Dogs, like humans, are all likely to suffer achy bones and joints eventually. It's all part of aging for both of our species.
The signs of joint pain in dogs are not always obvious at first, because dogs, like many animals, evolved to hide their pain and discomfort to feel safe from predators and still look tough for the rest of their pack. By the time your dog starts limping, or just seems more reluctant to get out of their bed, chances are, they've been feeling off for some time already.
If not prevented outright or identified early, these problems can lead to significant pain, discomfort, and mobility problems. Worse, dogs who suffer from joint pain may avoid essential exercise, leading to a variety of other health issues.
Fortunately, there are steps any dog owner can take to prevent joint problems from developing, or to treat joint pain once it occurs.
What causes joint pain in dogs?
There are two types of joint problems in dogs: developmental, where the bones and joints grow incorrectly during puppyhood, and degenerative, which is caused by overuse, injury, and wear-and-tear over a long period of time.
Developmental joint pain is hereditary in nature, and it is most likely to affect certain breeds of dogs, primarily large breeds (60+ pounds as adults).
These problems start during puppyhood when the bones of the legs and hips experience growth spurts and increase rapidly in size, out of sync with other parts of the skeletal system.
Hip and elbow dysplasia, where the ball and socket of the joint don't quite fit together correctly, are the most common types of canine developmental joint problems.
Degenerative joint issues, on the other hand, are what happens when the materials of your dog's joints are damaged by wear and tear and/or external forces. This is the type of joint disease that typically begins later in life.
Arthritis, for example, the most commonly seen degenerative joint disease, occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the cartilage present in the joints, inhibiting function and causing inflammation.
What can I do to prevent dog joint pain?
The most important components of preventing developmental joint pain in dogs are their diet and exercise during puppyhood.
You may have seen special large breed puppy foods at the pet store - these diets are specifically designed with only moderate amounts of calcium and other building blocks of healthy bones, to keep their young bones from growing too quickly and throwing the rest of their skeletomuscular system out of whack.
Keeping your puppy from putting on too much extra weight is important as well, since every extra pound they're carrying is another pound of weight on their already delicate joints.
Regular exercise is also important to make sure your puppy's joints develop full healthy function; however, you also don't want to overdo it, because that can itself contribute to joint problems! So exercise your puppy frequently, but keep those activities relatively short and not too strenuous, at least until they're through their growth spurts.
It can feel a little overwhelming to balance all of these correctly, and every puppy is a little different, but don't be intimidated! Your veterinarian is there to help you work out a specific diet and exercise gameplan for your large breed puppy that should provide all the nutrition and exertion they need to grow strong and healthy, while taking into account the healthy development of their joints.
Once degenerative joint disease begins, there's unfortunately very little that can be done to reverse it - the symptoms can be managed, but the damage itself is rarely undone.
That's why I tell all my patients the same thing: the best treatment is always prevention.
For example, excess weight plays a part in an overwhelming number of arthritis cases. While weight and arthritis aren't directly linked, heavier dogs' joints suffer more and faster wear-and-tear, so overweight dogs tend to develop joint pain much earlier in life.
Additionally, carbohydrates, often found in high amounts in the diets of overweight pooches, can increase the body's own natural inflammatory response, so that their joints are even more swollen than they might otherwise have been once joint problems develop.
So, in other words, the closer your dog is to their ideal weight as they get older, and the higher-quality and lower-carb their food is, the less likely they are to develop joint disease, and the longer it will take for their symptoms to progress if and when those problems do show up.
Giving those joints regular workouts also keeps them functioning smoothly. Don't let your older dog become a couch potato - make sure your walks are regular, and always reward your dog for keeping up!
What can be done to help with dog joint pain at home?
Of course, your veterinarian can and should recommend specific treatments for your dog's joint pain, but in general, there are a few natural ways to help with dog joint problems.
If your dog starts to show signs of joint pain, or if they're getting a little older and you'd like to take some preventative steps before those problems develop, I strongly recommend supplementing their diet with some joint health compounds.
Different dogs react differently, so you may need to experiment a bit to find the right combination, but I've known many dogs who have been helped with the right ingredients.
Glucosamine is a commonly used joint supplement, which both acts as a mild anti-inflammatory, and is used in the production of cartilage, and chondroitin, often included with glucosamine, works to protect cartilage from destruction. Natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin include animal cartilage like beef trachea or chicken feet, as well as shellfish.
Collagen is believed by many veterinarians to help lubricate the joints to provide smooth, pain-free function - and it's great for the skin and coat, too! Raw bones, beef tendons, and bone broth are all great natural sources of collagen for dogs.
Finally, omega fatty acids help to regulate inflammation, so they may be useful in managing the pain of joint dysfunction. Fish meat, fish oil, and flaxseed is commonly used to provide a shot of omegas to dog diets.
Unfortunately, there may also come a time when your dog just needs a little extra help getting around or jumping up on to the couch. I recommend investing in a sturdy harness with a grab handle on the back for this purpose, so you can steady them and provide a little bit of lift, but they're still doing most of the work. That's a good way to help your dog get around, but allow them to get the benefits of exercise.
Though achy joints are a natural part of life, there's no reason they have to stop your dog from living their life!
Wishing you and your dog the best of health,
Dr. Edward Tuk