The most common type of arthritis is Osteoarthritis. This affects most dogs and cats and other animals in their lifetime. Perhaps most surprisingly, there is no real age when it can start. There are some dogs as young as 1 year old with arthritis. Most commonly it will be older animals.
There are many reasons for our pets to develop arthritis. It could start following an injury, like a cruciate ligament tear. Or it could start due to a badly formed joint, like in hip dysplasia. Or it may be due to over use of a joint. But most importantly for us to realise, is that it can happen for what seems like no reason at all. Many of our pets will suffer this in their later years, just like people do.
The important thing is to recognise when it may be starting to show. Early signs may simply be stiffness when getting up after sleeping, difficulty going up stairs, or a reduction in playing. These symptoms are often dismissed as “old age”. But go to the vet and get a check over as if it is arthritis there are many things we can do.
Many of us forget that over our lifetime, we will often change how we conduct ourselves. Many of us will run and play at school for hours and not be sore, but then we start to hit our 20’s and things already get more difficult. In our 50’s we are unlikely to start excessive exercise, and if we do, we have to train properly with warm up and cool down, so we don’t cause ourselves injuries. In our 60’s and 70’s life is far more sedate and a much slower pace.
However, for our dogs, we often don’t make any allowances for their change of life stage. Often they will age their whole life time, over approximately 10 of our years. We often expect them to walk the same length of walks when they are 10 years old as when they were 1 year old.
With this in mind it makes management of arthritis a little easier to understand. Arthritis can be managed sensibly in the early stages with physiotherapy and home exercises. Physiotherapy will include multiple things. Firstly your physiotherapist will have a long discussion with you about your pets history and lifestyle. They will then do an assessment of every joint, muscle health and some neurological checks to see how your pet is coping with life and see where their main issues lay. They will then set a program of treatment that will address these areas. In the physiotherapy consultation they may do massage and stretching. Some may also use electrotherapies like muscle stimulators or TENS for pain relief. They may also use some tools to aid the therapy like a wobble cushion or raised poles to walk over.
The aim will be to relieve pain and improve flexibility, strength, proprioception and balance. Most importantly they will also set you some exercises to do with your pet at home. This is really important as daily physiotherapy is what makes it so effective. Your home regime will be one that will fit into your life far easier than you realise so don’t panic. Most physiotherapists will start it off simply as we don’t want our patients over doing it. The routine may include changing the current walk regime to little and often. This reduces the “wear” on the joint and makes inflammation less likely so they can enjoy their walk more. Happiness is so important. I usually divide their current walk by 3 to start with.
You may also be given muscle building exercises if there is weakness. This could include asking your pet to stand from a sit position. Building muscle helps support the painful joints and so relieves pain. You may be given balance and proprioception exercises like walking over raised poles. This improves co-ordination. You may be shown gentle massage techniques and stretches that will help relieve pain and increase circulation. Your physiotherapist will make sure you and your pet can do all of these things before you are sent home.
There are a lot of options that can be given to our arthritic patients, so don’t think old age or stiffness is something to be ignored. We all age, so eventually you may still find that your pet needs a little more help. Your physiotherapist can work alongside your vet as part of a multimodal approach. This means they can start some medication which may help further. Using both physiotherapy and medication side by side can reduce how much medication you may need and increase the length of time before your pet needs more intensive medical help.