Arthritis affects dogs in the same way it does people, leading to chronic pain, reduced range of motion or mobility of joints, loss of muscle strength or muscle atrophy, weight gain and an overall reduction in quality of life. Arthritis is a degenerative condition; it cannot be cured, but it can certainly be managed. With the right care, each of the symptoms can be treated to slow down the process of degeneration and reduce the overall effect on the your dog’s quality of life.
Dogs get arthritis for various reasons. The first and certainly most common is simply aging – joints get old and worn, causing inflammation. But arthritis is not only an old dog’s disease. Any joint will develop arthritis if subject to constant abnormal forces – such as when a dog is overweight, or when a dog is mechanically compromised. The three-legged dog, for example, will constantly place extra weight on the remaining legs, and change the way he uses and moves those limbs, which will lead to arthritis in one or more of the joints in the remaining limbs.
A joint will also develop arthritis if the joint surface is damaged in any way, as will happen if a joint is injured, if a surgery is performed, or if the dog has a condition like hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia. Joints can be damaged when a dog continually performs a high impact activity, such as jumping over a high fence, or in and out of your vehicle several times a day, every day – or performing such activities from a very young age. Stairs can be a culprit here too – young, heavy-breed dogs traveling up and down flights of stairs from a very young age are prone to develop arthritis in their elbows.
Arthritis can be debilitating, severely shortening a dog’s lifespan and negatively impacting on the time they have with you. Your arthritic dog loses his ability to get up or down on his own, can no longer climb stairs, becomes increasingly inactive and rather grumpy, and is in continuous pain. All of this is unpleasant for both dog and owner.
Arthritis does not have to be so debilitating. Much can be done to help you, the owner, manage the condition, slow its progress, and reduce the severity of the symptoms. The first thing you’ll want to do is arm yourself with a healthcare team who will walk the road with you and your dog, helping to keep your pet healthy, happy and pain free. There is no need for your dog to suffer through this slow, ruinous condition; nowadays, using a variety of modalities and fields of knowledge, a competent team can greatly alleviate arthritis-related suffering and prolong excellent quality of life.
Your Healthcare Team
Your healthcare team should comprise of at least your veterinarian and your veterinary rehabilitation therapist, and can include additional professionals such as hydrotherapists, nurses, vet technicians and a nutritionist. You may also include a trainer! A good vet and vet rehab therapist are the crucial members, they will work together to make sure that the best, most comprehensive treatment plan is developed for your dog.
Your vet will monitor the severity and the progression of the arthritis, prescribe pain medication as and when needed, and advise you on any surgical options that may be available at different points during the progression of the disease.
Your vet rehab therapist will play a different, equally essential role. Below are some of the reasons why they are so important for the management of a condition like arthritis:
- Your Vet Rehab Therapist forms a Relationship with You and your Dog
This may sound trivial, but it may be the most valuable thing your vet rehab therapist does for you.
- Your vet rehab therapist will advise you, encourage you, support you and assist you in ways you and your individual dog need most as the disease progresses.
- Your vet rehab therapist will equip you with the tools to understand and take control of the condition, empowering you to manage your dog in a home program for long stretches between visits to the vet and vet rehab therapist.
- Your vet rehab therapist will help you become sensitive to the signs of pain your dog gives you, teach you to recognize a period of degeneration, and advise on what to do when it comes.
- Reduce Pain
Through a variety of modalities – including massage, mobilization, targeted therapeutic exercise and more – your vet rehab therapist will reduce your dog’s pain and keep him off pain medication for as long as possible. Pain medication can take a toll on a dog’s organs, leading to organ failure when used over an extended time. We want to prevent or reduce the side effects of pain medication for as long as possible, using pain medication for short stretches when needed, and only increasing usage when all other avenues are no longer effective.
- Improve Mobility
Your vet rehab therapist will improve the mobility of the joints affected by arthritis, firstly by getting the pain under control, and then by slowly improving both the joint’s ability to move through the use of joint mobilizations, and your dog’s overall ability to move the joints during targeted exercises.
Targeted exercises have two key effects; your dog will experience better mobility and therefore function, and the overall health of the joint will improve.
- Improve Strength
Joints need to move to stay healthy, but must be moved in the right way, and only after pain has been dealt with. Moving in an untargeted way while the dog is still in pain will have the opposite effect than the one intended, it will entrench incorrect, compensatory patterns of movement that do nothing to strengthen the muscles that need strengthening.
Your vet rehab therapist will help to strengthen the muscles and ligaments that surround the affected joints. This will help stabilize the joints and improve the way in which your dog moves not only the joint and limb, but his whole body – which means less pain and dysfunction due to compensation.
- Improve Endurance
As your dog’s pain, movement and strength improve, so will his endurance. You may well find your grumpy, ‘old’ dog returns to being the playful, energetic youngster he used to be! The better your dog’s muscle strength and endurance, the better he will cope with the activities of daily life in a functional, pain-free way.
- Weight Control
For some dogs, weight is a huge challenge, with many compounding factors causing weight gain. Your vet rehab therapist will help you to monitor your dog’s weight, advise you on the changes you need to make, and devise ways to keep that weight at the best possible level for your dog. This alone will have a major impact on slowing down the progression of the arthritis, and reducing your dogs pain.
