A-Z of dog wellbeing: Joints

Our dog’s joint’s really take a pounding.  Repetitive chasing after tennis balls or jumping on and off the bed or sofa all take their toll on your dog’s joints, and for some dogs, that’s a problem. More use means more injuries and this can lead to joint-related problems, broken down into two major categories: developmental and degenerative problems:

Developmental problems include

  • luxating patella – the kneecap develops abnormally and pops out of its groove, giving dogs a characteristic skip.
  • elbow or hip dysplasia – abnormal development of the elbow joint in young, large, rapidly growing dogs. Lameness can develop slowly between 4 and 8 months of age; however, some cases may not be diagnosed until the dogs are more than 1 year old. It is considered to be one of the most common causes of osteoarthritis of the canine elbow.
  • Osteochondrosis – a disturbance in cartilage and bone formation of medium and large breed dogs that grow quickly. The immature joint cartilage cracks and separates from the underlying bone, floating loose in the joint cavity which results in inflammation of the affected joint. It can lead to arthritis and continued cartilage breakdown, severely affecting joint motion.

Degenerative problems include

  • CalCruciate ligament tears – the cruciate ligament of the stifle (knee) joint is usually caused by serious injury – my first rottweiler tore hers after being side-swiped by an over-enthusiastic Labrador in the park – however tears are more likely to occur where there is already degeneration, a weakened immune system, or defects in conformation.
  • Osteoarthritis – also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthritis is defined as the progressive and permanent long-term deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the joints. Arthritis is the medical term for inflammation of the joints, while osteoarthritis is the term referring to a form of chronic joint inflammation caused by deterioration of joint cartilage.

How do you tell if your dog has joint problems?

You may notice that your dog seems a little lazy and just wants to do less, or you may spot that they find certain activities such as getting up on the sofa or the bed, going up the stairs, or getting in the car a little difficult, looking stiff or being slower than before. They may show occasional lameness, and a stiff gait that worsens with exercise, long periods of inactivity, or cold weather.

Dogs are very stoic and they try to hide their injuries, so you may have to look carefully, but if the joint problem is really serious your dog may start holding the limb up, or just standing differently, with the weight more on one side, which is easiest to spot if you look at them from straight on (for front limbs) or straight behind (for hind limbs).  Look from the sides too for differences left to right.

Watch when they walk and trot, even video them in slow motion – most smart phones have this capability – and it makes it much easier to see any imbalances.

Are they even on both sides?
Do both legs share the same load?
Does one leg swing in to the middle or out to the side more than another?
Does one hip travel higher than the other side?
Does one paw turn in or out more than the other side?
Do they stand squarely?

These can all be good indicators of problems in the knee or hip, although these problems can often be muscular not skeletal and easily remedied with some hands-on therapy from a qualified canine massage practitioner.

If you do spot a problem, limit your dog’s exercise until you can get them seen by a vet who will advise you on the best course of action based on the issues they find.

What can I do to help my dog avoid joint pain?

Prevention
Arthritis almost always develops as a result of injury much earlier in life, even when your dog is a puppy. Over exercise, jumping too high, and running too hard before a puppy’s bones and joints are mature can injure the joints so supervise your young dog’s exercise routine.  Avoid doing any damage to their young joints to preserve them for older age.

The right exercise
Arthritis and joint problems develop into a vicious cycle. When it hurts to move, dogs exercise less, gaining weight which then puts greater stress on the joints. The right exercise feeds the joint by pumping natural lubrication into the area, helping keep joints more mobile and helping to keep any excess weight off. Joints stiffen after periods of rest or sleep, so it can help to provide a heated bed or gentle massage and stretches before your walk to prepare your dog for movement.

Appropriate nutrition
Larger breeds tend to grow very quickly when they are young, and this can put a lot of pressure on their young joints. While you cannot prevent this fast growth you can alleviate the stress it may cause their joints by giving them the correct quantity and protein levels of food for their breed and age, as well as considering glucosamine-based supplements.

Long before your pet shows any symptoms of joint pain, they are able to self-select herbal products that provide pain relief or anti-inflammatory properties that ease the stiffness in their joints.