It can be hard to watch our beloved pets go from puppies to seniors, especially if they start to develop health conditions along the way. One of the most common health conditions facing senior dogs is arthritis and other mobility issues. It's normal for dogs to become less active with age. If your dog is unwilling or unable to move, however, then there is likely a more serious issue that needs to be treated and managed.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about mobility and arthritis in older dogs, as well as how to minimize the problem so that your dog can have the best life possible!
What Is Arthritis In Dogs?
Arthritis is a general term given to joint issues and damage in dogs. These issues can occur due to birth defects, excessive stress and strain on joints, weight gain, age, infections, and occasionally, immune system disorders. A dog's joint is made up of two bones that meet one another, held together by ligaments. To keep the bones from scraping against one another, there is a layer of soft, smooth cartilage between them.
In a normal, healthy dog, this cartilage allows the two bones to work together, helping your dog run and jump like normal. When this cartilage begins to wear down, however, they don't provide the necessary amount of cushion required for regular mobility. Even though arthritis is used a lot to describe this condition, it doesn't necessarily accurately represent the cause of the issue. All arthritis means is that the cartilage in your dog's joints is breaking down.
This breakdown can occur from excessive stress on joints, like regular and intense exercise. Sometimes your dog will become sick, and a side effect of the sickness is damage to their joints. Other times they are born with defects that cause the joints to wear out the cartilage faster. While arthritis doesn't prevent your dog from being able to move, it can make it extremely painful for them. As a result, dogs with arthritis are likely to lay around and move less than they used to.
Why Do Older Dogs Get Arthritis and Mobility Issues?
Any dog can develop arthritis and other mobility issues, though it is much, much more common in aging pets. The reason is that it takes a significant amount of stress to break down the cartilage in your pet's joints. This kind of damage really can't happen overnight. Instead, it takes years and years for the damage to become severe enough to be labeled as arthritis.
Examples of things that can cause damage to your dog's joints over the long term are weight gain and birth defects. A slightly misaligned joint or a few extra pounds won't give your dog arthritis in a week, or even in a few months. But over several years of their life, these kinds of issues will wear down their cartilage. So it's not necessarily your pet's age that causes arthritis and mobility issues, but rather how long it takes for these problems to reveal their damage.
Aging, in general, will have a negative impact on your dog's health and their ability to be mobile. As your pet ages and the cells in their body begin to regenerate slower and slower, all of the various aspects of their health will lose the vitality of their youth. Mobility is just one of the most obvious effects of the aging process.
How Arthritis Affects Your Dog's Mobility
Arthritis affects your dog's mobility by making it painful for them to move around. Once the cartilage wears away, there is less cushion protecting the two bones of a joint from bumping and scraping against one another. As you would imagine, this is a pretty painful occurrence. So even though your dog can technically move the same as they used to be able to, the pain associated with moving can become intense enough that your pet chooses simply not to move.
Not all dogs with arthritis will stop moving altogether. Some may just be less active and less prone to running and playing. Every dog's arthritis takes effect for a different reason and has a different level of severity. Your pet's ability to move will depend on their ability to tolerate pain and the amount of pain they are actually in. These things can both be difficult to gauge as a pet owner since your dog doesn't have an easy way to communicate this to you.
There are three primary ways that arthritis affects your dog's ability to move. The first has to do with traction. Dogs with arthritis have a hard time gripping surfaces, especially smooth ones like tile and laminate. The second way that arthritis affects your pet's mobility is by making it difficult for them to get up and down. Standing, going up steps, and laying down can all be made difficult with arthritis. And lastly, arthritis will make it very difficult for your dog to move quickly.
Diagnosing Your Dog's Mobility Issues
Arthritis is the most common and likely source of an older dog's mobility difficulties. While the cause of a particular case of arthritis can vary from dog to dog, an older dog's mobility issues can usually be tacked down to arthritis. That said, it's not the only issue that can impact your pet's ability to move normally. Muscle and nerve deterioration are two common issues in senior dogs as well that can reduce a dog's mobility.
Sometimes, especially if your dog's mobility issues seem to have set in pretty quickly, the issue can be another serious health issue under the surface - something not related to their joints at all. Stomach pains, heart disease, cancer, inflammation, and other health conditions can put your pet in enough pain that they become sedentary in order to cope. This is one of the reasons why it's super important to get a vet's insight if your dog loses mobility.
