I was a baby vet - just graduated - living on a farm in the middle of Western Australia when I first put to sleep an old farm kelpie with arthritis. I was horrified. At that time I felt like medications could cure all. I wanted to ask if they could put him on medication and buy him a bit more time. I didn’t.
The owners were ready and the dog was in a bad way, and I did what I do best - relieved his suffering. He wasn’t the last dog I’d put to sleep over bad legs.
Since then, as our pets get older and older, arthritic, non-functional legs would have to make up a large amount of the pets I see for euthanasia. As an “old vet” these days, I now know - medications can not cure arthritis. They can help, but there comes a time when even they don’t do much.
The Problem With Arthritis in Dogs
As a vet, arthritis is my pet peeve, honestly. It’s the one condition that I really dislike. Mostly because it causes chronic suffering that I can’t magically fix.
The other reason I hate arthritis is that it can commonly affect mentally capable dogs (that is, their brain works fine but their little bodies are failing them). These dogs, unlike others with other illnesses, often WANT to live.
It leaves owners feeling guilty and their vets a bit hopeless.
When is it time to put a pet to sleep because of its arthritis? When they can’t get up at all? Or is that too late - maybe it’s when they are having trouble getting up?
The difficulty with arthritic dogs is unlike, for example; cancer, they aren’t naturally going to die from their arthritis so there’s no clear line in the sand - when is enough, enough?
Anyone with a dog with arthritis knows what I mean. While so many dog owners will have to make difficult decisions in the future regarding their dog’s arthritis, there are some steps you can take to help a dog with arthritis enjoy a better quality of life.
Tips on Managing Dogs' Arthritis Symptoms
It’s fair to say over the last 15 years I’ve learnt a thing or two about arthritis.
I’ve used every product, gimmick, medication, injection and arthritis dog supplement on the market and I know what works for one dog doesn’t work for every dog, so it’s a matter of cycling through.
Here’s my quick rundown of the things I’ve learnt along the way.
Let Them Sleep Inside
Even toughened farm dogs deserve some pampering and TLC in their old age.
Exposure to long, cold nights and sleeping on hard floors can seriously exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis. Let your pooch come inside at least at night, even if it's just to the laundry or the garage. Make sure they have warm bedding and if possible, a bed that is elevated off the floor. Their legs will thank you for it. Check out our range of orthopaedic beds to ensure your pooch’s sore joints are supported and they enjoy their best night sleep.
Not only for humans, but acupuncture can also work wonders for dogs with arthritis. Even as a vet, I have no idea how it works, but it does what not much else can when it comes to arthritis. Not all canine acupuncturists are equal, so if you don’t like one or see any positive results - find another.
It’s surprisingly not all that expensive but 1-2 times monthly can be life-changing for arthritic dogs and give you some much-wanted extra time with your furry friend.
Using anti-inflammatories and the other medications your vet gives you for dog arthritis treatment is very effective. In my opinion, anti-inflammatories aren’t used enough because people are hesitant about the side effects.
Make sure they are given with food and reduce the dose by about a third or half dose if you're using them every day. Don’t ration them and only give them to your dog when you see them limping - by that stage they are in a lot of pain.
Anti-inflammatories work against arthritis pain in a way no other treatment can. One dose is not enough, you’ve got to break the back of that pain threshold and use them often to keep your dog comfortable.
While supplements can be useful, they are only going to take you so far. Have I seen any supplements that I think “wow, that changed that dog’s life!”. No - never.
The most I can say is that I think they might help in some situations to a point. Am I certain of this? No. I’m not certain, but unfortunately, I can’t ask a dog. Sometimes I think I can see a difference but other times I think it’s all in my head.
Most supplements, including specialty dog food for arthritis, work similarly using fatty acids or omega 3s (natural anti-inflammatories). Research tells us that these are a good natural anti-inflammatory and one that is safe for pets. A common question is can I use human fish oil for my dog? The answer is yes! However, you need a much higher dose than you think.
There’s a very complex formula for calculating the dose for arthritis. I personally use an over-the-counter dog-specific supplement but Colorado State University has a good fish oil dosing chart here if you want more details on how to use fish oil for your dogs’ arthritis treatment.
If your dog is young and has arthritis such as what can occur with hip or elbow dysplasia, then the surgical route may be worth considering.
They could still have many years left to live and an early joint replacement could see them enjoy these years pain-free and without the need for long-term medication.
In addition to the above, for severe arthritis sufferers, there’s a whole host of other medications and techniques available.
These include cortisone injections into joints, gold beading, pentosane injections, micro-dose ketamine injections… the list goes on.
More excitingly, there are some other innovative products such as monoclonal antibodies on their way, which I hope are going to be game changers for pets with arthritis
Most importantly, don’t give up. There really are so many ways to help a dog with arthritis enjoy a more comfortable life. Speak to your vet and form a good relationship with one that you love and trust and give them feedback on what works and what isn’t working for your dog.
With love, Dr. Kate