Arthritis and Dogs: A Common and Treatable Problem
Our dogs are living longer these days, which is unequivocally great! With advancing years though it’s common to see a host of medical and cognitive problems develop in aging dogs. One of the big ones, and one which can often be the easiest (yes, that’s right, I said “easiest”) to deal with is when dogs start to have problems getting up and getting around. Fortunately, helping your aging, arthritic dog with such mobility issues doesn’t mean you have to remodel your house or move to a single-story rancher. Helping them and improving their quality of life also needn’t be backbreaking (or bank-breaking) for you, and it isn’t even all about medications! There's lots of simple, inexpensive, and effective things you can get and do to improve your aging, arthritic dog's mobility.
First Things First: Identifying the Cause(s) of Your Dog's Mobility Issue
Lots of problems can underly your aging dog’s mobility issues, and it’s important to work with your veterinarian to determine which one(s) are at play in your dog’s specific condition. Arthritis, which literally means “inflammation of the joint(s),” is certainly one of the most common, but it isn't always the culprit. Other causes can also include degeneration of the nerves, muscle weakness and/or muscle mass loss, or even a torn cruciate ligament. On the other hand, it isn’t always an orthopedic or neurologic condition that’s hindering your dog’s mobility. The cause could actually be pain unrelated to their muscles, joints, or bones — common problems include inflammation of or a mass associated with one of the organs within their abdomen (e.g. spleen, liver). Heart or respiratory disease can cause mobility issues, as can something as “simple” as overgrown nails.
The above conditions are just some of the reasons why it's important to bring your aging dog to see your veterinarian at least once (preferably twice) per year, regardless of their vaccination needs or how healthy they seem to you. Your veterinarian can thoroughly and fully evaluate your pet for signs and regions of pain, localizing the problem and determining the underlying cause(s). Only then can a safe, effective, and well-balanced pain management plan be determined. Again, it’s not always arthritis, and different conditions benefit from different treatments and approaches.
Tips & Products to Help Your Aging or Arthritic Dog
These tips and products listed below have helped to improve the comfort level, quality of life, and ability to get around of many older and arthritic dogs. Have a look and try some (or several) of them out, you may well be surprised at just how peppy your “old dog” becomes! You may notice that I don’t mention “medications” until the end of this article. It’s not because they aren't important and helpful, because they are often very important and helpful. I’ve done this because medications aren’t the only important and helpful components to helping older, arthritic dogs with their pain and mobility issues. The simple, yet safe and effective, tips and products I mention here first are too little known about and all too often overlooked. For the benefit of all aging and arthritic dogs, that needs to change.
Help Your Dog "Get a Grip" And Feel Supported
When rising and walking are already difficult and/or painful for a dog, asking them to do either on a slick floor surface just compounds the difficulty and pain. Worry not though, you needn't replace all of your home flooring. Fortunately there are some inexpensive, simple, and highly effective products you can try and steps you can take to quickly make your home floor surfaces less slick for your dog. As well as some great ways to help them get around better when out and about.
- Lay out area rugs or carpet runners, at least in the areas where your dog walks most. And don't forget anti-skid mats underneath any area rugs or carpet runners you lay out. You could also do carpet tiles instead of full rugs or runners. An advantage of carpet tiles is that they can easily be removed to be cleaned or replaced when they get soiled or worn out. If you're not going to do the carpet tiles from wall-to-wall, you may need some "corner stickies" to help hold them in place.
- Add non-slip stair treads to your hardwood staircases — here’s a popular option on Amazon.
- Put a set of Woodrow Wear Power Paws (“Grippy Socks”) or similar socks/booties on your dog. (I personally have a set of the Woodrow Wear socks that I bought and tried on my own dog — who doesn’t (yet) have mobility issues — not only did they do a great job of decreasing her slip on our wood floors, but she also tolerated them immediately!)
- Apply a set of Dr. Buzby’s toe grips to your dog’s toe nails. You can see a great video demonstrating their effectiveness on Dr. Buzby's website. (And check out my April 2018 interview on Dr. Buzby's great podcast!)
- If your dog is having difficulty jumping into/out of your car or truck, get them a ramp for the car/truck.
