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How to help your arthritic dog

This blog details the different types of arthritis, how osteoarthritis progresses in dogs, what causes it and how massage can help a dog suffering from it.

I finish by giving you ideas to help you manage the condition at home.​

The main types of arthritis​

There are two types of arthritis and it's important to know which one your dog has.

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis is an inflammatory disease, originating in the immune system, and is relatively rare in dogs. If your dog has Rheumatoid Arthritis they should not receive massage.

  • Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease where cartilage within the joint breaks down. Cartilage should act as a cushion, protecting the ends of the bones and preventing bone on bone contact. When cartilage breaks down, the bones make direct contact, causing friction and risking bone fragmentation. The joint becomes inflamed and this causes pain.

Progression of osteoarthritis

As changes in the joint are considered permanent the loss of cartilage means the joint remains inflamed (to a greater or lesser extent) and this makes the joint harder to move. The musculature surrounding the joint tightens to stabilise the join - this is called 'splinting' - and it is perfect for helping a dog recover from an injury as aims protects the joint from further damage. However, it also causes the joint to become even more restricted. It becomes harder and painful to move it and unless the tension surrounding the joint is evenly distributed it can cause further joint changes. A lack of mobility in the joint increases the growth of bony spurs growing around the damaged bone ends. These can grow into the soft tissue and local nerves causing even more pain.

​In addition, the body tries to manage with less cushioning by reducing friction in the joint. This is done by producing more synovial fluid, but as the joint is not as stable this fluid leaks out into the surrounding area, increasing inflammation and adding pressure to the ligaments (tissue that holds bones together), tendons (tissue that connects muscles to bones) on either side of the joint, and local nerves.

Your dog will now be moving with significant stiffness and probably have an intermittent or permanent limp.

The limp is a result of an automatic response to reduce the pressure on the damaged joint. The body shifts weight onto the other limbs. This 'compensation' causes other areas of the body to carry more weight, resulting in muscle tightness and increasing the likelihood of damage to previously healthy joints.​

So, a significant aspect of pain in your arthritic dog is not the damaged cartilage, but the soft tissue which is doing its best to stabilise the situation and keep your dog moving!

What causes Osteoarthritis?​

Arthritis is often considered an age related disease, however it will appear in dogs with other joint issues such as dysplasia, cruciate injuries and even those that have lost dew claws. It can also be caused by:

  • Impacts such as jumping from heights

  • Landing awkwardly or with repetition (e.g. from vehicles or over obstacles)

  • Trauma (impact caused by injury)

  • Orthopaedic (joint) surgery

  • Excess weight and reduced activity

  • Poor conformation - i.e. poor breeding

  • Diabetes and Cushing's can also affect the health of cartilage.

It is estimated that 30% of all dogs will be living with arthritis and 80% of dogs over 8 will have the condition. That is a lot of dogs!

High impact sports like Flyball & Agility increase the risk of joint injury and arthritis

Massage can be really beneficial for dogs suffering from osteoarthritis and naturally complements veterinary interventions such as prescribed anti-inflammatory and pain medications.

In many cases, massage can alleviate symptoms sufficiently to reduce the maintenance dose of drugs your vet prescribes. Whilst massage cannot cure arthritis it can make your dogs life easier and happier!

Canine massage can help by:​

  • Improving mobility overall and in the affected joints

  • Reducing painful inflammation

  • Reducing tension in splinting and compensating muscles

  • Supporting better weight bearing

  • Improving balance and coordination

  • Reducing overall stiffness

  • Improving mood and emotional well-being

  • Supporting greater activity levels.​​

All the above results in an overall reduction in pain.

Things you can do to help your arthritic dog

  • Cover slippery floors with non-slip mats, particularly where the dog tends to change direction or speed, at the bottom and top of any stairs.

  • Keep your dog warm by moving beds out of draughts and using coats indoors.

  • Manage weight and add supplements to support the lubrication of the joints - I have a free guide to pain relieving supplements.

  • Raise food and drinking bowls to elbow height.

  • Manage access to stairs and use ramps where possible.

  • Make sure the bed they use allows them to stretch out and provides support whilst being stable and easy to get in and out of.

  • Reduce walking duration but look to increase the number of walks a day.

  • Introduce enrichment activities into their lives.

  • Don't be afraid of using pain relief - I see many dogs presenting with pain in my massage clinic and there is a significant reluctance to use pain medications. This is just not fair, your dogs quality of life and their overall health is linked to the level of pain they experience. I have a blog on this subject here.

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