Body parts special: Joints

September 25th, 2017

Many owners think that joint problems only happen in older pets. But that’s not always the case, as Colin and Roxy Gateson found shortly after they adopted rescue dog Dexter.

At home they noticed that the three year old Crossbreed Terrier has a limp. X-rays and a scan revealed a slight chip on Dexter’s right elbow bone that had become arthritic. Now, four-and-a-half years on, Dexter is slow to get up in the morning, avoids putting weight on his right paw and has problems with his other joints, which have had to work harder to compensate for his now chronically arthritic elbow. However he’s still a happy member of the family who enjoys short walks and performing tricks.

As the Gatesons discovered, joint problems are common – not just in dogs, but cats and rabbits, too. ‘The problems that affect our pets joints fall into two categories,’ says Petplan vet Brian Faulkner. ‘The first type usually come to light in the first year of life as your pet grows, and include issues such as hip or elbow dysplasia. This is where the joint is slightly malformed and develops abnormality,’ he says. ‘All large dog breeds are prone to it, including Labradors, German Shepherds or any dog over 20kg.’

The second category includes joint problems that can happen at any time during a pet’s life, through general wear and tear or after an injury. Whatever the cause, a joint injury usually leads to arthritis.

‘Remember, arthritis just means inflammation of a joint, and isn’t a specific diagnosis,’ says Brian.

‘There are four major joints in animals’ bodies: the shoulder and elbow in the front legs, and the hips and knees in the back,’ he says. ‘In addition, there are smaller ones – the hock (ankle) and carpus (wrist) joints. Arthritis can affect any of these points. The most common form of arthritis in dogs and cats is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD).’

Healthy joints are normally covered by cartilage and contain a fluid to allow smooth movement of the bones. With DJD, a pet’s cartilage becomes damaged or wears away, and the soft tissues within the joint become inflamed, causing pain and stiffness.

Pain spotting

The signs of joint problems can be hard to pinpoint, as Brian explains. ‘While a broken bone will give your pet sudden, acute pain – and can cause them to yelp – arthritis creates a “vague” pain,’ he says. ‘If your dog has arthritis, you can spot it by watching him for stiffness and a limp, especially when he gets up after a rest. With early arthritis, that limp will typically wear off after a few minutes of walking around.’

Although cats are also prone to it, arthritis isn’t as east to pick up in this species. ‘Cats might not be visibly stiff, but you may notice that your kitty is reluctant to jump up on your knee or interact with you,’ says Brian. ‘it’s easy to confuse this change with behavioural issues, but it may just be that she doesn’t want to have her back touched for fear of the discomfort it causes.’

The crucial cruciate

Be aware that accidents can bring on arthritis, even in young animals.

‘Probably the most common joint issue in dogs happens when they jump, leap or twist, typically to catch a ball, and then rupture their cruciate ligament,’ says Brian.

Ligaments are brands of tissues that connect bones to other bones. The cruciate ligament is found in the knee joint of the back leg.

‘If your dog ruptures his cruciate he’ll become lame immediately,’ says Brian. ‘This damage will then lead to some degree of arthritis at the point of injury, even though it might only show up weeks or even months later.’

Many dogs might also have degenerative cruciate disease, where the ligament weakens with wear, only to rupture eventually. ‘In this case, a minor incident can be the final straw,’ says Brian. ‘Owners often say, “He just jumped off the sofa, he’s done it a million times before, it wasn’t as if he fell.” But it was that last jump that ruptures a cruciate that had been deteriorating for weeks.’

Exercising caution

So, how can you help prevent your pet from getting joint problems? ‘If your pet was born with a predisposition to a joint condition, they’ll be vulnerable to this kind of injury and, unfortunately, there’s not too much to be done to prevent the onset of arthritis,’ says Brian.

‘The one thing all dog owners should be aware of, though, is not to over-exercise young pooches while their bodies are still growing.

‘With a highly energetic pup, it can be tempting to hire him out. But going on a 10-mile bike ride with your dog jogging alongside is one of the worst things you can do. It could lead to tiny cracks in his joints that will then become inflamed. Instead, go by the motto “little and often”. In practice, that’ll mean shorter, more frequent walks rather than one big session.’

Weighty issues

‘Whether it’s a cat or dog, the number one tip for supporting a pet with arthritis is to control their weight,’ says Brian. ‘The more weight an animal with an injured joint puts on, the more pain and damage they’ll suffer.

‘This is tricky, because a pet with joint pain won’t want to exercise as much. In this case, it’s often vital to monitor and, if necessary, reduce your furry friend’s calorie intake. It’s hard to feel you’re depriving your pet if they are suffering, so my tip is to give them a specially formulated calorie-controlled food rather than simply feeding smaller amounts. This will help them feel full, while minimising the calories.’

Treatment time

Of course, if arthritis is causing your pet a lot of pain, veterinary support will be needed. Your vet may prescribe a non-steroid anti-inflammatory, and could also recommend a supplement called chondroitin-glucosamine, that is typically used to treat the effects of osteoarthritis.

For Roxy Gateson, the other invaluable treatment for Dexter is love and patience. She and Colin are careful not to over-exercise him, but still take great pleasure and fun in his company.

‘We wanted a dog to keep us fit by going on nice ling walks,’ she says. ‘that hasn’t quite happened, but he’s lovely and we wouldn’t change him for the world.’

Source File: Petplan UK

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