Geriatric Joint Care

by Robin Love, VMD 

As we care for more geriatric veterinary patients, we deal with the same diseases seen in older people. One common disease is degenerative joint disease or arthritis. As pets live to older ages, we see more wear and tear on their joints. Treatments range from symptomatic pain relief to joint replacement.

Most common degenerative joint disease in dogs is the result of genetic abnormalities or tendencies, or trauma. There are cases of Lyme-related arthritis, infectious arthritis, and rheumatoid (or autoimmune) arthritis. But by far, the most frequent cause of joint disease is wear and tear on slightly imperfect, or traumatized joints over time, and this is the type that this article addresses.

Preventing arthritic disease is almost impossible because of its strong genetic component. The joint shape and structure determine the amount of disease that develops with the passage of time. To minimize the risks of joint disease, the pet should be kept at a lean, athletic weight. Many pets suffer from obesity, and this will multiply any existing joint problems and lead to an acceleration of disease progression over time. A healthy diet and regular exercise can do as much to prevent joint problems for a pet as they can for humans.

The medical treatments available closely mimic human options. Usually, a symptomatic pet would start on a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. This entire class of medicines has the possible side effect of upsetting the stomach or intestines. Giving the drugs with a small meal can help. The drug should be stopped, at least temporarily, if any vomiting or diarrhea occurs. Frequently, the first drug tried is buffered aspirin once or twice daily. As disease progresses, this may not be sufficient pain relief and stronger medication may be required. The most common options used are Rimadyl and Etogesic. These two medications are stronger than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, but with increased strength comes an increased risk of possible side effects. When these are no longer effective, the last, and strongest medicine, steroids, may be used. Of course, the side effects of this class of drug are more numerous and potentially serious.

Another avenue of treatment is using nutraceuticals-non-drug supplements that add nutritional support to the joints. The commonly used human supplements contain glucosamine and chondroitin and are derived from cartilage extracts. Dogs do not make as good use of the chondroitins as they do glucosamine. There are many types of these supplements available. Some senior dog foods even include these in their formulas.

The last drug treatment worth mentioning is a series of injections meant to help stimulate the pet to produce more joint fluid. The most common drug for this is Adequan. As with all therapies some pets seem to benefit more from this than others.

As a last effort to eliminate the pain associated with arthritic joints, some animals have surgery on the affected limbs. Examples of this are total joint replacement for the hip, femoral head and neck excision for the hip, or joint fusion to keep a painful joint rigid and no longer grinding with every step. Most of these surgeries require an experienced orthopedic surgeon and the outcome will vary, based on the extent of joint disease present and the overall health of the pet before surgery.

Caring for pets requires more today than in the past. As we learn more about the canine and feline species, and veterinary medicine expands and improves, all aspects of a pet’s care needs monitoring. As with humans, diet control, regular exercise, and loving care prolong the life span of loved ones.

Robin Love, VMD can be reached at Bethel Mill Animal Hospital, 585 Woodbury-Glassboro Road, Sewell, NJ 08080, 856-589-7388