Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Non-surgical Options for Managing Your Dog's Arthritis


Pet Column for the week of November 1, 2010

Related information:

Related site - Veterinary Teaching Hospital Rehab Approaches

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

Dogs, like people, may develop arthritis as they age. For an aging dog, traversing stairs may become an issue, or their favorite couch may now be out of range. If your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with arthritis, what are your options for helping your pet live comfortably?

Dr. Guillaume Ragetly, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, sees many patients with arthritis. He describes several management plans that do not require surgery, some tried-and-true and others not yet validated.

The keys to classic management of arthritis are weight control and fitness. When dogs are overweight, the extra weight puts more stress on the joints. Controlled low-impact exercise helps build muscle for support.

Another component of traditional arthritis management is NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). NSAIDs help manage pain while reducing inflammation in affected joints. A combination of weight control, fitness, and NSAIDs is the most common and widely used approach to arthritis management.

Nutraceuticals are nutritional supplements designed to target a specific health condition. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are supplements thought to improve the cartilage matrix in the joints; in other words, they may create a favorable environment for repair of cartilage in joints, which are constantly but slowly being remodeled by chondrocytes, cartilage-producing cells. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate supplementation has been shown to be helpful in humans and horses, but more research remains to be done for dogs.

Another nutraceutical is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, while omega-6 fatty acids have pro-inflammatory properties. The goal is to change the ratio to favor more omega-3 rather than omega-6 fatty acids. This approach also needs more research to prove its efficacy.

Nevertheless, some commercial pet food diets combine weight management, omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin sulfate in a formulation designed to aid dogs with arthritis. Such special diets make it easy for owners to try supplementation.

New treatment techniques are also arising. Laser therapy and magnetic pulse therapy both work by targeting and stimulating mitochondria for cell growth and health. Mitochondria are often termed the "powerhouse" of the cell, where energy is created. These methods are still to be proven but have helped patients at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Electrical stimulation can be used for muscle-building therapy but does not directly affect the joints.

Stem cell therapy is a widely publicized new technique, yet there is currently no proof that it is helpful for arthritis management. One problem is that the dose administered may contain very few stem cells mixed in with many other cells. This is a technique that needs more research. Stem cell treatments are also very expensive for a technique that is yet unproven, but research is under way on all of these new techniques, which may be very promising.

Although there are many management plans for canine arthritis, you should consult with your veterinarian to decide which plan will work best for your dog. Just remember that a healthful diet and low-impact exercise can help keep your pet trim and strong and keep arthritis to a minimum. And if other approaches don't bring relief, surgery may be the best option to relieve joint-related pain.