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Hot Topic Series: The Art of Aging Gracefully: #1: Canine Osteoarthritis

Throughout this series of several newsletters we’ll take a look at different topics related to the aging of companion animals (cats and dogs). Senior pets make incredible companions and it is important to ensure their health care is suited to their unique needs. One thing to remember throughout all these newsletters is that old age itself is NOT a disease. While there are many medical conditions associated with aging, it is inappropriate for us as owners to simply brush off health issues as “part of aging”. With proper care and attention there’s no reason our senior pets can’t live out their golden years in wonderful health.

What’s a senior?

While humans have things like “senior’s discounts” or retirement to help decide when they’re considered seniors, the timeline isn’t quite as simple when it comes to our feline and canine companions. Lifespans and body aging vary from breed to breed, particularly in dogs. In cats, who can often live into their early twenties, we tend to start seeing physical signs of aging somewhere between the ages of 10 and 14. Common changes include weight loss, decreased appetite, decreased or increased urination and an unkept coat. On physical exam your veterinarian may also notice changes in kidney size or dental health. In dogs, giant breeds (for example Danes, Mastiff’s, Bernese etc) age more quickly and will be considered seniors as early as 5 years old. More middle-sized dogs reach their geriatric age between 8 and 10 years, while in smaller dogs it’s closer to 10-12 years. Eyesight and hearing often decrease at that time and osteoarthritis, the topic of this first article, is also very common.

The Lowdown on Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is defined as a progressive, inflammatory, irreversible degeneration of joint cartilage, and while it’s not strictly a senior disease, it’s prevalence does increase with age of the pet. The most common symptoms of OA include a decrease in exercise tolerance, reluctance to do stairs, difficulty getting up after laying down and even irritability when touched in certain areas. Depending on the joint(s) affected and on the dog’s personality symptoms will vary in their intensity however it is well studied that OA is quite painful.

Are there way to prevent Osteoarthritis?

Yes! As with many medical conditions, prevention is one of the best ways to “treat” a disease. Although most dogs will eventually have some OA in their lifetimes from wear and tear on their joints there are definitely ways to slow the onset and progression. Firstly, a good quality, balanced diet is essential for joint health. This is especially true for puppies and seniors as they have different nutritional requirements than your average middle-aged dog. While we won’t discuss nutrition in depth during this article you can refer to our “It’s not just kibble” article for more information. In addition to a balanced diet it is never too early to consider starting your dog on a joint supplement, especially if they have an active lifestyle. This can be in the form of a specified joint diet or by adding on a supplement. There are many options out there so it’s recommended to speak with your vet when choosing one to ensure it has a good ratio of glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM. There are even some versions that come in the form of a treat!

Other ways to help prevent or slow OA include keeping your pet at an appropriate body weight. Obesity in pets is all too common in this day and age and every extra pound your dog is carrying adds stress to it’s joints. Though it can be a tricky topic to talk about it’s worthwhile discussing with your veterinarian if they feel your dog could benefit from weight loss.

Finally, for our smaller breeds, providing steps for them to get on and off areas such as couches and beds (and getting them used to them at a young age!) can help prevent excessive impact on their joints.

What does treatment involve?

Treating osteoarthritis often involves a multi-factorial approach with the goals being to keep the dog comfortable and to maintain joint health. In addition to the joint supplements already discussed your veterinarian is likely to prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory or NSAID to alleviate the pain and inflammation. In early stages these may only be needed temporarily however they often progress to daily use. Luckily safer and safer options are becoming available for long term use that won’t impact kidney or intestinal health in the same ways more traditional NSAIDs do. Acupuncture has also been noted to improve symptoms of OA in some dogs.

Take Home Message

While there’s no cure for osteoarthritis, it is important to remember that there are many options to help prevent, slow, and alleviate the disease. Frequency of OA does increase with age, however no old dog should have to spend it’s final years in pain. Let’s make sure the golden years are truly golden!

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or concerns about osteoarthritis!

Written by Dr. Emily Zakrajsek

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