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What is Musculoskeletal Changes (Seniors)?

Dogs, like all living things, experience many changes due to the aging process. Senior dogs are at higher risk of being afflicted with musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis, dysplasia, and muscle wasting. A good diet, adequate exercise, and comfortable bedding may help to delay or prevent some of these disorders, but less manageable factors such as genetic predisposition, inadequate nutrition in utero, or acquired illnesses, may also increase the risks. Although some dogs may require surgical intervention, many of these disorders can be adequately managed through diet, exercise, and medication.

Aging triggers many changes in the canine mind and body. The changes that affect the musculoskeletal system can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort when not managed.

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Symptoms of Musculoskeletal Changes (Seniors) in Dogs

Symptoms of musculoskeletal changes in your senior dog may vary somewhat depending on the specific condition that they have. Those symptoms that are frequently seen due to musculoskeletal changes that are caused by age may include:

  • Excessive vocalization
  • Lethargy
  • Pacing 
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Reluctance to rise
  • Restlessness
  • Slowing down 
  • Swelling around joints
  • Unusual aggression 

Types

There are a number of different types of musculoskeletal disorders that are primarily seen in older dogs. Older dogs are considerably more likely to develop disorders that affect the musculoskeletal system than their younger counterparts. Some of the most common musculoskeletal disorders of older dogs can include:

  • Arthritis - Although there are forms of arthritis that affect younger dogs due to injury, illness, or congenital predisposition, the majority of dogs who develop arthritis do so because of the consequences of aging
  • Dysplasias - The chances for both hip and elbow dysplasias increase as your dog ages, particularly in large and giant breed dogs 
  • Muscle Wasting - Muscle wasting is common as a dog ages, particularly if they do not get enough exercise or if they experience chronic pain disorders
  • Spinal Disorders - Older dogs are more likely than younger dogs to develop spinal disorders, including spondylosis deformans and Intervertebral disk disease

Causes of Musculoskeletal Changes (Seniors) in Dogs

Although these changes are in part simply due to the natural process of aging, there are some conditions that can intensify the difficulties. Some of these are a function of the dog’s natural body shape; large and giant breed dogs are more likely to experience hip dysplasia and dogs with long backs are at higher risk for spinal problems. Obesity can be particularly damaging to the joints and bones of any dog as it adds increased pressure on the entire skeletal structure, and thyroid disorders can increase the rate of muscular atrophy.

Diagnosis of Musculoskeletal Changes (Seniors) in Dogs

As your pet ages, regular veterinary care becomes more important than ever to improve and extend your companion’s life. When you bring your senior pet into the veterinarian for an examination, along with a thorough physical examination and standard diagnostic testing, additional tests may be recommended to better evaluate their overall health. Tests that are often associated with musculoskeletal disorders can include X-ray imaging, thyroid testing, and gait evaluation. X-ray imaging, also known as radiography, will help to reveal if disorders like arthritis, some spinal disorders, or hip or elbow dysplasia are affecting your animal. 

If spinal involvement is suspected, specialized ink may be injected into the spinal column during the radiograph in order to check for any impediments to the spinal fluid, and in some cases, CAT scans and MRI’s may also be recommended. Thyroid testing may uncover underlying triggers for increased muscle wasting, such as Cushing’s disease or hypothyroidism, and a thorough evaluation of the canine’s gait can reveal lameness, weakness in the back, or knuckling of the feet, all of which become more likely as the dog’s age increases.

Treatment of Musculoskeletal Changes (Seniors) in Dogs

The treatment for the musculoskeletal disorders caused by changes due to aging depends on which disorders are affecting your dog and how severe the disorder is. Spinal disorders, some forms of severe arthritis or dysplasia, and diseases like Cushing’s disease all typically require some form of surgical intervention. However, in many situations, the condition can be managed with diet, exercise, and at home care. In most cases, the veterinarian who is helping create a treatment plan will recommend some form of pain management. This could include anti-inflammatory medications, hydrotherapy, range of motion exercises, acupressure, and acupuncture, either singly or in combination. 

Alternative therapy methods such as hydrotherapy and range of motion exercises are frequently helpful in relieving the pain caused by chronic disorders like arthritis and hip dysplasia. In some situations, senior canines with spinal trouble, hip dysplasia, or severe arthritis may not be able to regain full control of their bodies and may require assistance getting around. There are many tools and equipment that can help your dog to retain some of their mobility, including:

  • Braces - Specially designed braces can be used to stabilize an immobile limb or to help steady a weakened or paralyzed spine 
  • Slings and Harnesses - Dogs who are experiencing weakness or immobility of the hind legs may be assisted by specialized slings and harnesses that allow the person walking the dog to assist them by holding up their hind end 
  • Wheelchairs - Also referred to as dog carts, these wheeled devices allow dogs who are unable to walk due to paralysis or severe weakness of the back legs

Recovery of Musculoskeletal Changes (Seniors) in Dogs

As your canine companion ages, they may become less eager to exercise, sometimes even reluctant. It is crucial for the caregivers of dogs to ensure that they continue to get as much or more exercise as they age as they did when they were younger. Ensuring that your senior dog gets sufficient exercise helps to prevent osteoarthritis, obesity, and muscle atrophy as well as improving the animal’s over all strength and flexibility. Many dogs, like many humans, enjoy massages. Muscle massages can increase the flow of blood to the muscles, both easing pain and helping to counteract muscle wasting.