when touched there, difficulty going up and down stairs and stiffness when trying to get up and down. Now mind you, these symptoms can also be due to other problems including other types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis as well as Lyme Disease and others, possibly even cancer. If your furry companion shows any of these symptoms, you should take them to your veterinarian for a diagnosis. Make sure they see how they walk and how they get up and down. Murphy’s law may happen and due to their excitement at the veterinarian, they may do better there, but then describe to your veterinarian what they are or are not doing and for how long and if it is progressive or not.
So, let us say that your veterinarian has taken x-rays and performed appropriate blood tests and you have a diagnosis of arthritis. What are the options? In the past, if surgery was not appropriate, your veterinarian would probably recommend cortisone or aspirin or other nonsteroidal medications. Most steroidal and nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) will help relieve the pain and inflammation, but while doing that, they can actually make the long term deterioration of the joints worse as well as causing other problems. NSAIDs do not treat the underlying condition. Though cortisone may appear to be a miracle drug initially, it has a multitude of potential side effects long term. These include suppression of the immune system, predisposition to bladder infections and infections elsewhere as well as liver and kidney disease and gastrointestinal bleeding. These are serious potential side effects. Nowadays there are some nonsteroidalal medications that have fewer side effects, but they do appear to still have some side effects. One of these new nonsteroidal medications is called carprofen or rimadyl ™ by Pfizer. It helps many animals with fewer side effects. However, recent research suggests that it still may have the potential to cause some long term mild joint deterioration. The verdict is still out on that. But, I have seen some dogs where nothing else has worked without side effects and this medication really works well in relieving pain. It is certainly worth consideration. Additional newer nonsteroidal medications have come available as well including one called metacam. If you feel that a nonsteroidal is reasonable as part of an integrative approach to helping your arthritic companion, discuss with your veterinarian which of the new nonsteroidal medications has the least side effects and is most appropriate for your dog.
Occasionally I still recommend surgery when the condition is very severe or localized to one area and has a good chance of success with minimal side effects. This is the key question when considering surgery; are the advantages and chance of success much greater than the potential for complications or side effects. All surgery requires anesthesia and if your dog is older or has other significant problems, then anesthesia and surgery may be a significant risk factor. Discuss the percentage success rate, potential for complications and any personal risk factors for your pet with your veterinarian. For instance, if your dog has a sudden rupture of its anterior cruciate ligament in its knee, this often times requires surgery. There are potential complications and your pet may still develop arthritis in the knee, but surgery is the only way to stabilize that knee. However, if someone is recommending a total hip replacement for hip dysplasia and arthritis in a thirteen year old dog, you may want to consult with a holistically oriented veterinarian to explore other options.
What else can we do for our furry friends besides medicine and surgery? Actually, there is so much we can do. Let’s start off with which nutritional supplements may be helpful. Two nutritional supplements, glucosamine and chondroitin, have been found to not only help control pain, but also improve joint mobility and improve the damage to the cartilage that is part of the arthritic process. These two products work together to block the action of cartilage destroying enzymes as well as increase the activity of cartilage producing cells and improve the nutrition to the cartilage. These supplements are available at many veterinary hospitals as well as health food stores and even some drug stores. The general dosage recommendation is 1,000 mg. of glucosamine and 800mg of chondroitin per 50lbs. Combination products are available through your veterinarian. Some products have additional Vitamin C added as well. There are injectable forms of glucosamines, such as Adequan ™, as well which can be quite beneficial.
Antioxidants may also be extremely beneficial in the treatment of arthritis. Antioxidants are helpful by controlling free radicals which are associated with cartilage damage. The most readily available antioxidants include Vitamins A, C, and E and the mineral Selenium. Dosage suggestions vary, I usually recommend 2,000 IU of Vitamin A per 50lb. dog per day as well as 1000mg buffered Vitamin C twice a day (buffered Vit C), 400 I.U. of Vitamin E and 25-50 micrograms of Selenium.
Bioflavonoids may also be beneficial since they help make collagen which is a primary component of cartilage. There are many herbs that appear to be beneficial for arthritis as well. This is a whole other story. A few of these herbs include yucca, devils claw, alfalfa as well as various Chinese herbal formulas. We use a number of different Chinese herbal formula’s for dogs depending on their particular condition. Chinese herbal formula’s offer a broader approach to treating an animal, looking at and prescribing herbs for the underlying causes based on Traditional Chinese Medicine. In our practice, we have had excellent results with certain formula’s in not only relieving pain and inflammation, but also improving strength and mobility.
Regular exercise is extremely beneficial also. Exercise helps keep muscles, tendons and ligaments strong and in condition and improves mobility and range of motion. You want to be careful to give enough exercise but not too much. A good general rule of thumb is to do enough that your dog enjoys it and is out frequently but not too much that they are stiff and ache all over afterwards. Shorter more frequent walks and play time or swimming throughout the day are better than one long one. Physical therapy with underwater treadmills may also be of benefit. In addition, acupuncture, and chiropractic can be very beneficial for arthritic dogs, not only in relieving pain but in increasing circulation to the muscles and joints and improving overall health.
Another cutting edge therapy for arthritis is stem cell therapy. I have discussed this in more detail in a blog post on my blog www.kindredspiritsproject.com .
Daily massages can also be beneficial and also gives you another great chance to bond with your buddies through the magic of touch! So a comprehensive holistic approach usually works well in keeping our friends healthy and comfortable! Enjoy and be well!