Maintaining Your Dog’s Joint Health

Claire Dunling

Older dogs often get sore or stiff joints, which hampers mobility and eventually impacts on their quality of life. Younger dogs can suffer too, but this is usually due to trauma (eg road accident) or genetics (eg hip dysplasia). So as a caring forward-thinking dog owner who wants their dog’s ball-chasing years to last as long as possible, read on to find out about maintaining your dog’s joint health.

But you used to love a walk?

If you notice that your dog is just that little bit more stiff than usual or is having difficulty moving, the first stop has to be the vets. There could be many causes and so the vets will need to give your dog a top to tail examination to determine the cause and decide the best treatment. It could be wear and tear, weight issues or progressive diseases such as arthritis all need distinct plans and on-going assessment. And it’s rarely one thing, it is usually a combination of factors at play.

Simple but focused games can target specific joints and encourage mobility. For others, hydrotherapy treatments can help by allowing them to exercise freely, while supplements can help others bolster their body’s natural joint building and repair nutrients. No one approach will suit all patients or conditions.

Exercise management and dog hydrotherapy

You need to find a suitable exercise regime for your pet. That’s one that builds or maintains mobility and does not overexert them or do more damage. Regular gentle exercise is essential even for older dogs in order to maintain mobility. Dog joints that do not get regularly exercised will stiffen further, so starting a vicious circle where lack of exercise leads to stiffened joints which leads to lack of exercise…

For those dogs looking for a little more mobility or agility some 'serious play' can help - and it is just good fun too!

Exercise does not necessarily mean running or jumping or a major hike. Walk less active dogs gently over a sensible distance, all the time keeping an eye on their comfort. You’re looking to achieve that difficult balance between enough to do good but not enough to cause damage. Over-exercise can be worse than no exercise at all, and course even a dog-tired dog hates it when they realise they’re heading home.

Hydrotherapy for dogs is an increasingly popular treatment/therapy, particularly for dogs suffering with osteoarthritis. Importantly hydrotherapy is not just swimming. It involves purpose-built pools and tank treadmills that allow safe, controlled exercise for adog all under the eye of trained professionals.

The buoyancy of dogs in water allows them to move their joints while not supporting their full body-weight, making it a low-impact activity. This helps build flexibility and muscle mass, until joints can cope on their own out of the water. And although dogs can’t smile, you’ll swear you see a grin on their face as they get the hang of it.

Weight control for dogs

Many dog joint issues are significantly aggravated by excess weight. The more they weigh, the worse the strain on the joints. While a kilo or two “extra baggage” may not sound that much to a human, as a percentage of the dog’s total weight it is potentially significant. Carrying excess weight on damaged or diseased joints will cause both additional pain and increased damage.

Weight reduction, in very simple terms, comes down to the equation ‘burn more calories than are consumed’. Where your dog’s exercise is limited by mobility issues, a reduction in food intake is usually necessary. Feeding your pet smaller portions of a low calorie diet and cutting out tit-bits is one way of controlling calorie intake. Your vet may also be to point you towards some suitable diets that offer the right nutrients for your dog, while limiting their calorie count.

The key aim of any treatment is to make sure that the dog retains or regains some mobility. Where disease or damage means they are unable to support their own bodyweight it will significantly affect their quality of life – and inevitably lead to that difficult decision.

Prescription medicines for dogs

After a consultation your vet may decide that some prescription joint medications can be used to reduce pain and inflammation. Osteoarthritis for dogs is usually treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which reduce the joint inflammation and so have a pain relieving (analgesic) effect.

Nutritional joint supplements for dogs

There are a also wide range of nutritional joint supplements for dogs which very specifically are NOT drugs. These are also sometimes called nutraceuticals. These boost your dog’s intake of compounds which can support joint function and repair. These are non-prescription, and do not provide the instant relief of an NSAID but can help prevent further damage. Completely natural these products have no unpleasant side effects and can usually be used alongside prescribed medication – although check with your vet to be certain.

Supplementation can be started at any age but is most effective when the dog is young, so they develop strong and healthy joints or re-inforce joints as the first signs of arthritis appear. Supplementing working and overweight dogs from a young age will also help joints that are under particular strain.

Joint supplements are now manufactured to very high standards, although specific ingredient blend and concentration varies between brands. They are essentially naturally occurring substances we would deem to be in the wider vitamin family – glucosamine, chondroitin, omega 3 etc.

If they are young then supplements can help develop strong joints, if they're older supplements can supply those extra nutrients needed for repair

Just as all dogs are different so are the taste and formulation of joint supplements – powders, capsules, tablets, liquids and some are even included in some veterinary diets. So you need to find something that they will take – as half full packs in kitchen drawer do no one any good. Follow the dosage instructions, as “more” will not offer any extra benefit.

Some have a loading period, which requires a high dose ‘loading period’ for 4 – 6 weeks where a larger dose is given to build body’s reserves of these compounds. Most claim to show a benefit in about 4-6 weeks. Once an effect is seen the dose can gradually be reduced to the maintenance dose which can be given for life.

This post is an opinion and should only be used as a guide. You should discuss any change to your pet’s care or lifestyle thoroughly with your vet before starting any program or treatment.

If in doubt contact your veterinary practice

And always keep your vet's phone number handy - just in case!