Dogs make great hiking companions, but they age faster than we do. And commonly, older dogs develop arthritis. But just because your dog is aging doesn’t mean that you have to stop hiking with them. This post is dedicated to helping you support your arthritic dog in continuing to stay active as long as possible.
What is Arthritis and How Do Dogs Develop Arthritis?
For the purposes of this post, we are talking about osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD). Dogs can develop other types of arthritis, such as immune-mediated arthritis or septic arthritis, but osteoarthritis is the type commonly developed during a dog’s senior years and will be the type referred to in this article.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative and progressive disease affecting synovial joints, like the elbow, hip, wrist (carpus), or knee (stifle). It occurs when the protective cartilage of the joint is worn down and is characterized by loss of cartilage, inflammation, and remodeling of the bone around the joint/cartilage. These changes result in pain and a loss of normal range of motion.
Dogs develop osteoarthritis over time due to wear and tear on their synovial joints as the cartilage that protects and cushions the ends of the bones wears down. As arthritis progresses, dogs become more painful and their mobility decreases.
Osteoarthritis is classified into 4 stages in dogs:
- Stage 1: These are dogs without any symptoms of arthritis, but who are at an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis. Risk factors for the development of arthritis in dogs include previous joint injury, high-impact activity, or radiographic evidence of joint dysplasia.
- Stage 2: In stage 2 you may begin to see some subtle changes in how your dog moves. They may be stiff, change the tempo of how they walk and run, or stand with less weight on certain legs.
- Stage 3: By Stage 3, dogs show obvious changes in how they stand and move. At this stage, you may often see a dog routinely limping during daily activities.
- Stage 4: In stage 4, a dog will become restless while standing and may spend more time laying down to avoid bearing weight on their legs. These dogs often have severe limping.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs
The symptoms that your dog displays will vary in intensity depending on what stage of arthritis your dog is currently in. But early signs that your dog may have joint pain include a dog who slows down on walks, has trouble getting comfortable when laying down, shifts weight around while standing, hesitates to jump up or down (from furniture or into the car), or has intermittent limping.
As arthritis progresses, you may notice your dog limps after exercise, is really stiff after resting, won’t jump onto furniture or into the car (or down) without assistance, isn’t interested in exercising or needs to rest frequently during exercise, and is reluctant to stand for normal periods of time.
While recognizing these symptoms at any stage of arthritis is important, the earlier you notice that your dog suffering from arthritis, the more you can do to help slow down the progression of your dog’s arthritis. It is important to note that you cannot cure or reverse osteoarthritis. The goals of treating a dog with arthritis are to reduce discomfort, reduce the progression of arthritis, and keep your dog’s joints as functional as possible.
Tips for Hiking with an Arthritic Dog
How much you need to adjust your hiking style for your dog will vary significantly depending on what stage of arthritis your dog is in. Dogs in stage 4 may not be able to join you for traditional hikes, although they are likely to still enjoy a slow sniff walk along a flat nature trail. However, many of these tips will be more useful for dogs in less advanced stages. So for the purposes of these recommendations, let’s assume your dog is in stages 1-3.
Tip #1: Low intensity, short duration, high frequency
The best exercise for a dog with arthritis is exercise that is gentle on the joints. High-intensity exercise can increase the risk of injury to the joint and increase wear and tear resulting in more rapid progression of arthritis. So the first step in adjusting your hikes for your dog with arthritis is to decrease the intensity of your hikes.
What is a low-intensity hike? A low-intensity hike is flatter, requires less jumping and scrambling, and takes place on softer surfaces (grass rather than pavement). It may include some swimming (swimming is very gentle on joints as your dog’s weight is supported by water). A low-intensity hike is also slower, as walking results in less impact on joints compared to running.
The amount to which you will need to lower the intensity of your dog’s hikes will depend on your dog’s stage of arthritis. I recommend consulting with your dog’s veterinarian for specific advice.
Shortening the duration of your hikes is pretty self-explanatory. Instead of choosing 10-mile-long trails, consider a 4-mile hike instead. If 4 miles is too long, try a 2-mile hike.
But happily, even though your hikes might have to be flatter and shorter, you can increase the frequency of your walks and hikes. Taking three 1-mile flat hikes is much better than one steep 3-mile hike for dogs suffering from osteoarthritis. Getting up and moving regularly helps prevent joints from stiffening and keeping the duration and intensity short reduces the risk of pain increasing during exercise.
