Multimodal Approach to Treating Arthritis in Dogs

As I write this article, my neighbor’s 12-year-old Shih Tzu, Charlie, is suffering from painful arthritis in his joints. Charlie has become more and more reluctant to climb steps, or even walk uphill in the yard. And when he does walk, there is a noticeable limp in his left front leg. He is typical of a rising number of dogs who suffer from osteoarthritis. That’s mostly because dogs are living longer than their ancestors did. Of course, Charlie’s owners want to know, “What can we do to help him be in less pain?”

Treating Arthritis in Dogs

The answer to that question is the focus of this article. Fortunately for our pets, there are several options for treating arthritic pain. We have been conditioned to expect to solve medical problems by giving a pill. But, the most effective management of pain caused by arthritis in dogs can be achieved by using a combination of options. In other words, a multimodal approach.

The following is a brief description of four categories of management available for dealing with an arthritic pet dog. Each pet is unique, and any decisions about treatment should always be under the direction of your veterinarian. They have extensive medical training and expertise. They know your pet’s needs and medical history. And, it’s important to remember that individual animals respond differently to various medications and treatment plans.

I. Pain medications

Fortunately, there is a wide variety of drugs which can provide relief to dogs with painful joints. Sometimes improvement in mobility and value of life can be dramatic. General classes of drugs available for pain relief in dogs include:
– Corticosteroids
– Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s)
– Synthetic opioid pain relievers

Each of these medications has potential side effects, which require close monitoring and supervision by a veterinarian. Long-term use, especially of corticosteroids or NSAID’s can cause serious health problems. Still, with careful monitoring and dosage control, the benefits can be enjoyed with minimal danger. And, careful use of pain relievers can provide a jump-start into the exercise phase of arthritis management.

II. Low-impact exercise

Arthritic pain causes animals to avoid exercise just as it does in people. But, reduced exercise leads to reduced muscle mass, weakness and poor metabolism. You can make a big difference in your dog’s quality of life by gently encouraging regular exercise. Closely observe your pet to learn their limits and increase exercise slowly over time. Avoid activities like running, jumping or quick turns. Learn here how to take care for Arthritic Pets During the Winter.

Short walks are a good way to start. Walk your leashed pet on a dry, flat, grassy area. Avoid hills, pavement and uneven surfaces. Be sure to begin with a slow warm-up period and stop at the first sign of exhaustion. A healthy treat as a reward will likely increase the chances of cooperation on the next walk.

Swimming is also an excellent form of low impact exercise for arthritic dogs. Water exercise options come in various forms depending on your location and the size of your dog. For small to medium dogs, a bathtub will at least provide buoyancy and increased circulation in the limbs. If you have access to a swimming pool, river or beach, that’s great, too. Just make sure the water is a comfortable temperature and shallow enough to make swimming easy.

III. Nutritional management

There is a wide variety of effective options in the form of both nutritional supplements, and specialized dog food. Both of these options help reduce inflammation and promote healthy cartilage within joints that are affected by arthritis. Work with your veterinarian to find the best combination of foods and supplements for your pet.

Examples of nutritional supplements include:
– Chondroitin sulfate
– Glucosamine
– Omega-3 fatty acids
– Green-lipped mussel preparations

Some arthritis patients experience dramatic improvement after eating dog foods which are made to promote healthy canine joints. Both prescription and over-the-counter diets are available. Trust your veterinarian to guide your decision in this area, too. There should be a transition period from your pet’s current food to the new one. After that, the joint health food must be fed exclusively in order to be effective.

IV. Weight Control

Maintaining a healthy weight may well be the most effective tool available for treatment and prevention of arthritis in dogs. It would be hard to measure the actual level of relief provided by the loss of a few extra pounds in an overweight or obese dog with arthritis. It’s obvious when you think about it. According to an article on Osteoarthritis on the WebMD website, “1 pound of weight loss (in people) results in a reduction of 4 pounds of pressure on the knee joints.” Next to aging, obesity is the most powerful risk factor for osteoarthritis of the knees.

There is no doubt about the value of weight loss for an overweight or obese dog suffering from arthritis. However, we know from experience that taking actions necessary for weight loss is never easy. But here are three steps any pet parent can take to get started in the right direction:
1. Never give your dog food from your table during (or after) meals.
2. Reduce the amount of treats, and only offer low calorie treats.
3. Carefully choose, with the aid of your veterinarian, a low calorie dog food.

Canine arthritis is an example of a health condition associated with significant financial demands over a long period of time. Much of the expense comes from the expensive pain medication, which can be $80-$100 a month for a larger breed dog (but could be more costly depending on where you live). Treatment would be ongoing for the rest of the pet’s life because it is a non-curable condition.

Canine arthritis is considered an illness and should be coverable under insurance plans with illness coverage as long as there were no pre-existing symptoms or symptoms that occurred during the initial plan’s waiting period.

The pet also might be prescribed supplements for joint health, which may not be coverable under your insurance plan. As mentioned earlier, alternative treatments can be done for arthritis, such as hydrotherapy and low level laser therapy, which could be covered depending on your insurance plan. The average treatment costs for Canine osteoarthritis ranges from $1600-$3200 (according to a Study conducted by Michigan State University, funded by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, article found online at Veterinary Economics December 17, 2009).

So a good pet health insurance policy can help pay for many of those costs. Important is to get the insurance early on in the pets life to avoid not being able to cover pre-existing conditions.

Dr. Steve Pearson, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Steve Pearson previously held the position of chief of staff at a corporate veterinary practice for over 5 years and is certified in Veterinary Practice Administration from American Animal Hospital Association. The statements made in this article are the personal opinions of Dr. Pearson and based on independent experiences and could be different from the opinions of PetPremium Pet health Insurance or any other pet health insurance provider.

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