By the time I adopted Annie, a beautiful chocolate Lab mix, she was 9 years old and in pretty bad shape. Her left hip was severely arthritic – the result of being hit by a car when she was a puppy – and her previous owner had become too ill to care for her properly. Annie was obese and in a lot of pain when I took her home, but I’d like to think I improved her quality of life in her last five years (she passed away a few years ago). She certainly enriched my life, and she taught me a lot about how to care for an aging, ailing dog, especially one with joint problems.
Whether it’s hereditary hip dysplasia or osteoarthritis that develops over time with age or injury, joint problems come in different forms and affect many types of dogs (and cats!). Follow these four basics of joint care, from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), and you’ll ensure a better life – with less pain – for your furry friend.
Know Your Breed
All animals are susceptible to joint problems, but large dogs are generally more prone to issues due to their size and weight. Hip dysplasia is especially common in Labrador Retrievers (like my sweet Annie), St. Bernards, Pointers and German Shepherds. In this genetic disorder, the hip joint doesn’t fit properly, which can erode the cartilage around the joint and lead to arthritis. Rottweilers tend to have knee and ankle issues, and Newfoundlands easily rupture the ligaments in their knees. Small dogs and even cats can have joint issues too, however, so do some research or talk to your vet about any breed-specific problems to look for.
Have a mutt? Mixed breeds may be less susceptible to genetic joint disorders, but it’s still best to read up on any parts of their lineage you do know about. And no matter what the breed, be sure to balance how much you’re feeding your pets with how much exercise they get. Overfeeding, as well as over exercising, can predispose pups to dysplasia and accelerate arthritis in adults, according to the AAHA.
Know the Symptoms
Pets don’t often cry out when they’re suffering, so it’s up to you to look for the signs of joint pain, especially if you have breeds that are highly susceptible to arthritis, have pets with past injuries (such as fractures or dislocations), or have pets older than 6 years. Just like humans, most elderly pets experience some level of osteoarthritis, which simply means that the cartilage around the joints has worn down over time and the bones have started rubbing against each other. As you can imagine, this can cause lot of pain, especially in weight-bearing joints like the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees and ankles.
How can you tell if your pet is suffering from arthritis? In general, the AAHA says to look for behaviors that are out of their norm:
- Have they stopped jumping up on furniture or are slow to jump at all?
- Do they have trouble getting up or laying down?
- Do they wince or nip at you when you touch a leg, hip or paw?
- Are they limping or dragging a leg?
- Have they stopped eating or drinking?
These symptoms can indicate a variety of problems, so take your pet to the vet as soon as you notice any of these signs. Your vet may need to do an X-ray to make a final diagnosis.
Know Your Options
If you’ve adopted a puppy or kitten, you have the advantage of preventive care, which mainly includes keeping your pet healthy, maintaining an appropriate weight for their breed and keeping them active with the proper amounts of exercise and food, plus regular checkups with the vet.
Talk to your vet about dietary supplements that can help maintain your pet’s joint health. And if your pet is already showing signs of arthritis or hip dysplasia, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs – or, in severe cases – surgery. Drugs can’t reverse or cure cartilage and bone loss, but they can relieve your pet’s pain, allowing your pet to stay active and lessen any further damage.
There are also plenty of other remedies that may help ease your pet’s pain, including acupuncture, massage (by a trained animal massage therapist) and, Annie’s all-time favorite, swimming. I couldn’t get Annie within 10 feet of a pool, stream or fountain without her diving right in (often taking me with her in the process). I’m sure her weightlessness in the water felt so good on her weary bones.
Make sure you talk to your vet about all the approaches you are taking to help you pet.
Know Their Limits
Finally, if your pet is suffering from joint pain, you might consider making your house as pain-free as possible. Taking into account their new limitations, make sure your house doesn’t present too many obstacles to their mobility. You can start by trying some of the following tips recommended by the AAHA:
- Introduce smaller “pet steps” or ramps around your house that lead from one level to the next or in areas where your pet used to jump on to things. Be sure to supervise them as they climb any steps, and if the steps are still too steep, block off those areas entirely with a pet gate.
- Place padded surfaces and bedding in draft-free areas of your home (so the cold doesn’t worsen their joint pain).
- Secure non-slip rugs or mats to slippery surfaces.
- Put food and water dishes and litter boxes at comfortable heights where they won’t have to climb too far up, or bend too far down, to reach them.
- Tuck warm water bottles or heating pads into your pet’s bedding for a bit of extra comfort.
- Groom your pet regularly, especially the areas that may be too hard for them to reach.
- Keep them moving with light activity that helps strengthen their muscles, keeps blood circulating and stretches stiff joints. Watch for any signs of discomfort or exhaustion, however.
In the end, Annie died of natural causes. I miss her terribly, but I know I did what I could to help make her life a little better and keep her comfortable. Do you have an Annie? What are you doing to keep your pets’ joints healthy and pain free?