Osteoarthritis in Dogs Benefits from Early Diagnosis & Treatment

Dog image for osteoarthritis article

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Millions of dogs develop painful osteoarthritis (OA) every year. Obese dogs, large- and giant-breed dogs, and middle-aged to senior dogs are oftentimes affected. The highest risk, however, occurs in dogs with congenital conditions affecting their hips, elbows and shoulders or orthopedic injuries as from ligament tears and repetitive stress.  

“Bone-on-bone” aptly describes the worse-case scenario of the progressive joint disease. As the severity increases, OA causes a grinding, chronic pain that is seen when dogs struggle to get up, walk with an unmistakable stiffness, are reluctant to run and play, or wince when you pet them in a sensitive, inflamed area. 

The goal in treating dogs with OA is to slow the deterioration of cartilage that normally serves to cushion the joint and protect the bones of the joint. Cartilage allows the joint to move smoothly through its full range of motion. Referred to as degenerative joint disease, OA can become debilitating to the point that euthanasia may be recommended for dogs in which their quality of life is severely compromised.  

“The idea is to catch OA before it becomes severe and to try and stop its progression,” says Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, DACVN, DACVSMR, professor of clinical nutrition and veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation at Cornell University. “For starters, when a dog is overweight, we work on losing weight with a goal of attaining ideal body condition. Carrying excess weight on damaged joints is not only painful for the dog, but it can speed up the process of cartilage degeneration. We also encourage feeding at-risk dogs a diet enriched with long-chain fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils, to help slow the progression of OA.”

Although there is no cure for OA, veterinarians typically prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to help reduce pain and inflammation, and they may add pain medications as needed. Joint supplements with glucosamine and chondroitin may by advised to maintain cartilage integrity, promote healing and increase water retention in the cartilage to provide more joint cushioning.

An investigator of a study to evaluate the effectiveness of cannabidiol (CBD) oil in treating dogs with OA, Dr. Wakshlag notes that the dogs in the clinical trial showed a significant decrease in pain and a significant increase in activity. The results indicated that hemp nutraceuticals like CBD oil may one day be used therapeutically in veterinary medicine to lessen the pain of OA. (See “CBD Oil Clinical Trials Net Positive Results in Dogs with Osteoarthritis” on page 6)

“There are few pain medications proven to have efficacy for treating OA,” Dr. Wakshlag says. “Some are used routinely with varying success. There are really few options for dogs that don’t include sedation and injections. This is why CBD oil may offer a viable and widely accepted alternative in the near future.”

Osteoarthritis may already be severe and disabling when it is recognized, as it is a challenging disorder to catch in the early stages. This is partly because dogs tend to be stoic and commonly hide their pain. Thus was the case when severe hip dysplasia was discovered in a beautiful Akita bitch named “Anna.”

Her owner, Dr. Sterling Milton, an emergency physician in New Orleans, was just starting to breed Akitas when he bought her. Anna became his first dog to earn a show champion title. “She was a phenomenal mover in the ring,” he says. “Whenever a judge would ask the handlers to take the dogs around one more time, Anna always won.”

Radiographs taken for Anna’s health certification showed she was severely dysplastic, though otherwise there was no indication of the polygenic disease. Hip dysplasia is a developmental condition that occurs when the ball and socket of the hip joint fail to fit together properly. Normal hips are rated excellent, good or fair, but those that receive borderline, mild, moderate or severe ratings do not pass.

“Anna was quite muscular, and her body just seemed to mask the dysplasia by holding everything in place,” Dr. Milton says. “I was told that she would likely be crippled at age 4. She never went down, though at the end of her life she moved slower and did not run as much. She never acted like she was in pain, yet I am sure she had osteoarthritis. She died at age 13.”

Anna’s veterinarian, Treyton “Jai” Diggs, DVM, of All Star Animal Clinic in New Orleans, says, “We managed Anna’s dysplasia with the hope of delaying the onset of severe, painful osteoarthritis. Anna did well on a joint supplement and a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and her owner gave her salmon oil.”

Dr. Diggs recommends that owners of breeds predisposed to developing OA or who suspect their dog has OA have radiographs of the joints taken as soon as possible. “Radiographs of the affected joints allow your veterinarian to rule out other conditions with similar signs. It also provides information about the degree of damage to the joint. A full physical examination that includes palpating the dog’s joints and assessing range of motion is important as well,” he says.

At his veterinary practice, Dr. Diggs frequently examines working dogs, hunting dogs, and large and giant breeds with OA due to wear and tear of their joints. Not all patients are older dogs. “I recently performed shoulder surgery for osteochondritis dissecans in a 10-month-old Labrador Retriever puppy,” he says. “This is typically a breed-predisposed inflammatory condition where diseased cartilage separates from the underlying bone, thus leaving a denuded region of bone that is painful.”

The puppy is likely to be a future OA patient. “Over the dog’s lifetime, we will manage the condition with a joint supplement, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug and pain medications as needed,” Dr. Diggs says.

“The first sign owners usually notice in affected dogs is irritability due to the pain and inflammation in the joint,” adds Dr. Diggs. “Dogs that sustain injuries from sports typically bounce back faster if they are fed a nutritious, high-quality dog food containing omega-3 fatty acids that nourish the joints.”

Keeping dogs active and managing ideal body condition are essential. “The effects of obesity have much to do with the severity of disease,” Dr. Diggs says. “Lifestyle decisions related to nutrition and activity can be game-changers for at-risk dogs and dogs diagnosed with OA.”

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