Like humans, as pets age they can experience problems related to changes in the joint structures (arthritis, degenerative joint disease) that cause signs such as loss of muscle mass and mobility and can have a serious impact on the pet’s quality of life.

By putting in place a regular regimen of specific exercises and massage tailored to the individual we can help to alleviate the sometimes painful symptoms of these conditions and help to manage further deterioration.

What is osteo-arthritis?

Osteo-arthritis (sometimes referred to as OA or degenerative joint disease) is typified by changes to the bony structure in a joint and damage to, and ultimate erosion of, the cartilage and fluids surrounding the joint capsules that act as a ‘cushion’ between joints.

These changes can be caused by a number of factors, including acute injury (eg; a broken or fractured bone, causing abnormal bone growth in the area of the break or fracture), congenital (poor confirmation at birth, causing abnormal bone or joint development due to incorrect natural posture) and age-related (general ‘wear and tear’ on the joints associated with use over time).

Signs, symptoms and diagnosis

If the joint affected by osteo-arthritis is on an extremity (leg or paw), we will sometimes see swelling or feel heat over the joint, however if the joints affected cannot be seen with the naked eye (such as hips, pelvis and vertebrae) it can be more difficult to diagnose. 

Imaging (xrays) can provide us with a diagnosis of arthritic changes in the joint, however cannot quantitatively tell us how much damage has been done to the cartilage and fluids surrounding the joint.

By observing the animal and noting changes in their normal behavior patterns we can gain a better understanding of their pain levels and mobility restrictions. Your vet can also perform ‘range of motion’ (or ROM) tests which assess what level of flexion and extension the animal is able to comfortably tolerate, which can indicate function levels of the joints. 

As most clinical signs of osteo-arthritis begin with gradual changes in behaviour, it can be difficult to detect. Some signs your dog may be beginning to suffer the effects of osteo-arthritis can include; slowing down on walks, stiff when rising either in general or after exercise, reluctance to jump onto surfaces they were previously comfortable with (eg; no longer being able to jump onto the couch or into the car) and difficulty negotiating steps/stairs.

Treatment

While there is no cure for most cases of osteo-arthritis there are many options for treatment including anti-inflammatory medications, joint supplements, hydro-therapy and acupuncture. Your vet can help you to select the best option/s for your pet, which can range from one or a combination of all the above, depending on your pets’ individual needs.

However, some of the simplest and most cost-effective complementary treatment options can be done by you at home on a daily basis, helping to provide relief from symptoms and improve your pet’s quality of life. This involves a combination of simple exercises and massage therapy, all of which can be done at home and require no expenditure on specialised equipment.

(It is important to note however that if your pet has any wounds or broken skin, cancerous growths or undiagnosed lumps or areas in which they are extremely sensitive or painful to touch, these areas should be avoided and your vet consulted on an appropriate treatment plan.)

Massage

Massage is perhaps the simplest treatment and most cost-effective you can apply, and most pets are very receptive to it, making it easy to do on a regular basis. Massage helps to separate the muscle fibres and increase blood flow and circulation to the area, easing inflammation and tension in the muscle groups being targeted. 

There are several simple techniques you can use to massage your pet. No experience or qualifications are needed; however, it is important to be aware of the pressure you are applying to ensure your pet can tolerate the treatment, therefore optimising the benefit. It is important to remember that massage at home is a complementary treatment and should not cause additional harm to the pet. Our trained staff can instruct you on some simple techniques you can use at home.

Exercise therapy

A common sign your dog is suffering from arthritic changes in the joints in their hindquarters (eg hips, knees, stifles) can be the wasting (atrophy) of the muscles in the upper legs (thigh). As the animal becomes increasingly painful in these joints they become more reluctant to use them, resulting in a loss of muscle mass due to lack of use. By performing some simple exercises with your dog each day, you can help to build up that muscle mass and prevent further loss.

Exercise therapy in the senior pet helps to build and maintain muscle mass by specifically targeting areas of weakness. The exercises recommended, and the number of repetitions will vary according to each individual animal’s needs and a specific program can be developed to suit your individual pet.

If you would like any further information about exercise or massage therapy as a complementary treatment for your arthritic dog, please do not hesitate to contact the clinic. Our experienced team can tailor a program to suit your dog’s needs, and to help keep them in them active. This is suitable for all breeds and ages, and we would welcome the opportunity to help your pet live their fullest life.