Arthrosis is a widespread disease that very commonly affects humans and animals. It is a degenerative chronic joint alteration accompanied by pain and progressive restriction of the affected joint's mobility. Arthrosis is neither inflammatory nor infectious. It is a consequence of the ongoing decomposition of the joint cartilage beyond the usual level.
Arthrosis Affecting Dogs
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Arthrosis can affect one or several joints, both the limbs as well as the spine. The joints exposed to particularly heavy strain like the knee, elbow, hip and shoulder are mostly affected. Arthrosis can emerge at any age, although it is more common with older animals. Breeds with hereditary joint diseases like hip or elbow dysplasia are affected particularly often, but small breeds aren't spared either. There are many different causes of arthrosis:
- Excessive or incorrect strain due to sport, work or obesity.
- Traumas like strains, sprains or bone fractures.
- Joint inflammation due to infections like borreliosis or ehrlichiosis.
- Misalignment or deformity of the limbs, as with hip dysplasia.
Arthrosis is first and foremost a disease affecting the joint cartilage. The causes mentioned above lead to cartilage being damaged and put under excessive strain. It loses elasticity, which is accompanied by cartilage wear and lacerations on the surface. Cartilage becomes thinner and coarser. The joint capsule has to now absorb the impact due to the cartilage's decreased cushioning properties and can also be damaged due to this strain. This includes inflammation as well as the joint capsule thickening and stiffening. As well, it can lead to the synovial membrane, the interior lining of the joint capsule where synovial fluid is produced, becoming irritated. This can reduce or change the production of synovial fluid, meaning that the lubrication properties in the joint decrease and friction becomes even stronger. In addition, a change in the composition of the synovial fluid can mean the joint is no longer provided with sufficient nutrients in order to decompose and repair itself.
The bones underneath the joint try to expand their surface that will be put under strain and begin to produce osseous lesions that intrude in the joint line and stay there. This means that more joint material is damaged and decomposed. In contrast to cartilage, bone tissue is sensitive to pain, which is why severe pain can result from an additional strain to the bone.
Dog owners mostly notice at the start that their dog has problems standing up in the mornings or after a long rest, moves stiffly or is limping. After a certain amount of time moving, these symptoms decrease and the dog runs it off. However, the signs of arthrosis are often hidden: the dog remains standing during walks or turns around, doesn't want to jump in the car or licks increasingly at a limb. Dogs attempt to avoid strain due to the pains in the limbs that result from arthrosis. This means that the muscle mass of the affected limbs decreases and other limbs are put under more strain. Complaints increase as the musculature weakens, since more strain is placed on the joints. Also, it can be possible to feel the joint has thickened.
With clinical symptoms, the owner's preliminary report, the age and breed, the vet may often already suspect arthrosis. An examination of lameness and precise monitoring of the dog's walking movement can mostly identity the affected limb. Diagnostic imaging like X-rays, ultrasound, computer tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRT) and needle tapping can help to rule out other diseases as well as assess the severity of arthrosis.
Since there is no cure for arthrosis, the aim of treatment is to alleviate pain and delay the progression of alterations. If possible, the cause of arthrosis should be determined and tackled. Misalignment, joint injuries and fractures should be operated on. In order to support the dog and prevent the disease from progressing further, the following measures can be taken.
- Weight loss – obesity puts more strain on the joints, thereby speeding up joint degeneration.
- Low-impact exercise programme – regular exercise with minimum impact on the joints like swimming or even-paced running.
- Physiotherapy – alleviates tensions and develops the musculature with targeted exercise and training.
- Food and nutrient supplements – compounds and foods with chondroitin, glucosamine, green-lipped mussels and omega 3 fatty acids can help to support the joints.
- Medication – there are several substances available to treat pains and inflammation in the joints. The vet decides in each individual case depending on the severity of the disease what medication is recommended.
- Further treatment options are radiotherapy, shockwave therapy, stem cell therapy and surgical measures like stiffening a joint or inserting an artificial joint.
With the help of physiotherapy, balanced exercise, medication and further measures, the progression of arthrosis can often be slowed down, thereby maintaining the dog's quality of life. It's important to start treatment at an early stage. When it comes to severe joint alterations and pain, surgical intervention in the form of arthrodesis (stiffening) or inserting an artificial joint replacement may make sense.
As a dog owner, you can help to avoid arthrosis as early as the puppy phase. Avoiding obesity is one of the most important factors to prevent arthrosis. As well, puppies should receive a needs-based food with all important vitamins, minerals, trace elements and amino acids for optimal growth. When choosing a dog, you should make sure if possible that the parent animals are not affected by frequently occurring joint diseases like hip or elbow dysplasia. In order for the joints to be able to develop well in growth, dogs should avoid heavy strain like climbing stairs, jumping in or out of the car and long walks. Shorter but more frequent walks are more suitable, for older dogs too.