Tip #2: Help Your Dog Maintain a Healthy Weight
The amount of force applied to your dog’s joints each time they take a step has a direct correlation with how much your dog weighs. As a personal note, every time I strap on a 30# backpack to spend a weekend in the woods, I can feel the extra strain on my knees. And each time I backpack, I pledge to never gain 30 pounds of body weight to carry around every day. It really does make a difference in stress on joints.
While that’s an entirely anecdotal example, there are actual scientific studies to support this claim.
In the 2010 ten published article “The effect of weight loss on lameness in obese dogs with osteoarthritis” by Marshall, et al, several obese dogs with arthritis were put on a diet. The results of the study showed that even just a 6-9% reduction in body weight resulted in decreased lameness in dogs.
To help quantify that, for a 30-pound dog that’s only ~ 2 pounds. For a 60-pound dog, that would be around 4 pounds. So even just a few pounds can make a big difference in how easy it is for a dog with arthritis to get around.
Need help reducing your dog’s body weight? The Association for Pet Obesity has some great resources.
Tip #3: Joint Supplements
In addition to planning low-intensity hikes and keeping your dog at their ideal body weight, adding in a joint supplement can help support your active dog with arthritis.
There are many different types of joint supplements (just check out this article from Veterinary Partner), but I tend to recommend three main types:
1. Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate
Glucosamine and chondroitin help protect cells (chondrocytes) that help maintain cartilage structure. Since osteoarthritis involves the destruction of cartilage, chondroprotectants can help slow down the progression of arthritis.
Studies have evaluated the use of these chondroprotectants for their anti-osteoarthritis properties. Some of these studies (Altilio et al, 2007 and Gupta et al, 2012) showed significant improvement in pain scores and overall activity, although a 2003 study (Moreau et al.) showed no significant effect. But although only 2 out of 3 showed a statistically significant improvement, all three studies detected no adverse effects of administering the chondroprotectants.
(On overview paper on these studies by Comblain, et al. can be found here.)
Based on the available information, at this point I personally feel that it is always worth trying a joint supplement that has glucosamine and chondroitin for dogs with osteoarthritis (or even just dogs who are aging and would benefit from extra joint protection). It is not causing any harm and may slow down progression of arthritis, I am all for that potential benefit.
Looking for a good brand? I typically recommend Nutramax’s Dasuquin or Cosequin. Nutramax has been around for a while and is well-trusted in the industry. You can purchase Dasuquin or Cosequin on Amazon. (Heads up, I am an Amazon affiliate and will earn from qualifying purchases.)
If your dog has food allergies, another option is Phycox HA which uses a hydrolyzed soy protein as part of their glucosamine-based joint supplement chew. I recently switched my dog to Phycox after she developed some diet responsive gastrointestinal disease. Here is a link to order Phycox on Amazon.
2. Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil Supplements)
Another joint supplement option are fish oils. Omega 3 Fatty acids (which exist in some fish oils) have been found to be anti-inflammatory. As inflammation is a large part of the progression of osteoarthritis, decreasing inflammation in joints can be very helpful for dogs with osteoarthritis.
Studies have found that the use of pain medication in dogs with stable osteoarthritis was reduced when their food was enriched with fish oil omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies have shown an improvement in the degree of lameness, ability to rise from a resting position, and ability to walk. You can find more information about the various studies that have been performed to assess omega-3 supplementation in dogs with arthritis in the review article “Review of dietary supplements for the management of osteoarthritis in dogs in studies from 2004 to 2014″ by Comblain, et al.
If you are interested in a fish oil supplement for your dog, I recommend Nutramax’s Wellactin. Wellactin can also be purchased on Amazon.
For a good fish oil dosing chart for dogs, check out this helpful chart from Colorado State University.
3. Green-Lipped Mussel Extract (Perna Canaliculus)
Another joint supplement option that I have recently been hearing more about is Perna Canaliculus. For those of you interested in how it works, Perna Canaliculus, also known as green-lipped mussel extract, is inhibitory to 5-lipoxygenase. Inflammation is mediated by prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are produced by 5-lipoxygenase, so green-lipped mussel extract helps block inflammation and the associated pain that results form inflammation.
