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Improving Quality of Life in Pets with Osteoarthritis

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Improving the Quality of Life for Dogs with Osteoarthrosis

Joint health problems affect many dogs. Many different breeds are at increased risk to be affected by disease that affects this part of the body. Large breeds are more likely to be affected than the small breeds.

Osteoarthritis is probably the most common disease to cause joint problems. Any joint can be affected but it most commonly affects the hip, stifle (knee), shoulder and elbow. All the anatomical parts of the joint will undergo change as a result of the disease. The diseased joint will become swollen, have reduced mobility and cause pain. As the condition progresses the pet's quality of life will diminish. Unpleasant feelings (pain and physical disabilities) will increase in magnitude and pleasurable feelings (incapacity to play, walk, run) will be diminished.  The owners of a pet, affected in this way, and the veterinarian responsible for its health care will need to try to optimize the quality of life of the animal. It will require efforts to reduce the discomfort and increase pleasure in the pet's life. A balanced approach will be necessary to help dogs and cats affected by this disease.
The clinical signs of the patients, its age, weight, general health, activity level, stage of disease and the financial capabilities of the owner will influence treatment choices.  However, there are several components that are very important to consider.

In order to maintain muscle strength, stamina and range of joint movement, exercise for the patient will be very important. This exercise should not have hard impact and its duration will need to be carefully monitored. Low impact activities like walking, trotting, swimming are good. High impact activities, vertical jumping, vigorous climbing or running especially on uneven terrain should be avoided. Common sense and paying careful attention for signs of hurting during or after exercising the pet will determine the amount and length of time for the exercise. If changes in the type, frequency or amount of exercise are necessary, it may cause difficulty for both the pet and the owner. A pet cannot be made to understand that a change in lifestyle is in its best interest. An owner must be very careful not to respond with food treats or snacks in order to compensate for the loss of other positive interactions with their pet.

An arthritic joint must not be made to carry excessive weight. Dogs with severe arthritis have shown dramatic improvement with just weight reduction. Weight control can be one of the most difficult things to achieve in patients with these problems. A proper balance of exercise and calories eaten must be realized. Special calorie control or reducing diets may be necessary.

Medications now available to help dogs with osteoarthritis, can be of tremendous benefit. They have analgesic effects to reduce pain and discomfort; they can restore some joint functions and they can slow down progression of the disease. The first choice drugs for treating animals with pain and inflammation caused by osteoarthritis are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (commonly called NSAIDS). It is important to remember that many NSAIDS approved for humans are not approved for use in animals and can be very toxic. Fortunately, we now have several excellent choices of these kinds of medicines safe for our pets. It is important, though, to be sure that no other health concerns are present in a patient before beginning their use. It is recommended blood tests be done before therapy is started. Most animals who take these medicines are so improved that owners usually prefer to give them for the rest of the pet's life.  Periodically blood tests are repeated to assure their continued use is not a problem.

Chondroprotective agents ( agents that may be able to slow down joint cartilage degeneration and possibly promote regeneration) such as glucosamine and chondroitin are also frequently used for animals with joint disease. Often, they are given in addition to NSAIDS. These agents when they are given by mouth are classed as nutraceuticals.  The manufacturing and labeling of these products are not closely regulated. Purity may vary greatly and many products do not meet label claims. I would suggest following your veterinarian's recommendations regarding their use.

Finally, nutrition can play a role in keeping joints healthy. Recently, foods that incorporate glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate or green-lipped mussels and adjusted omega 6: omega 3 fatty acid ratio have been developed that could have a preventive benefit in the development of osteoarthritis.  Using these measures and the counsel of your veterinarian, pets with osteoarthritis can have a life with the quality they deserve.