My dog has arthritis. What can I do to help him?

Arthritis, also called degenerative joint disease (DID), is common in older dogs. It is caused by deterioration of the layers of cartilage that line a dog’s joints and by injuries to the joints that have occurred over the dog’s lifetime.

Early signs include intermittent lameness, a stiff gait, and difficulty walking up or down stairs or on slippery floors. Many dogs are stiffest after a long nap or during cold weather. There are a lot of modern options for relieving the pain. Most treatments are only palliative; a veterinarian can limit a dog’s pain and keep his joints as healthy as possible, but the doctor can’t undo the damage that time and life have already done.

A three-pronged approach can help treat canine arthritis: moderate exercise, weight control, and medication/supplementation.

Moderate daily exercise keeps your dog’s muscles strong and flexible and decreases the pain of arthritis. Swimming, if your dog likes that activity, is an excellent form of exercise because the water buoys up your dog and decreases the pressure on his joints. Exercise provides the greatest benefit if you begin a regular program before or shortly after your dog begins to show signs of arthritis. If he has been symptomatic for some time without getting much exercise, check with your veterinarian before beginning exercise activity.

Maintaining normal body weight is another component of caring for an arthritic older dog. Obesity is one of the most common canine health problems, and extra pounds mean extra pain for an arthritic dog. Regular, moderate exercise and a high-fiber, low-calorie diet help obese and arthritic dogs slim down and feel better. No matter how much your dog enjoys a food treat, it will only compound his pain if it contributes to obesity.

Nutritional supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate help many canine patients. These supplements provide dogs with more of the building blocks needed to maintain joint cartilage. Administer these supplements as directed by your veterinarian, usually as an oral dose given once a day.

Another option is to use a polysufated glycosaminoglycan (PSGAG). PSGAGs are known to prevent cartilage breakdown and increase the health of the fluid that is normally found in joints. Your veterinarian may administer an injectable form of PSGAG (Adequan Canine) every three to five days for eight injections, and then as needed. Few side effects have been associated with either of these treatments, and many dogs have been greatly relieved by them.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide relief for arthritic dogs. Options include aspirin, etodolac (EtoGesic), and carprofen (Rimadyl). All of these drugs can have side effects, including gastrointestinal ulcers and liver disease, but they also provide great relief for many dogs. However, you should never give your dog medication, even aspirin, without first consulting with your veterinarian, and you must monitor your dog carefully for any signs of illness caused by the medication; your veterinarian will want to monitor your dog’s blood values on a regular basis to be sure no damage is being done. Use the lowest effective dosage. If at all possible, administer NSAID medication before the pain starts, for greatest effect at the lowest dose.