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Osteoarthritis, a common problem that is not just for old dogs

Ron Carsten, DVM, Ph.D, CVA
Integrative Pet Vet

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease and the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs. It is a degenerative process that involves loss of joint cartilage, local tissue damage, ongoing inflammation and formation of new bone at joint surfaces and margins.

OA is often associated with large dogs, but all sizes and all ages of dogs can be affected. The typical age of onset varies by dog breed and contributing factors like malformations, traumatic injuries or obesity.

While the initiating causes of OA are not always clearly defined, one fundamental component is damaged joint cartilage. This damage can be caused by excessive forces on normal cartilage or even with normal forces if the cartilage is abnormal or defective. Conditions that result in excessive forces on normal cartilage include defective joint development, limb deformities, cranial cruciate disease or incorrect joint alignment.



Certain breeds are predisposed to joint disease; genetic factors can play a role in defective joint development as seen with hip dysplasia. Environmental factors like the amount of exercise, body weight and diet can affect the onset, severity and rate of progression. Overfeeding growing puppies can result in rapid growth that increases bone length and body weight. In addition, excess weight predisposes the aging dog to OA.

Generally, dogs with OA appear to be suddenly lame following episodes of minor trauma or excess exercise on an already-diseased joint. Stiffness after rest is often seen before obvious lameness. The stiffness typically resolves in just a few minutes after rising from rest. Lameness, stiffness, and pain may be worsened by long periods of exercise, cold conditions and obesity.



Some dogs may experience depression, loss of appetite or become aggressive as a result of their discomfort. Affected joints may be swollen, normal joint movement may be restricted, and pain may be detected at the limits of extension and flexion. Heat and redness are usually not seen unless there has been trauma or an infection is present. Diagnosis is often based on history, examination and X-rays.

OA is a progressive problem with no cure. The goal of therapy is to manage the OA in a way that maintains quality of life and slows progression. Early intervention is important. Therapy can be divided into broad areas including lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, herbs, acupuncture, medical treatments and rehabilitation techniques. Many obese dogs no longer have signs of OA or can be more easily managed once they reach their ideal body weight. Appropriate levels of exercise are important. Inactivity can lead to tissue and muscle weakness along with joint stiffness that makes therapy more complicated. In contrast, overexercise can make the OA condition worse by accelerating the degenerative process.

A range of nutritional supplements, nutraceuticals and herbs are available. The focus is to facilitate improved tissue health and function even in the face of the ongoing degeneration. Nutritional supplements and tissue extracts that can support the ligaments and joint capsule can contribute to improved stability. Some products like glucosamine and chondroitin have been shown to be anti-inflammatory and reduce cartilage damage. Essential fatty acids found in fish oil prevent inflammation and reduce degradation of the cartilage. Herbs like Boswellia serrata improve lameness and reduce pain. Acupuncture can be useful, especially if pain is present.

Dogs experiencing pain are often given nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. However, other pain medications can be combined with the NSAIDs for a multimodal drug therapy. The value of this multimodal approach is that the dose of individual drugs can often be reduced while improving pain management.

A key to effective management of OA in the dog is early recognition. Combining nutritional supplements with lifestyle changes (including obesity management) should be part of the initial approach. Manual therapies like massage, passive range of motion exercises and other rehabilitation approaches can help to maintain improved joint fitness and comfort. Intervention with NSAIDs and other pain medications along with acupuncture can be layered on the foundation created by the above supportive methods.

If you feel that your dog has OA or you have questions, please contact your veterinarian.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist.

He is a member of the State Board of Veterinary Medicine and practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.


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