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Old Sammy's showing his age

Owner: alf egan from bray, co wicklow

Pets: sammy, an 11-year-old golden labrador

Problem: sammy has stopped enjoying his daily exercise

Sammy is a typical Labrador: he loves life, and always has a friendly tail-wag ready for passers-by. Regular exercise has been one of his passions in life. For most of the past decade his routine has included going for twice-daily walks with Alf, and even enjoying a regular swim in the sea. As he has grown older, Sammy has begun to slow down a little; in particular, he has become a little slow to get up in the mornings. Alf was aware that his dog was beginning to suffer from the arthritis that's so common in older dogs, but as long as Sammy continued to enjoy his daily exercise, he wasn't too worried.

Last weekend, something happened that made Alf realise that action was needed. Sammy must have twisted his legs badly in some way, and his arthritis suddenly became significantly more serious. Alf noticed this as soon as he took him down to his usual swimming place. Sammy stood at the water's edge, refusing to go in for his swim. This was the first time in his life that Sammy had declined one of his main enjoyments in life.

Alf brought Sammy down to see me straight away. What could be done to help his old friend as rapidly as possible? When I examined Sammy, it was obvious what was wrong. Both of his elbows were swollen and stiff, badly afflicted by the long-term damage caused by arthritis. When I tried to flex and extend his elbows, they were like rusty hinges, and they were uncomfortable too. Sammy's arthritis had reached the stage where treatment was needed.

For younger dogs, it's now possible to insert an entirely new elbow joint, similar to an artificial stainless steel hip joint. The surgery is complicated and expensive, and it isn't appropriate for every dog. In Sammy's case, it wasn't the right answer: there are other simpler and more easily available treatments that will improve his condition significantly.

For many dogs, two of the critical issues are weight and exercise. Obese dogs improve rapidly when they lose weight. Dogs that get too much exercise need to ease back, and dogs that aren't getting any exercise need to do a small amount every day. As it happened, Alf had managed to keep Sammy at his ideal body weight, and he was already giving Sammy the correct amount of exercise, so there was no need to do more in these areas.

What else could be done? There are three therapies that will help Sammy initially, and as time passes, there are other possibilities that may be introduced.

Firstly, I prescribed a regular anti-inflammatory tablet to reduce the swelling of Sammy's joints, and to give him pain relief. This type of medication helps keep many older dogs mobile and nimble for several extra years in the later stages of their lives. There are sometimes side-effects, and the medication isn't cheap, but it can make a tremendous difference.

Secondly, there's an injection of anti-inflammatory, joint-healing medication that can be given once a week for four weeks. It doesn't always work well, but when it does, it can give real improvement to dogs like Sammy.

Thirdly, a food supplement called glucosamine chondroitin sulphate can be worth giving, to optimise the health of the cartilage in the joints.

It's too early to judge how well Sammy's going to respond to his treatment, but summer's rapidly approaching. We're all hoping that by the time the summer sun arrives at Bray seafront, Sammy will be back in the surf, enjoying his morning swims again.