Around the house, if your dog is having trouble getting on and off your bed or the couch then a set of “pet steps” or ramp would be good to consider.
This gradual ramp (inset photo and video below) is ideal for both medium-sized and small dogs. Sometimes steps are just too steep and the ramp can help make their climb up and down easier. This ramp is large but the slope angle is gradual. Note that the carpet can be a little smooth/slippery for some dogs.
Here's 15-year-old Preventive Vet dog, Daisy, using her ramp to go to bed at night.
- Give your dog the support and assistance they need without breaking your back. Get a comfortably fitting harness with an easy to reach support handle. The Ruffwear Webmaster harness is a favorite for many people, including many owners of “tripawd” (three-legged) dogs.
And the GingerLead support and rehab harness is a fantastic option for dogs with arthritis, hip dysplasia, and other mobility problems particularly with their back legs. Make sure to choose one that's appropriate for your dog's gender, as there are female and male versions of this harness.
- A doggie wheelchair, like the one featured in the video below from K9 Carts, can be great for walks around the block and other outdoor adventures for dogs with advanced backend mobility problems. These carts can provide much-needed stability, helping to ensure that your dog won't fall over or have to drag and injure their paw(s). It also gives your dog the confidence and freedom to be more self-sufficient, all while improving their comfort level and letting them get some much needed mental and physical exercise. Let the exploring begin!
Ensure Your Dog's Overall Comfort and Health
The simple nursing and general care tips highlighted below might seem like "common sense," but they truly are far too often overlooked and really can make a big difference in the comfort and quality of life of a dog with mobility issues — regardless of the cause of those mobility issues. The added bonus is that they aren't just effective, but they're often simple to do and quite inexpensive, too.
- Regular nail trims can greatly improve your dog’s comfort level and mobility. If you can't easily trim your dog's nails yourself, speak with a good groomer or the folks at your veterinarian's office about having it done.
Wondering how often your dog's nails should be trimmed? Have a look at this article for some general rules of "thumb" (yes, pun intended ;-) ).
- Make sure that the temperature of the room or area of your home that your dog spends most of their time in isn’t too hot or too cold. This is also true for dogs that spend their time in the garage or outdoors.
- Work with your veterinarian to ensure that your dog is at their optimal body condition (weight). Just like in people, excessive weight puts additional and avoidable strain on already painful joints. Learn how to recognize, correct, and avoid obesity in dogs.
- Make sure your dog has a well-cushioned and comfortable place to sleep at night and to lay around on during the day. Especially for dogs with arthritis and otherwise sore joints, orthopedic or memory foam dog beds can be a great comfort. The Brindle memory foam dog beds are a great option because they're super comfortable and supportive, easy to clean, and waterproof! I bought a large one for my 12-year-old dog, Wendy, and I found it to be way too big, so I down-sized to the medium bed and it's perfect. She loves it.
- Dogs with mobility problems are more likely to soil themselves (feces or urine, or both) either from a decreased ability to get up and eliminate in another area, or even from a concurrent decline in their cognitive/brain function and loss of “house training.” For this reason it’s very important to check your mobility-impaired dog regularly for any signs of urinary and/or fecal soiling, and to clean them when noticed. (This is even more important with fecal soiling and diarrhea in female dogs, as such soiling often leads to a secondary bacterial urinary tract infection.) A good “waterless shampoo” can come in very handy to make such sanitary cleaning easier.
- For dogs that are experiencing severe mobility impairment, it’s important to ensure that they can easily and reliably reach their food and water bowls. Dehydration can be a very real, and very devastating problem for dogs that can’t walk well on their own. Make sure their food and water bowls are near their bed and easy for them to reach.
Also make sure that they've got good footing and stability where they eat and drink – if the flooring is tile, wood, or another potentially slippery surface, help your dog get a grip (and comfort and confidence) by placing a non-slip surface or padding for them to stand on. A large mat, like a BBQ grill mat, is a great option because it's non-slip, super durable, large enough for most dogs to stand on, and easy to hose off if (when) it get's messy with slobber and dropped food. If you want something with more color and size options, and don't mind losing the ability to hose it off, check out these great skid-resistant indoor rugs. For another option, these modular foam pads are great because they're soft, easy to configure and swap out, and give some nice cushioning for dogs to stand on (note that dogs with significant mobility problems may have trouble balancing on these or any surface that's got any "give"). For the foam option without too much "cushion," you could always use a yoga mat or two as well.