On the other hand, sometimes the issues are much simpler than any of these conditions or arthritis. Something as minimal as overgrown nails can reduce an older dog's motivation to move. Other times, your dog may just be more tired than usual, and less interested in their normal activities. Senior dogs tend to lose a lot of the vigor of their youth and are a lot more likely to choose to lay down and relax rather than move.
Ways To Help Your Older Dog Remain Mobile
The most important part of helping your senior dog stay mobile is identifying the cause of the problem. Without knowing exactly why your aging pooch is having trouble getting around, the best you can do is guess how to help. Sometimes, the root issue can be fixed, completely restoring your pet's mobility. Other times, your pet may have an issue that you'll need to help them manage for the rest of their life.
The ways that you can improve your dog's mobility break down into two broad categories: Their environment and their health. You can manipulate each of these to your dog's benefit, and with enough work, restore most of their mobility. Keep in mind that if your dog has arthritis, there isn't a cure available for the condition, so maintaining there health and mobility is an essential responsibility of being a pet owner.
As mentioned previously, one of the first difficulties your pet will encounter when they start developing mobility issues is traction. Carpet, grass, and other soft surfaces usually aren't too difficult for your pet to walk on. Slick surfaces, however, like tile, laminate, and hardwood floors can all make it challenging for your pet to travel. If you do happen to have mostly smooth floors, the easiest fix is to purchase rugs and other surfaces with tread. You can then lay these along the main walkways in your house to help them get around.
Adding tread to the floors of your house is especially important if you have a set of stairs in your home. You can either add a treaded surface to the steps of hardwood stairs or add a gate to prevent your pet from using the steps all together. For smaller steps and landings, you can purchase or even make ramps for your dog to help them travel.
While a somewhat less conventional option, there are products made especially for dogs with decreased mobility that help to increase their traction. One example is dog socks. Dog socks are - as you can probably guess - little socks that your pet can wear to help them move. These socks have treads along the bottom that will help them get around slick surfaces without the need for rugs and carpets.
That said, exercise should be reserved for early cases of arthritis - not for severe situations or elderly dogs - and it should be gentle. Exercising your pet too intensely can worsen arthritis. So work closely with your dog's vet and develop a safe but productive workout routine to keep your pet in shape and arthritis minimized. A good way to start is by taking your dog on short walks, around five minutes each. Make sure that you take them on easier routes, preferably in grass or dirt trails. Safe exercise with your dog is another great way to manage the negative effects of arthritis. If you allow your dog to sit and lay down as much as their arthritis makes them want to, then their muscles will deteriorate, making it even more difficult to move around. Alongside losing muscle mass, they can put on extra weight, which can be a serious problem when a dog already has arthritis. Extra weight and dog obesity put extra strain on damaged joints, increasing the speed with which the condition occurs.
Low-impact exercises are also a great option since they keep your pet active without putting any strain on their joints. Swimming, for example, is a great low-impact exercise for your dog, especially if you already know that they enjoy the water.
While the idea of getting your dog a massage therapist may sound a little funny, it can actually help with arthritis in dogs just as much as it can in people! Massages not only feel great, but they can do your body quite a bit of good when administered correctly. One such way that massages help is by reducing inflammation. Inflammation is a common side effect of arthritis, and it adds to the discomfort and limited mobility severely.
When the muscles around an arthritic joint become inflamed, they stiffen the joint and become sore. Massage helps to improve blood flow throughout the muscles, helping arthritic joints get the blood they may not be getting due to a lack of activity. This naturally reduces inflammation and the associated soreness. A dog massage also helps prevent your pet's muscles from atrophying, a serious concern when they start to become less mobile.
Plus, it comes as no surprise that massage feels just as good to your dog as it does to you. It's a pleasant and relaxing feeling that will leave your pet feeling refreshed and pain-free. You can also use heat compresses on your pet's affected areas to alleviate pain and improve blood flow if you don't feel comfortable with massage.
Another option for reducing the pain levels of your arthritic dog is supplements. Supplements are natural products that you can give to your pet to improve various aspects of their health. There are a number of joint supplements available that will ease the pain and effects of arthritis. These supplements can be purchased over the counter for the most part, and rarely have negative side effects.
One supplement that's quickly rising in popularity is CBD. CBD is a natural compound found in hemp products that has numerous health benefits for your pet. It stimulates your dog's ECS system, helping to regulate their mood, appetite, immune system, and sleep cycle. One of the other benefits of CBD is that it's a great anti-inflammatory supplement and pain reliever. So if your pet seems particularly troubled by their arthritic pains, you can administer CBD to help manage their comfort levels.
