Arthritis literally means inflammation of joints and has a variety of causes. Sometimes the immune system attacks the joints - rheumatoid arthritis is an example of this. Much more common in our pets is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is really wear and tear arthritis and is what I will talk about from now on.
Osteoarthritis tends to develop with increasing age as the joints become worn out and tends to be worse in dogs that have done a lot of work or if there is an injury involving the joint. It also occurs in dogs with hereditary abnormalities of the joints such as hip dysplasia.
The typical signs we see are a slowly progressive lameness that is worse in cold weather. The lameness tends to reduce as the animal warms up, but is worse the following day if they over-exercise. Many owners recognise these signs in their older pets and also sometimes in themselves.
Because there are permanent boney changes that occur with osteoarthritis, return of the joint to its youthful state is not possible. Treatment revolves around the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to control pain, nutraceuticals (like glucosamine) to provide nutrition to the cartilage and owner management of exercise, body weight and bedding.
By far the most effective and reliable medications available are the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This class of drug includes aspirin and Voltaren® (but not Paracetamol). There has been a lot of research done in the last ten years on this group of drugs, which has resulted in drugs that are much more effective and less likely to cause side effects than the earlier ones. The newer drugs are however more expensive and this can cause problems, especially for the owners of very large dogs. We would nearly always recommend these drugs for the treatment of dogs with severe osteoarthritis.
There are a wide range of extracts and potions used in the treatment of arthritis. These are lumped into the term Nutraceuticals. Included in this group are glucosamine and chondroitin which have been shown to have some effect on joint health and many others including minerals and vitamins, green-lipped muscle extract, flax seed oil and hemp seed. It would be fair to say that nutraceuticals have some effect at relieving symptoms in some dogs, but they are not consistently effective. They are not adequate as a sole treatment for severe osteoarthritis, but may be used in addition to the NSAIDs for severe arthritis or as a sole treatment in mild osteoarthritis. They are very unlikely to cause any adverse effects.
The home management of arthritis is also important. Mild exercise is very useful to alleviate the symptoms of lameness and soreness. Most animals will have reduced pain with some mild exercise and usually walk more freely once they warm up. Exercise also helps to maintain joint flexibility and muscle tone, which are beneficial as well. Over-exercise should be avoided as it is associated with increased pain later.
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