Why your aging pet may be slowing down.
It is such a common complaint that we hear it nearly every day. An older pet is “slowing down” or is “just getting old”. Unfortunately, age is not a disease and does not by itself cause any ill effects on the body. Rather, the symptoms so often associate with aging are a result of one or many physical or metabolic problems in our pets. Metabolic problems, or problems related to the inner workings of your pet’s organs, often require bloodwork to be diagnosed following a careful history of the problem and a thorough physical examination. Physical problems can be linked to heart disease or arthritis, both of which require a careful examination and potentially radiographs to diagnose. Regular exams, annually prior to 8 years of age and every 6 months thereafter, are critical to diagnosing and managing these problems effectively. For the purposes of this article, we will be looking at the role arthritis can play in a patient’s life. This is a very common problem in middle-aged to older pets and unfortunately is often not managed as aggressively as it could be resulting in pain and discomfort for the animal.
What is Arthritis?
Arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a progressive disease caused by a joint that is unstable, either because of previous injury or inherited problems in its design. The instability causes cartilage (the softer cushioning layer between bones) to degrade and new bone to form in an effort to stabilize the joint. All of this results in inflammation causing more cartilage damage and more bone formation. The self-perpetuating process continues slowly degrading more of the joint. The inflammation, joint instability and resulting loss in the normal function of the joint causes pain, and it is this that we can identify based on history and the result of a physical examination.
The common symptoms at home for these dogs are that they are slowing down, rising poorly in the morning, having problems on stairs, getting into vehicles with difficulty and recovering slower after walks. Limping is a sign of very advanced disease or sudden injury and so its absence should not be used to indicate a lack of pain.
On physical examination, we doctor can find decreased range of motion in joints that have been affected, muscle wasting along limbs (especially hind legs), swelling in affected joints and a change in your pet’s standing or sitting position. Radiographs can also be used to confirm the extent of joint changes and to monitor the changes over time.
Management includes layering different techniques to allow a pet to return to routine activities.
How can arthritis be managed?
There are several treatment options that exist including prescription medications, joint supplements, Class IV Therapy Laser, and sometimes surgery. There are different reasons to choose each option and many can be combine. Your pet’s doctor can work with you to design a treatment plan that works best for your pet.
Management with prescription drugs has been the cornerstone of treatment for years. A variety of medications exist in different drug classes to manage pain, reduce inflammation or alter transmission of painful sensations to the brain. Over the counter products such as Tylenol, aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) should not be used as these medications can cause serious and life-threatening complications. Medical management should be started when a patient’s ability or willingness to perform daily tasks is limited due to pain. Because chronic medications can affect a pet’s kidneys, liver or other organs, bloodwork prior to and every 6 months during therapy is necessary.
Supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM and others are of value in treating any patient with DJD, but are most effective, if used alone, for pets with very mild symptoms and limited changes on physical examination. We carry products specifically designed with high quality ingredients at reliable doses. Be cautious of brands sold at pet stores since the FDA does not regulate supplements and as such purity and effectiveness can very greatly among brands. Choosing a product based solely on price may be no better than throwing money down the drain.
Class IV Therapy Lasers are also very useful. More information on this therapy can be found on our Laser Technology page.
Isn’t it normal for all dogs to slow down when they get older?
In short, no. If your dog is slowing down, it is because of some disease process that is occurring.
As an example, Dr. Ferguson’s 13-year-old Labrador Retriever, Magnus, has been managed since the age of 5 for arthritis in multiple joints. Management began with joint supplements and prescription medications as needed. Over time, he has progressed to needing consistent supplements and prescription medications as well as intermittent Laser Therapy.
Is there anything I can do to prevent my pet from developing arthritis?
Since often there is an inherited component to arthritis, there is nothing that will guarantee that your pet will never develop this problem. However, one of the easiest and most effective means of slowing the development or progression of arthritis is to maintain your pet at a lean body weight. Every extra pound is multiplied in terms of force when your pet walks or stands. Also, fat is not just fat. It produces molecules that promote inflammation and can therefore contribute to the progression of arthritis. Because of this, even small changes can make large improvements.
Arthritis can be a debilitating disease when not properly treated, resulting in a shortened life for your pet. Beginning to manage them now will help them to lead a long, happy life.