Because CBD is a natural supplement, it has little to no side effects for most dogs and is completely harmless. Alongside being able to help with arthritis, it has a number of other health benefits for dogs that are easy to observe. It could even have a preventative effect on certain diseases long term, though this is still being researched. If you're interested in giving your dog CBD - or any other kind of supplement - be sure to connect with your local veterinarian first. You can voice any concerns and ask any questions about the supplement with them first to see if it's right for your pet.
Weight loss is a must when your pet begins to develop arthritis. It's a cause and an effect of arthritis development, so don't be surprised if the two seem related. The extra weight of an overweight pet causes more strain on joint than normal, causing arthritis or worsening already present arthritic conditions. On top of this, dogs that develop arthritis tend to become much less active, which only leads to more weight gain.
This is why it's important for you to be proactive about your dog's weight from the start. If your pet is above their healthy weight limit, you need to set up a diet and exercise regimen for them to help them get back to a healthy weight. If you aren't sure where to begin, you can talk to your vet about your dog's weight and how to improve it. Just remember to go gentle on your dog, especially if they're older; it's possible to help them lose weight without putting them on an intense dieting plan.
Helping your dog lose weight will not only make them feel better and more active, but it can actually reduce the effects of their arthritis. Weight gain intensifies the damage and pain associated with your pet's joints, and weight loss is a simple solution to this problem.
Pain Relief For Dogs With Arthritis
Vets will typically prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, to dogs that are dealing with arthritis. These medications work by suppressing the production of enzymes that regulate inflammation and pain in your dog's body. As a result, they feel less pain and discomfort associated with their arthritis. While this is a relief from the pain that your pet feels from arthritis, these medications also have very harmful side effects that should always be taken into account.
Not only do NSAIDs - like ibuprofen - suppress the functions of inflammation and pain regulating enzymes, but they also halt the production of other essential enzymes throughout your dog's body. This makes it an easy drug to accidentally overdose on, and it carries short-term and long-term side effects for your pet. Some of the short-term effects include vomiting, dehydration, and abdominal pain, while the long-term health effects can be stomach ulcers, internal bleeding, and even kidney disease and kidney failure.
If your vet believes that some form of NSAIDs is the best medication for your dog, then you should always follow their advice - a veterinary medical professional will always know what's best for your dog. However, if you would prefer to use a less severe, more natural alternative, you can speak with your vet about the possibility of trying supplements like CBD to help your dog's arthritis.
Managing Mobility Issues In Older Dogs
While it's not entirely possible to eliminate a dog's chances of developing arthritis, there are measures you can take to reduce the likelihood and severity of their arthritis. One of the simplest ways is by keeping your dog at a healthy weight. As mentioned, weight gain can seriously tax your dog's joints and worsen pre-arthritis conditions. Always keep your dog on a healthy diet, and help them lose extra pounds when necessary.
It's also important to reduce the chances of joint injury in your pet. This can occur when your dog jumps from too high heights, exercises too intensely, or running too hard. Joint injuries hurt your pet in the short term and the long term, so be careful with them and keep them away from potentially dangerous situations. If your dog does happen to get a joint injury, getting it treated as quickly as possible will minimize the long term damage.
And lastly, exercise and a healthy diet are some of the best ways to reduce a lot of health conditions later on in their life. Keeping their joints in motion, reducing the amount of time your pet spends sedentary, and keeping them on a diet that promotes their health will ensure that their end years are as great as possible.
Arthritis is one of the most common health conditions in older dogs, and while this is an unfortunate reality, it does mean that there are a lot of solutions out there for struggling dogs. If your senior dog is beginning to have trouble getting around, whether it's due to arthritis or just general aging, you can speak with a vet and take steps to ensure their life is as comfortable and mobile as possible. Diet, supplements, and regular exercise are all great ways to keep your dog in tip-top shape!
Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, University of Belgrade
Ivana Vukasinovic grew up in Serbia and attended the University of Belgrade where she received a degree in Veterinary medicine in 2012 and later completed surgical residency working mostly with livestock. Her first year of practice was split between busy small animal practice and emergency clinic, and after two more years of treating many different species of animals, she opened her own veterinary pharmacy where an interest in canine and feline nutrition emerged with an accent on fighting animal obesity. In her free time, she acts as a foster parent for stray animals before their adoption, likes to read SF books and making salted caramel cookies.
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