6 steps to treating arthritis in dogs

Arthritis is the leading cause of chronic pain in dogs. A multifaceted healing plan that draws on a range of therapies offers the most relief.

Loyal, intelligent, loving…these are the words that come to mind when we think about dogs. They give so much to us, but how can we give back? One of the best ways is to become familiar with arthritis, the leading cause of chronic pain in dogs.

Arthritis is responsible for many veterinarian visits. Approximately ten to 12 million dogs have signs of arthritis, and on average, veterinarians see about 45 cases a month. It’s a serious problem, and if not treated can decrease both the quality and length of a dog’s life.

Arthritis is defined as inflammation in the joint. The joint can actually be thought of as an “organ”, with separate parts that come together as one (see sidebar opposite). Each part of the joint is affected, causing overall inflammation.

Step up to effective relief

Osteoarthritis needs to be treated with a multimodal approach, an integration of all medicines. This approach, from first to last, decreases pain by using both conventional and alternative therapies. It is important to incorporate each modality because it covers different aspects of joint health.


In conventional medicine, drugs for chronic pain (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or NSAIDS) are most commonly prescribed. Newer synthetic analgesics can be used with NSAIDS to increase pain control in instances of severe discomfort. Neuropathic (nerve) pain is very hard to control; Gabapentin is used for this. The use of different pain medications together is important because the pain cycle has to be interrupted in different areas of the joint. When given pain medication, the animal is more likely to respond to other modalities. For example, using short-term NSAIDS can increase joint mobility and therefore encourage the dog to use the joint properly. He has to be out of pain before he will be motivated to use the affected joint and regain strength.

2. Nutraceuticals

Nutraceuticals encompass any substance from food that can provide medical benefits. The main nutraceuticals that can help with osteoarthritis are chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine, hyaluronan and the Omega-3 fatty acids.

• Chondroitin sulfate is an important structural component of cartilage and provides resistance to compression.
• Glucosamine is an amino sugar and precursor in the synthesis of glycosaminoglycans, a major component of joint cartilage.
• Hyaluronan (also called hyaluronic acid, HA) is an anionic, nonsulfated glycosaminoglycan usually found attached to proteins. HA and glucosamine are useful in supporting the joint, especially the articular cartilage.

Using these to supplement the diet can help joints by providing precursors for the synovial fluid and cartilage.

The Omega-3 essential fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Mammals must ingest these from a food source and do not produce them internally. The best sources of Omega-3s are fish such as sardines and anchovies. Omega-3s help interrupt the inflammation cycle in an arthritic joint.

3. Diet and nutrition

Diet and nutrition are an essential component in treating osteoarthritis. In one study, it was found that overweight dogs with hind leg lameness and osteoarthritis experienced significant improvement with weight reduction. With osteoarthritis, the more weight the joint bears, the weaker it will become. In obesity, fat cells contribute to a level of chronic low-grade inflammation that can trigger a number of other problems. It is important for dogs to be within their normal weight range to decrease the severity of osteoarthritis.

4. Physical therapy

Physical therapy is also important for the treatment of osteoarthritis. The benefit is that it gets a dog up and moving. Geriatric animals with osteoarthritis usually have muscle atrophy or wasting of the limb where the lameness is present. For example, hind end weakness is usually caused by atrophy of the pelvic stabilizer muscles (the gluteal, adductors and hamstrings). These muscles stabilize the pelvis and make it easier to stand and walk with the rear legs.

In physical therapy, an underwater treadmill and exercises can be used to help build muscle mass, which makes everyday tasks such as walking, sitting and standing easier. A regimen of home exercises can also be used when the dog is not in physical therapy. Over time, physical therapy and home exercises will increase strength. Physical therapy can also be helpful for obese animals by decreasing weight while building muscle. It’s the same theory as using cardio and strength training. Overall, physical therapy and home exercises are among the most important modalities. In other words, if the dog doesn’t use it, he will lose it.

5. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

TCM encompasses acupuncture, massage, herbs and energy work (Qi Gong). Acupuncture and herbs are most commonly used to treat osteoarthritis. In fact, the largest category of TCM herbs is used for osteoarthritis. Electro acupuncture is very effective at reducing the pain of osteoarthritis by increasing blood fl ow to the joint, using both spinal and central nervous system pathways and neurotransmitters for pain control. TCM looks at how the whole body is affected by osteoarthritis. For example, in hind end weakness the dog is likely to overcompensate in the front end. Other changes also happen internally and affect the entire body, including the dog’s attitude.

6. Regenerative medicine or stem cell therapy

Regenerative medicine also plays a role in treating arthritis. Veterinarians are using the animal’s own fat tissue for stem cell therapy, with great success. Therapeutic lasers, meanwhile, use a combination of light wavelengths combined into a single beam to reduce inflammation in the joint. Osteoarthritis affects many dogs, so it’s important to have your own companion checked for early signs of the disease. If properly diagnosed, there are many ways to effectively treat it. If your dog might be in pain, don’t you owe it to him to help him feel better?