Osteoarthritis and mobility problems in older dogs – how you can help

Article by Dr Alex Crow

Dr Alex Crow is an RCVS licensed Veterinary Surgeon who has a special interest in neurology and soft tissue surgery. He is passionate about educating pet parents so they can better care for their pets.

As dogs age, they tend to become slower and less athletic. Much like in humans, a dog’s joints can deteriorate over time leading to stiffness and mobility issues. You might notice that your dog becomes reluctant to exercise and under the fur there could be a reduction in muscle mass.

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of mobility issues in older dogs; it is the broad term for degeneration of your dog’s joints which leads to inflammation, pain, and a decreased range of motion.

Can any dog develop osteoarthritis?

Although any dog can develop osteoarthritis, there are some factors that may predispose certain individuals to the condition.

For example, larger breed dogs tend to be more affected than smaller breeds. Or if your dog sustained injuries when they were younger, they might develop osteoarthritis in the same areas.

Genetics can play a part too; dogs predisposed to elbow or hip dysplasia may suffer from a lack of mobility and even pain in these joints as they age.

Time of year is also a factor. The condition will often be worse in the winter months as the cold weather puts more pressure on your dog’s aching joints.

However, just because these problems are an expected part of old age, that doesn’t mean that your dog’s quality of life needs to suffer. There are some simple things that you can do to help improve you elderly dog’s mobility.

Make it easier for your dog to get around the house

The furniture around your house that once acted as a playground for your younger athletic dog may now seem more like an unnecessary obstacle course.

Make it easy for your dog to get between their favourite spots in the house and consider moving their feeding bowl and favourite beds close together.

Climbing the stairs, climbing onto the couch, and getting into the car can be some of the most challenging tasks for an aging dog. They can potentially cause injury.

Ramps, pet steps, and grip pads can be a great way to make these tasks easier for your dog while still allowing them to remain independent and reach their favourite spots. Also, be aware of any slippery surfaces within your house. Wooden and laminate flooring can be like an ice rink for unsteady dogs; by adding rugs on top of these surfaces, you can provide more traction for your dog allowing them to get around much easier.

Even a simple change such as trimming your dog’s nails can have a positive effect on their mobility. Overgrown nails can get caught leading to pain and discomfort. If you’re nervous about trimming your dog’s nails yourself, your local vet or groomer should be able to help.

Keep your dog active

Old dog running

It may be tempting to give your geriatric dog an easier life as they begin to slow down but this is a vicious cycle. Over time, a lack of exercise will result in muscle wastage as the body breaks down muscle tissue that is no longer in use. Reduced muscle mass then leads to weakness and a lack of support for your dog’s vulnerable aging joints. It is therefore extremely important to keep your elderly dog active on a daily basis with low intensity exercise, so as to not wear them out.

Shorter, more frequent walks are best. Multiple 10-20 minute walks a day are ideal as this will keep your dog moving, allowing them to retain muscle mass but not tiring them out in the process. Avoid high intensity activities such as running and jumping as these will put excessive strain on your dog’s joints.

Keep your dog in good shape

Obesity is a major contributing factor to osteoarthritis and mobility issues. Any extra weight that your dog is carrying will put unneeded force through your dog’s joints, further exacerbating joint disease.

Regular exercise and a balanced diet are essential to help keep your dog in good shape. Avoid feeding table scraps and, if necessary, consider a special weight loss diet if your dog is overweight that contains lower calories and more fibre to help your dog feel fuller and stop begging.

If you are struggling to get your dog’s weight under control, then contact your vet who can help you to formulate a diet plan.

Supplements and medication prescribed by your vet can help

Joint supplements can provide an effective natural remedy to joint pain in older dogs. Glucosamine and chondroitin are commonly found in these supplements, which reduce inflammation, promote healing, and promote water retention within the cartilage. That, in turn, provides more cushioning for the joint.

Green-lipped mussel extract is another ingredient often found in joint supplements that acts as a potent natural anti-inflammatory, decreasing joint swelling and pain. Yumove and Active Advance are popular brands of joint supplement that many owners have found to have positive effects.

If you have considered all the above changes and your dog is still suffering from a lack of mobility, then prescription pain relief may help. Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), such as Metacam, are commonly prescribed by vets to help dog with osteoarthritis and mobility issues.

NSAIDs are powerful painkillers that reduce inflammation in and around your dog’s joint, increasing the joint’s range of motion and your dog’s overall quality of life. However, no medication comes without its side effects and prolonged use of NSAIDs can negatively impact your dog’s liver and kidney function. Your vet will be able to weigh up the risks and benefits of starting your dog on prescription medication and it would be a good idea to monitor for side effects of such drugs by performing regular blood tests.

It is important to understand that every dog will have a variable response to different supplements and medications; some dogs may find their quality of life increases dramatically and others may not show a noticeable improvement. A degree of trial and error will be required to find what works best for your dog.

Understanding the effects that old age and osteoarthritis have on your dog can help you make the necessary changes to allow them to live a pain-free and happy retirement.

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