According to the American Kennel Club, arthritis “occurs when cartilage, the cushioning between the bones, begins to thin and wear away and the ends of the bones start to rub against each other.” Your dog can develop arthritis in the spine, hip, shoulder, elbow, knee, and carpus (what you might call a dog’s wrist). A dog with arthritis will likely move slower than they used to, may have trouble getting comfortable and with getting up from a lying position, may avoid jumping on or off furniture, and not want to partake in active play. If you think your dog has arthritis, it is important that you take them to your veterinarian.
The Major Factors: Age, Weight, and Previous Injuries
While in some rare instances arthritis can be the symptom of other underlying conditions, arthritis is often caused by one or more of the following three major factors: age, weight, and previous injury. As is the case in human beings and other animals, the older a dog is, the more likely they are to have developed arthritis. It just stands to reason that the cartilage in joints will wear out after years of running in the park, jumping to catch a flying disc, and long hikes through the woods.
Just as it makes sense that the cartilage wears out over time, it also makes sense that it will wear out faster if your dog is carrying too much weight. Those table scraps you slip your furry friend under the table might show your dog that you love them, but they might also be contributing to joint problems over time. Added weight equals added stress on the joints. Oftentimes, when a veterinarian sees an overweight or obese dog that is limping, the vet’s first prescription will be diet and exercise. While fat dogs might be happy dogs, they’re usually arthritic dogs, too.
The third factor, which often accompanies the first two, is a previous joint injury. Has your dog (or even your puppy) injured a joint by stepping in a hole, by landing wrong, by getting in a fight, or by being hit by a car? If so, as unfair as it seems, that injury can end up hurting your dog twice—once when the injury occurs, and then years later when that previously injured joint develops arthritis. That’s right, a previously injured joint is more susceptible to developing arthritis in that joint later in life, even years later.
Natural Treatment Alternatives or Additions to Medication
So, your vet says your dog has arthritis. What are you supposed to do now? Well, if your dog is overweight, that will usually be where you’ll be told to start—a healthier diet and more (albeit gentle) exercise. In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, your dog’s vet will often prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug. In severe cases, they may discuss surgery with you. While medication and/or surgery may be viable options in some cases, you could be wondering about natural treatment options in addition to what your vet has prescribed.
As is the case with physicians, different veterinarians will have varying views on natural treatments, ranging from opposition to wholehearted support. Many vets, regardless of their views on other holistic treatments, support the use of certain nutritional supplements for dogs with arthritis, the most common being glucosamine and chondroitin. These two supplements are generally given together rather than in isolation and can be given orally as pills, powders, or liquids, or you can now find dog foods, usually labeled for older or senior dogs, that include these supplements.
Glucosamine, which is a naturally occurring compound that is usually isolated from crab and oyster shells, may assist your dog’s body in repairing the damaged cartilage in an arthritic joint. Chondroitin, which is a molecule that occurs naturally in the body, may prevent further breakdown of cartilage and help the body to produce new cartilage. While these supplements, when taken together, may help, they often take several weeks before you will notice any difference in your dog’s mobility, and you should know that studies have shown varying levels of effectiveness.
In addition to supplements, there are several different “hands-on” options for treating your arthritic dog.
- Veterinary Chiropractic
Yes, there is such thing as a veterinary chiropractor, which is a vet that has received additional training in manipulating the spine of animals to alleviate pain.
- Veterinary Acupuncture
There’s animal acupuncture too! When administered by a trained and certified veterinary acupuncturist, this treatment has been found to increase mobility for some dogs.
- Aquatic Therapy
This therapy utilizes an underwater treadmill for rehabilitative exercise with less weight on the joints. This can be especially effective in older dogs.
Ask your vet about stretches that have been devised to help loosen your dog’s hip flexors, shoulder flexors, back, and chest. Be very gentle when stretching your dog and respect the fact that your dog may not be willing to let you stretch them. Don’t worry; they'll probably let you know if that is the case!
- Pet Massage
You don’t need to be a professional pet masseuse with dim light and soothing music to help relieve some of your dog’s arthritis pain. Ask your vet and do some research on how to massage your dog. Again, pay attention to what your dog is telling you. Your pooch will probably let you know if it hurts too much or if they just don’t like it. Respect that and try again at a different time.
What Should You Do?
As mentioned above, veterinarians will have varying opinions about holistic treatments for dogs. Listen to your vet. After all, they have years of training and experience. That being said, if you feel that your vet is too closed-minded toward natural treatments, find a vet that is known for being more open to them and that will partner with you in caring for your arthritic dog. Remember, though, these holistic treatments should never be used instead of veterinary care, but should be seen as part of an overall treatment plan. It will take time and some trial-and-error, but these treatments (along with those prescribed by your vet) just might be what gets your furry buddy up off the floor and back on the trails again.