Lifestyle Changes Relieve Pet's Arthritis Pain

By: Carrie Gustavson
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Veterinarians now believe that overweight dogs with painful hips and lameness caused by osteoarthritis may improve by weight reduction alone. Obesity is the No. 1 nutritional disease in dogs and is an important risk factor for osteoarthritis in humans, so it makes sense that slimming your hefty dog can be a huge relief.

Dr. John Haburjak, surgical resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, stresses lifestyle changes to his clients. "Simply through lifestyle changes, owners can help pets keep arthritic hips going several years. This is important; surgical intervention may be delayed or may not be necessary at all."

Osteoarthritis of the hip joint is a major cause of lameness in dogs of all ages. In it, degradation of cartilage surrounding the bone causes a gradual development of joint pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. It most often develops secondary to hip dysplasia in dogs.

Hip dysplasia is a progressive, developmental problem of young dogs manifesting as chronic osteoarthritis. Once it starts, whether the dog is young, middle-aged, or old, osteoarthritis will gradually worsen, potentially affecting the pet's quality of life.

The good news is that hip dysplasia is considered "poly-genetic" by veterinarians. That means the genetic component of hip dysplasia can be influenced by lifestyle, nutrition, weight, and activity level. So, while there is no cure for osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia, there are several things pet owners can do for their pets to help.

That doesn't mean it will be easy! Because large, active dogs are often hit hardest by osteoarthritis, lifestyle changes can be as difficult for your pet as they are for you. But the reduction in pain can be significant.

"Large breed dogs that are overweight seem more symptomatic because they're bigger and heavier and put more stress on the joint," Dr. Haburjak notes. "Large sporting breeds also have more rigorous lifestyles because owners expect them to be their partners for running, playing Frisbee, or hunting. These activities place a high demand on joints."

Dr. Haburjak notes that any size of dog-and even cats-can develop osteoarthritis. "Himalayan cats can also have dysplasia," he says, "but going from the food bowl to the couch isn't that demanding, so it is less of a problem for them." Dr. Haburjak recommends that owners, in addition to keeping their pet lean, restrict off-leash activities, such as fetching balls, which can be extremely hard on the hip joint. For owners with a pond or pool available, Dr. Haburjak recommends swimming as an alternative.

Moderation is the key. "We advise controlled activity, such as gentle walks on leash, so muscle wasting doesn't occur, combined with weight control to reduce stress on the joint, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce pain," says Dr. Haburjak.

Though lifestyle changes may help your dog's hips, there may come a time for surgery. "We can keep bad hips going for 5 years sometimes. But when your dog is no longer doing what he liked doing at age 2, you need to consider surgical salvage procedures," says Dr. Haburjak.

So keep an eye on your pet's gait and be alert for signs of joint pain or stiffness. You can take a proactive step by putting your plump dog on a diet, especially if he is a hip dysplasia-prone breed or has been diagnosed with hip dysplasia. If you notice any stiffness or lameness, talk with your veterinarian and have your dog examined.

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