"My eight year old Labrador is a bit slow to get going now and is usually lame by lunchtime, when I rug her up and put her in the vehicle. She seems a bit young to call it a day."

I agree, but many working dogs are affected by arthritis and it can be a very debilitating and frustrating condition. There are a number of steps you can take to help a dog with arthritis, improving quality of life.

help a dog with arthritis

Most patients are affected by secondary osteoarthritis, such as this dog’s X-ray

What is arthritis?

Arthritis can be defined as inflammation of a joint or joints that is characterised by pain and/or stiffness of the affected parts. Immune mediated (rheumatoid) arthritis is uncommon in dogs and most patients are affected by secondary osteoarthritis, caused by abnormal juvenile joint development (think hip or elbow dysplasia), trauma or infection. The pathological process is complicated but involves:

  • Degeneration and eventual destruction of the cushioning cartilage.
  • Inflammation and thickening of the 
joint capsule.
  • The formation of peri-articular extra 
bone (osteophytes).
  • Increased joint fluid followed by loss 
of joint fluid.
  • Tendonitis, bursitis and lots of other itis.
  • Excessive stimulation of nerve ends, thus increasing pain.

You end up with a thickened, swollen, stiff, painful joint. In our working dogs, the joints most commonly affected are elbows (in spaniels and in retrievers, especially those whose parents had elbow scores of 1 or more), stifles/knees (retrievers) and hips (especially in retrievers whose parents had average to poor hip scores).

wet Labrador shaking

Drying wet and cold dogs takes little effort but can increase working life

How can you prevent arthritis in dogs?

You can’t. Selective breeding, which should include hip and elbow scoring certainly helps. The condition is familial but most bitches at breeding age are too young to have shown symptoms. Keeping a lean bodyweight, warming up/down before and after heavy exercise, controlling exercise in early life, promoting good muscle mass by regular exercise and minimising trauma to the joints (think before you lob that dog over that fence) all help. But you need a little luck.

Avoiding hypothermia in dogs

Coats like Equafleece are good for warming up cold, damp dogs

Weekend warriors

My personal view is that the problem with many working dogs is the weekend warrior issue. Many dogs do little but sit around during the week and then are exposed to difficult terrain and weather on a Saturday. Any dog that is stiff on a Sunday morning needs a change of management!

Don’t forget it is not weak to show a little care and consideration. Drying wet and cold dogs takes little effort and fleece coats are cheap. Soft bedding to support joints will also reap benefits. Paying attention to all these aspects will increase working life.

Black Labrador bitch

Elbow dysplasia in gundogs

Q: I have just retired my Labrador after he went lame with elbow dysplasia (ED). I want to get another…

Labrador and handler

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A recent newspaper report suggested that a third of dogs develop some sort of cognitive decline from the age of eight, and two-thirds…

What can you do about it?

Any affected joint deserves veterinary examination. Some cases, such as cruciate ligament degeneration and osteochondrosis, can benefit from surgical intervention (if presented early enough). Medical treatment has to be individualised, as there is no single drug that works best.

Management will involve:

  • Appropriate weight and exercise management.
  • Pain relief.
  • Chondroprotectants.
  • Anti-inflammatory agents.

Analgesia alone has been shown to be beneficial to arthritic joints. In the veterinary world, the most commonly used drugs are the non-steroid anti-inflammatory agents (NSAI), which include a variety of liquids and tablets. While side-effects are uncommon, they can cause gastric irritation and damage to liver or kidneys.

Generally the pros outweigh the cons and we often find that a dog that vomits with a particular NSAI will be okay with another. I have many patients who have been taking them for years with no ill effects.

The evidence for chondroprotectants, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, is pretty weak but many of my clients report improvements with their use. Beware the unregulated nature of the market for some of these products.

Anti-inflammatory agents are generally the NSAI we use for pain relief and they can really help some patients. Add to that curcumin, the essential oils of turmeric, the essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) and the whole situation gets quite complicated. In addition, some drugs that are not licensed for veterinary use, such as tramadol and gabapentin, can be helpful to some individuals.

My final word: Don’t use ibuprofen. It is toxic to dogs.