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Osteoarthritis in dogs is also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD).  It is defined as progressive and permanent long term deterioration of the cartilage surrounding joints.  Cartilage acts as a cushion for joints.  When it is worn away, the result is pain associated with the affected joint.  Symptoms of DJD vary.  The dog may show a decreased level of activity, occasional lameness, and a stiff gait that worsens with exercise.  In our service dogs, there may be a slowed response to the “paws up” command, or an unwillingness to go under a chair or table if the space is small.

Affected dogs may display slowness or stiffness on rising after laying down for a prolonged period of time.  There are a variety of causes of DJD including abnormal joint development (such as is seen with hip or elbow dysplasia), laxity (such as seen with cruciate ligament injury), obesity and trauma.  Diagnosis of DJD is based on the veterinarian’s assessment of the patient’s history, physical examination findings of muscle atrophy and joint pain, and X-rays results for the affected joint.

Medical treatment of arthritis is designed to control the discomfort of the disease, not cure it.  Surgery may help alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.  Surgery may include joint removal or replacement, reconstructive procedures, and removal of aggravating causes such as bone chips or cartilage fragments.  Physical therapy designed to maintain or increase joint motion is very beneficial.  Swimming is an excellent non-impact exercise for dogs with arthritis.  Acupuncture, massage, and alternative therapies are also available and can be very effective in increasing patient comfort.  Weight control is exceedingly important to minimize unneeded stress on arthritic joints.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) are a big part of the medical treatment for DJD.  This class of drugs includes: Rimadyl, Metacam, Deramaxx, Estogesic and Aspirin.  These medications work by decreasing the inflammation and therefore the pain in arthritic joints.  Common side effects usually involve the gastrointestinal tract (vomiting and diarrhea).  They should not be given together or with steroids such as Prednisone.  Bloodwork should be performed on the patient prior to, and periodically during, therapy to monitor the effect of this class of drugs on the liver.

Tramadol is a drug that acts at the level of the brain.  It binds to opioid receptors to reduce the perception of pain.  This drug works best for chronic pain when it is given with an NSAID.  Generally, this medication is well tolerated but can cause anxiety or depression.

This medication was initially developed as an anti-seizure medicine.  Its mechanism is not fully understood but it is thought to decrease the release of certain brain transmitters associated with pain.  Gabapnetin works best when combined with other drugs.  Usually it is well tolerated, but can cause sedation.  It can also take a number of weeks to reach full effectiveness.

Joint Supplements
Most joins supplements are made of a combination of chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine.  These work together to provide the building blocks for the formation of new cartilage.  They can also slow the breakdown of the cartilage that is in place.  Quality control of joint supplements is not nearly the same as for standard medications.  For that reason, we recommend using a veterinary specific product such as Dasaquin.  Adequan is another medication in this category.  It is an injectable form of joint supplementation.  This medication is given once a week for four weeks, then once a month.

As in humans, arthritis can have a negative impact on the quality of life of our dogs.  However, a diagnosis of arthritis in our service animals does not mean the dog has to stop working.  There are a number of medical, surgical, physical therapy, and alternative treatments that can be used to control the disease.  Not every therapy will work for every dog and usually a combination is needed to afford as much pain control as possible for our canine companions.

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Have a question or a topic you would like to see in the blog?  Feel free to send me an email, talk to me at class, or have your trainer forward a message to me.

Mary K. Quinn, DVM
Diplomate ACVS
Dogs4Vets Medical Trainer