- Quality of Life
By now you will have gathered that everything a vet rehab therapist does leads to a vastly improved quality of life for the arthritic dog. A dog which has been well managed by a competent vet rehab therapist will once again be able to participate in family activities, play, enjoy food, and be the happy, healthy dog you long to see.
It is hard to notice your dog slowing down and losing his zest for life, something you may have attributed to old age. The reality is we can stave off these symptoms for years. Once you start treating the arthritis with the help of a competent team, you may well be astounded at the changes you see!
It can be done
I have given a few good reasons why you and your arthritic dog should have an ongoing relationship with a vet rehab therapist, but the truth is I have only scratched the surface of the benefits! Arthritis is rarely a condition that occurs on its own, and together with a competent and loving team, you will be able to monitor, treat and manage the conditions your dog is suffering from, giving him a longer, happier and healthier life.
Have you had success?
If you have already seen the benefits of veterinary rehabilitation for your pet and your family, I would love to hear from you. Please comment below.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, just know you are not alone. We love our dogs and cannot bear to see them suffer. If you’d like more tips and guidance, let us know about your pet, where you are in the world, and the name of your closest veterinary rehabilitation therapist – your vet should be able to help you with that one. We can also point you to some really valuable online resources that will inform you on proactively managing arthritis, so that you can ask the right questions and get the most out of your vet rehab consultations.
We don’t have individuals calling themselves vet rehab professionals where I live, but following surgery for bilateral elbow OCD/FCP our vet surgeon referred us to a physiotherapist (she was firstly a chartered human physio then completed an add on MSc for canine/equine) and her advice and support was invaluable. She inspired me to learn more myself and I think the holistic approach she took made an enormously positive impact on our dog’s recovery.
Hi Emma, thank you so much for your comment – you have really summed up why we do what we do!! All over the world the process of becoming qualified to do rehabilitation in animals looks a little different – I am glad your veterinarian had a physiotherapists that he could refer to and trust with his patients!
Great article, really interesting read
Thank you Michelle
My male Saint Bernard (104 kg) was diagnosed with arthritis in both back legs at just 4.5 years old. This was due to major surgery to resolve cruciate ligament rupture in his back legs between 15 and 17 months old. He was prescribed anti-inflammatories and we were heartbroken as we knew this would not be a long term solution. I watched an episode of Animal Cops Houston and saw a horse with spinal arthritis respond amazingly well to acupuncture. An hour spent with Google later, I found the amazing Cheryl Corral (Gatehouse Rehab in Rouken Glen Park, Glasgow, Scotland). My beautiful boy Blue was able to have his mess withdrawn and thrived with Cheryl’s help (in the form of various rehab treatments and just simply getting to know him extremely well and spending 1-1 time with him for an hour each week (then each fortnight). He LOVED his treatments and viewed appointments as fun and something to look forward to. We managed Blue’s condition med free for nearly 3 years and he had a final year with rehab and meds combined still pain free but just a bit slower. I will be forever grateful to Cheryl and her team for her dedication and advice and inspiration and encouragement to help us keep Blue living a quality life until the end. I cannot begin to explain how wholeheartedly we believe in the benefits any animal could experience if they had the same treatment as Blue was so lucky to have. We witnessed first hand how our boy changed from a poor soul with a heartbreaking, life limiting condition into a daft big pup again with zest for life and a glint in his beautiful eyes.
Thank you so much for sharing that Gill! Hearing stories like yours is what lights us up and drives us, as Vetrehabbers!!
There is so much we as rehabilitation professionals can do to improve the quality of life for those pets suffering from osteoarthritis.
Pet parents everywhere should share this article with their vet. Not all vets are on board with therapeutic benefits for animals because they don’t know all there is to offer. This would be a great intro.
Hi Jenny, thank you for your comment – I completely agree with you, there are many who are unaware of the benefits of a team effort. Please feel free to share this with whoever you can, to get the message spread far and wide!
Please here in Lake County Florida -we are in serious need of Vet Rehab specialists! If you’re interested in relocating here-please contact me!
Thank you for that!!
Will be sharing this with my clients, thanks.
That’s fantastic thanks Courtney!
As a Veterinary Physiotherapy student, I know how important Physiotherapy rehab is for arthritic patients!
Absolutely! Good luck with your studies Hannah!
It’s crucial to have a good team. Really interesting.
Very informative article!
Fantastically written article, thank you Megan. I will be directing some of my oldies owners here for a simple, informative explanation they can read through in their own time – I’ts always so much to take in for owners at the initial diagnosis/rehab appointment.
It absolutely is, and it can be incredibly overwhelming and emotional to boot. Please feel free to use and distribute this article as you need!
Great article. I am canine massage/acupressure therapist and I have experienced first hand how these therapies or any rehad type therapy improves the quanity as well as the quality of life in an animal. Sometimes the therapy is much better than just taking medicines.
Thank you Tina, combination therapy is exceptionally beneficial!
Let’s keep those arthritic dogs moving!
In my area, rehab and bodywork for animals is not heard of often. Being a canine massage therapist with additional training in PT and Rehab, my success comes from educating the community about the importance. and the proof is in the putting!
Awesome Stacy!! Keep educating 🙂