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The signs can be more subtle than you think...

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a disease that affects 20% of all dogs and 80% of dogs over the age of eight with these statistics thought to be underestimated. It is a debilitating, progressive disease but noticed early enough, can be successfully managed with a multi-modal approach in order to slow the progression. Owners are a vital part of every management plan and play an important role in recognising the first signs of its presence. Lynsey Tindall, a Registered Veterinary Nurse who runs OA clinics in Brighton and volunteers for Canine Arthritis Management (CAM) , explains what to look for in your agility dog.

Most dogs presented to a veterinary practice have secondary OA, meaning it develops following injury, micro-trauma or because of abnormal anatomy. Breed and confirmation play a part here with many breeds susceptible to dysplastic or abnormal joints due to genetics. In agility and sporting dogs, concussive forces and injury are commonplace, and thus awareness that these dogs may be predisposed to secondary OA is vital.

Many owners of sporting dogs are finely tuned into their animal's health and wellbeing. Lameness, of course, is one sign of underlying issues, but OA is much more than a disease of the joint and looking at the bigger picture can allow early recognition, when lameness may not be evident. An understanding that OA is an on-going, chronic pain as opposed to a sudden, acute pain where a dog may cry or yelp, helps owners to realise that the dog may be affected by pain in many different ways.

Pain from OA is not restricted to the joint alone. Pain associated with muscles, ligaments tendons and fascia due to  a change in the way the dog adapts their posture and movement to avoid the joint pain due to arthritis and neuropathic (nerve) pain associated with nerve impingement or damage or central sensitisation caused by  long-term pain are just two other aspects that need to be taken into account. OA is more complex than many people realise. Coping with the pain of arthritis every day has negative effects on both the physical and mental health of the dog, and it is these subtle signs that they will express on a daily basis. Canine Arthritis Management (CAM) wishes to help owners detect these signs so they have the best chance to catch this disease early as we know that this is crucial for the best results. Please read on to learn how dogs show signs of chronic pain:

Behavioural change
Pain associated behavioural signs are varied but can be simplified as a new unexpected behaviour or a ceased behaviour that the dog previously used to exhibit.

Examples may be include:-

  • Differences in the way a dog socialises with other dogs or humans such as intolerance and even aggression, removing themselves from social situations or becoming needy.

  • Licking or even chewing their limbs, feet or joints

  • Circling before lying down

  • No longer wishing to get on the sofa

  • Reduced tail wag

  • Reduced enthusiasm for their sport may be an initial sign, such as hesitation at the start line or a change in how they tackle an obstacle.

Gait change
Whilst sometimes tricky to appreciate, dogs with chronic pain will usually display gait changes that allow them to shift weight away from the affected joint or joints. Examples may be 'whisking' of the back feet, flicking of the forepaws, scuffing of feet, hopping, a hip sway, a pacing gait or a preference to trot instead of a steady walk.

For sporting dogs, differences in how the animal performs could also be initial signs. They may struggle with weaves or hesitate at an obstacle. Their times may just be creeping up. Any persistent change in movement could be related to early arthritis development.

Postural change
The way a dog stands can provide clues to underlying pain. Again, weight shifting is common and a dog may stand differently to avoid loading through an affected limb. 

Other examples could be:-

  • Straighter stifles, or their paws, stifles or elbows turned inwards or outwards

  • An arched back and tilted pelvis, low head or tail carriage

  • Standing irregularly or sinking quickly from a stand, or choosing to sit or lay down rather than maintaining a stand

Muscular change
Changes in muscle mass is a good indication that a dog is not using an area of its body appropriately. Muscle wastage are subtle to begin with, and comparisons with the opposite limb can be useful to detect any change. On the flip side, a dog that is over-using a group of muscles due to increased weight carriage and use will look overdeveloped, which is often mistaken as a sign of physical fitness.

The prime example of this is the dog that has hip pain, and throws its weight forwards into its forequarters, pulling itself forwards rather than propelling from the back end. The consequence is a 'torpedo' shaped appearance, with large shoulders and a solid neck, sometimes the appearance of a mane like a lion, yet with diminishing hind limbs.

Others may be less obvious, such as tension and tightening of the muscles on either side of the lower spine, seen when a dog develops a sway-like walk to avoid using it's hindlimbs correctly. 

If you notice any of the signs described above in your dog, it could well be coping with chronic pain. If you can tick off one or more from each category, you are highly likely to be dealing with a dog in chronic pain. With all of this in mind, it is important to obtain a correct diagnosis from your vet. Whilst all of these things can signify pain, compensatory change and the presence of arthritis, your vet needs to be able to rule out other diseases and conditions that can also present similarly.

Sadly, there is no cookie cutter solution for treating arthritis. Each case will have its own necessary interventions. For instance, your vet may initially prescribe pain relieving medications for your dog - these are often the cornerstone for the treatment of arthritis - but as they lose any excess weight they were carrying their requirement for medical intervention may cease.

Discussion regarding medication is too vast to be included in this article, but we do wish to say that there is a lot of mis-information on the internet which prevents many owners from using such medications for their pet. The unfortunate side effect being that the dog receives no pain-relief at all. If you have concerns regarding a prescription please always ask your vet for full information on what you are giving and why, to help you understand why they were prescribed. 

Many options to manage arthritis, such as hip replacements, now exist. There has also been huge advances in regenerative medicine and rehabilitation, so there are many options for you to consider. CAM believes that a multi-modal management plan is imperative for coping with arthritis, and a combination of medications and supplements alongside aspects such as home environment and lifestyle adaptations give you and your dog the best chance at slowing down the inevitable progression of the disease.

A diagnosis of OA will change your dogs life, and yours. However, CAM believe that arthritis is not the end of the road, just a change in direction. Managed early and effectively,  you will be able to give your dog more years.


For further information on the multi-modal management of OA, please see our website, and our Facebook page Canine Arthritis Management for help, support and advice in how to manage your dog. 

About the author...
Lynsey Tindall
is a Registered Veterinary Nurse with a diploma in Advanced Veterinary Nursing (Medical
). She works in practice in Brighton, where she runs the OA clinics and also offers a home service with her colleague Hannah Capon, helping owners with OA management alongside Galen Myotherapy and Class IV Laser Therapy.

Lynsey volunteers her spare time to Canine Arthritis Management, as she is passionate to be part of a movement that understands chronic pain in dogs is vastly under-recognised and accepted as 'normal' in many cases. By working with CAM, Lynsey can help them to drive improved education for owners, public and veterinary professionals alike, and ultimately improve the quality of life for dogs who are silently suffering.


First published 3rd October 2019


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