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Identifying arthritis in dogs

Nadine Lober

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of chronic pain recognized in dogs, affecting an estimated 20 percent of dogs. This translates to roughly 10 million to 20 million dogs in the United States alone.

Osteoarthritis is characterized by the degeneration of the cartilage located at the joint surface called “articular cartilage.” It also involves the changes in the soft tissues.

Osteoarthritis is a problematic disease to diagnose and treat. Just as in humans, osteoarthritis is a slow, progressive disease that must be managed. It occurs with various degrees of severity, ranging from a mild, intermittent condition with minimal discomfort and minimal disability to a clinical state of constant pain along with severe disability.

Osteoarthritis is likely one of the most under-diagnosed syndromes in dogs and cats. It is a common disease in humans, especially in our resort town, where many of us have been and are very active. The consequences of the active lifestyle leads to excessive stresses on our bodies and joints, which in turn can cause arthritis.

Diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made mostly by clinical signs, physical examination and radiographs. The most common clinical signs are joint pain and lameness that may be acute or chronic in dogs.

Chronic pain from osteoarthritis may be difficult to recognize, especially in cats. Cats will arrive at the animal hospital with decreased appetite, weight loss, reluctance to move or failure to self-groom. Occasionally, more specific signs – including refusing to jump or limping – signal the presence of pain.

During a physical exam, findings may include: pain, crepitus, swelling, joint effusion, muscle atrophy and a decreased range of motion in the affected joint. Other forms of joint disease need to be ruled out, because the treatment will vary accordingly.

Joint pain results in decreased exercise, which leads to wasting of muscle. With less muscular support of the affected joint, there will be changes in stress on the joint capsule, the ligaments and the lining of the joint.

The damage to the lining causes release of inflammatory mediators into the joint, which in turn perpetuates the pain and damage to the joint. It is imperative to break this harmful cycle of pain, muscle atrophy and stress.

Osteoarthritis should be managed by a multi-step approach, because no single treatment is effective. The major treatments are weight management, exercise modification, acupuncture and medication.

Some clinicians rely on pharmacological management alone, which either unsuccessful or works only for a short time. It is important, therefore, to examine each case differently, assessing the age, activity and most importantly, what owners wants their dogs and cats to do with them.

The majority of animals with osteoarthritis are obese. Weight reduction is one of the most important components of osteoarthritis treatment. Sometimes weight reduction, along with rest and exercise, diminishes or alleviates the clinical signs of the disease. If not, it should slow the progression of the disease.

Other ways to manage the disease include: physical therapy, acupuncture, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and corticosteroid. These and other treatments will be discussed in a future article.

Dr. Nadine Lober 949-7972


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