Arthritis is one of the most common diseases to affect older dogs. The basic problem is age-related wear and tear of the joints. In young animals, the joints are like smoothly gliding hinges. Over the years, the biological equivalent of metal fatigue and rust develops, and the joints start to resemble creaky, slow moving door hinges. As well as the stiffness, there's a lot of pain. It's no wonder that many older dogs are slow to get going in the morning.
The problem is worse in some pedigree breeds, such as German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers: many are born with hips, knees, elbows and shoulders which are too loose-fitting, leading to increased wear and tear of the joint surfaces. I've known some dogs who have had such severe arthritis by the age of two years that they've needed total hip replacement surgery, with expensive shiny new titanium hips giving them a new lease of life.
Apart from such dramatic surgery, there are many other ways to help pets with arthritis. The most effective treatment also happens to be the cheapest: weight loss. If you give an obese pet less food, as they slim down they'll find it easier to move around. I know many owners who will testify that their overweight pets became far more active and lively after losing weight.
The second inexpensive way to treat pets with arthritis is to change their exercise routine. Too much exercise can damage joints, and if pets lie around too much, their joints seize up and they become even more stiff. Moderate exercise helps to keep arthritic joints supple and mobile. The definition of "moderate" depends on the individual animal, but "little and often" is the general idea. Half an hour twice daily is the average recommendation, and the type of exercise should be varied: up and down hills, steps, and pavement kerbs, running, walking and even swimming. Physiotherapy and massage can also help, and this is best done under the supervision of a therapist who has been trained specifically to do this in animals. Acupuncture can be a useful add-in for some cases.
If you have a lean pet that is regularly exercised and there is still an issue with arthritis, you need to start to spend money on medication to help them. Modern veterinary science has developed a range of anti-inflammatory, pain relieving drugs that are highly effective. These can be given as tablets or liquids in the food: most are given once or twice daily, but there's a once monthly version that's helpful for dogs who are difficult to medicate. It's important to use drugs that have been tested and licensed for animal use: the human equivalents can be very dangerous for pets.
Vets also sometimes use a once-weekly injection of a drug that has a beneficial effect on cartilage: it may not suit all pets, but it's worth talking to your vet about this.
So-called "nutraceuticals" can also help: these are food ingredients that claim to have a pharmaceutical effect. You can buy special prescription-only diets that are ultra-high in fish oils and other ingredients like green-lipped mussels. And a daily dose of a double-combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate has been widely used in humans as well as animals. Some cases respond well to these products, and others less well: there's debate in the world of science about their efficacy.
My own vet clinic was once involved in a trial to assess a combination of natural ingredients aimed at helping arthritic dogs. We had to assess them at the start, giving scores for the level of lameness and stiffness, and interviewing their owners about their daily activities. The owners gave capsules that might - or might not - contain active ingredients: half of the patients received dummy capsules that would have no effect. It was a double-blind trial: neither the vets supplying the medication nor the owners knew which were the "real" products. An elaborate system of coded labels was used by the researchers. I learned a lot from doing this trial: it is surprisingly difficult to accurately grade the severity of lameness from week to week. Is a dog 5/10 lame or 6/10 lame? In the end, the trial did demonstrate the efficacy of the product, but the process gave me greater understanding of the challenge of doing effective research.
An innovative new way of assessing anti-arthritic medication in dogs has been developed by vets in Edinburgh. GPS technology attached to collars track the movements of dogs with arthritis to analyse how they respond to treatment. The collars allow vets to see how fast the dogs are moving, how quickly they speed up and slow down, and how far they travel during outdoor activities. The results? Dogs with arthritis can run as fast as healthy dogs, but their acceleration and deceleration is significantly affected by their condition. When the animals are treated with an anti-inflammatory painkiller, their performance is restored to a level comparable with healthy dogs.
This new method of analysis is likely to be used to review many different types of treatment for arthritis, offering a more accurate way of assessing improvements than a vet's subjective opinion. So how effective are those many natural supplements that are now on the market anyway? Thanks to GPS technology, we may soon find out.