Note: For dogs with neck and/or back pain (e.g., arthritis, disc problems), elevating their food and water bowls may help their comfort when eating/drinking standing up. This bowl elevator (inset photo) is sturdy and has an adjustable height.
Medications, Supplements, and Other Means of Decreasing Inflammation and Pain
Pain management in dogs with arthritis isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” topic. Achieving their best comfort often requires more than one medication and supplement, and it frequently benefits from ancillary treatments or "modalities," such as massage, physical therapy, etc. As is the case with people, the most effective and often safest pain management protocols for dogs are typically “multi-modal.” Work with your veterinarian to figure out the best pain management approach and combination of treatments for your dog.
- Joint supplements, such as Synovi G4 chews or Cosequin DS, can be a good “drug-free” way to help in the management of a dog’s arthritis pain. Just be sure that the joint supplements/treats you’re giving aren’t going to contribute too many additional calories to your dog’s diet. Read more here about the negative impact of excessive weight in dogs with arthritis.
- The Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oils can help to decrease inflammation in a dog’s arthritic joints when given at a certain dosage.
Liquid - Great for Any Size Dog
Capsules - Easier Dosing for Small to Medium Dogs
Capsules - Easier Dosing for Medium to Large Dogs
- There are prescription joint/mobility diets specifically formulated to help arthritic dogs. These include Purina Joint Mobility (JM), Hill’s Metabolic + Mobility, and Royal Canin Mobility Support JS. Speak with your veterinarian to see if such a diet might help your dog.
- Therapies such as acupuncture, massage, laser, warm water hydrotherapy (swimming, underwater treadmill), and physical therapy can be very helpful for decreasing pain and improving mobility in many dogs with arthritis and a host of other conditions. Talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a certified canine rehabilitation specialist, certified veterinary acupuncturist, or a licensed veterinary massage therapist.
- Adequan is an injectable therapy licensed to help dogs with certain types of arthritis. It acts by helping to protect the cartilage within joints and helps to reduce inflammation. The cartilage is the thin, smooth layer of cells that covers the bony surfaces within joints. Healthy cartilage is necessary to prevent the painful "bone on bone" rubbing that characterizes degenerative arthritis. Many dogs have benefitted from having Adequan injections as part of their pain management protocol, yet it's not safe or indicated for all dogs in all situations. Be sure to speak with your veterinarian to see if Adequan injections might help your arthritic dog.
- Stem cell therapy is a treatment that, while still in its infancy and while still needing further scientific research, does seem to be showing some promise for helping dogs with arthritis (and perhaps a few other conditions). Depending on the extent of your dog's mobility problems (and your finances — stem cell therapy often costs in the $1,500–2,500 range), this could be something worth researching and discussing with your veterinarian. You can see this recent Washington Post article and this wonderful synopsis of veterinary stem cell therapy on the Data For Good website.
- Prescription medications often play an important role in pain management for mobility-restricted dogs. The specific medications needed and the degree to which your dog might need and depend upon them is different in each situation, and will likely change over time and as some of the supplements and tips discussed above are added in. What is also very important to note is that pain relieving medications should only be given to your dog under the guidance and recommendation of your veterinarian. Please — and I really cannot stress this enough — do not administer your own pain medications, or even “doggie aspirin” to your dog without first speaking with your veterinarian. Many a well-intentioned dog owner has inadvertently injured their dog or complicated their care by administering over-the-counter or human-prescription medications to their dog. Please do not do this, always speak with your veterinarian first — even if you yourself are a M.D., D.O., R.N., or another human medical professional. See more here about why “self-prescribing” can be a dangerous practice.
- Lastly, many people ask whether or not marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD) products can help ease a dog's arthritis pain. And this is getting to be an even more common question as more and more states legalize marijuana (for people) and more and more companies are making and promoting cannabidiol-based chews, powders, and other treatments for all kinds of ailment in pets. The truth is though, we just don't know yet and it's a pretty mucky legal picture, too. Check out our extensive article on the topic, What to Know If You Want to Give Your Dog CBD.