While this sounds good in theory, it is always important to find research studies to support these conclusions. So just as I have provided some scholarly articles above for glucosamine and fish oils, here are some links in support of green-lipped mussel extract.
Based on information from Bui, et al, regarding the “Influence of Green Lipped Mussel in Alleviating Signs of Arthritis in Dogs” when green-lipped mussel is incorporated into a complete dry diet, there is strong evidence that it can help alleviate arthritic symptoms. The conclusions section of a “Systematic review of the management of canine osteoarthritis” by Sandersoln, et al, also concurred that there is moderately strong evidence that green-lipped mussel is effective.
If you want to try a green-lipped mussel extract supplement for your dog, consider the brand YuMove. YuMove includes Glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussel. Like the other joint supplements, YuMove can also be purchased on Amazon.
My most recommended joint supplements
I’ve listed 5 recommend joint supplements in this article and just wanted to make a quick table comparing the various brands and what is included in each one. As a veterinarian, I see all 5 commonly recommended among my peers. So if in doubt, just choose one and see how it works for your dog.
The below chart compares the products that I have linked above, however, some of these brands have more options. For example, Cosequin Max includes Omega 3’s (fish oil) while regular Cosequin does not.
Tip #4: Pain Medications
While weight loss and joint supplements can be enough to help a dog with early osteoarthritis, pain medications are often needed to help control pain and inflammation as the disease progresses. I could write an entire blog post just about pain medications for osteoarthritis, but I’m going to keep this section brief as this discussion is best had with your dog’s veterinarian.
NSAID Pain Medications
There are several different classes of pain medications, but non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most commonly used for dogs with arthritis. This is because they block both pain AND inflammation. And since inflammation is such a big part of the development of arthritis, dogs get the most relief from a medication that addresses inflammation.
Dogs are much more sensitive to NSAIDs compared to humans, so DO NOT give over-the-counter NSAIDs (like Tylenol or ibuprofen) to dogs. Normal human doses can be toxic to dogs and result in death.
Because dogs can be harmed by typical over the counter NSAIDs designed for people, several different NSAIDs have been developed for dogs. These include carprofen (Rimadyl), meloxicam (Metacam), deracoxib (Deramaxx), and grapiprant (Galliprant).
If you want to read more information about how NSAIDs work, check out one or both of the following articles written by Veterinary Partner:
Other commonly used medications include amantadine and gabapentin.
- Amantadine is an antiviral drug and dopamine promotor that can help reduce wind-up pain. Wind-up pain occurs when animals with chronic pain have nerves that become sensitive to a point where normal sensation becomes painful. Amantadine is typically not used alone but is combined with another pain medication – such as one of the NSAIDs listed above.
- Gabapentin is an anti-convulsant and nerve pain medication. It is helpful for chronic pain and specifically for neurologic and spinal pain. It may cause mild anti-anxiety and sedation effects.
If your dog has pain beyond what weight loss and joint supplements can help with, talk to your veterinarian about what pain medications are recommended for your dog.
Tip #5: Physical Rehabilitation
Physical rehabilitation can also be beneficial for dogs with osteoarthritis. I have less experience in these methods, but it is always good to consider well-rounded holistic options when managing a dog with significant osteoarthritis.
I would highly recommend consulting with a canine physical rehabilitation specialist when tailoring a plan to your individual dog. If you live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota (where I am from), I recommend Twin Cities Animal Rehab.
A canine rehabilitation specialist can help you with common techniques like massage, stretching, and passive range of motion exercises. Underwater treadmills (or traditional swimming) can also help arthritic dogs. Water provides buoyancy and takes the weight off of your dog’s joints while still allowing them to exercise and maintain muscle. (A big part of decreased mobility for dogs with arthritis is muscle atrophy from disuse when it hurts too much to move.)
Other modalities that may be used include heat and cold treatments, laser treatments, or acupuncture. All can help reduce pain when used appropriately
Help You Dog Keep Hiking
To review, arthritis can be a difficult disease, as it is not curable or reversible. However, as your dog ages, there are several things that you can do to help your hiking companion stay active. Finding low-intensity hikes, helping your dog maintain an ideal body weight, providing joint supplements, understanding pain options, and considering physical rehabilitation treatments can all keep your dog active well into his or her senior years.