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Young Dogs, Old Tricks: Osteoarthritis in Younger Dogs

Updated: Apr 27

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis in dogs and is the leading cause of chronic pain. It is a disease of the joints that gets worse over time and can result in loss of joint mobility and lameness, making it harder for a dog to do normal everyday activities.

A recent study looking into the prevalence of osteoarthritis in young dogs found some incredible, and shocking, results.

A recent study looking into the prevalence of osteoarthritis in young dogs found some incredible, and shocking, results.

The Study found in their group of young dogs aged 8 months to 4 years old that:

  • Nearly 40% had radiographic OA in at least one joint

  • Nearly 24% of dogs had mild-moderate clinical OA

  • In dogs with clinical OA, impairment was observed in 30%

  • Very few with clinical signs were receiving medication for their discomfort/pain

So, we have a potential population of young dogs, with OA changes and showing signs of impairment, but very few are receiving medication? Why?

The problem is probably for numerous reasons:

  • The puppy looks happy and well

  • The owner does not notice subtle signs of pain

  • The puppy is so excited in a practice that pain is not visualised

  • Puppies in the study tended to have bilateral joint issues - they may have been doing functional adaptations that are not as easy to spot as a unilateral (one limb) lameness/adaptation

  • Dogs, not matter what age are incredible at compensating for pain by shifting weight

  • Owner worry about giving medications to young dogs

We know that OA is best managed using multiple interventions, and this is equally important in young dogs who we want to protect, as best we can, against progression and degeneration.

One study implemented an exercise program, a non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drug (NSAID) at standard dose, and EFA fish oil. Results showed significant improvement seen in two pain scoring systems and SNoRE (night time restlessness), there was 97% compliance seen with the medication. Pain management is key to the OA management plan and early treatment is fundamental.

We know that there is a possible population of puppies experiencing clinical osteoarthritis, and it is incredibly important as a pet owner to try 1) educate yourself on signs to look out for and 2) learn how you can mitigate the risks to the best of your ability.

Remember, the development of OA is often multifactorial, and many things will be out of your control. But… There are some key things you can do as a pet owner to mitigate some known ‘risk factors’.

Risk factors for OA include:

  • Age

  • Breed

  • Conformation

  • Genetics

  • Body weight

  • Sex/Neuter status

This was mimicked even in a young dog population with risk factors including: 

  • Body Condition Score

  • Body Weight

  • Age

So, what can you do to help?

We think taking into consideration the following may help towards reducing the risk, to the best of your ability, of OA risk.

  1. Weight and BCS

Keeping your puppy (and adult dog) at a good weight and body condition score is essential in reducing unnecessary pressure and inflammatory cytokines from increasing the risk of OA and inflammation in your pet.

  1. Breed and genetics

As an owner, you might think you can't do much about this but, this can be helped from the moment you decide to become a pet owner.

Try to avoid picking breeds to have extreme conformation, meaning they are bred intensively to look a certain ‘extreme’ way, but at the expense of their health. Picking breeders who have health tested, for example those that have hip and elbow score, and those that will ensure they have had their dogs spine assessed - especially important in English bulldogs, French bulldogs (Brachycephalic breeds) and Dachshunds

  1. Avoid high impact exercise

One common solution to tiring your energetic puppies is to get a ball launcher, or frisbee. You can spend hours and hours throwing a ball, while they run riot catching and retrieving. However, high impact exercise like this can be damaging to developing joints, can cause obsessive behaviour and does not mentally stimulate.

Instead, you can walk young dogs, who have normal conformation, a fairly long distance, while engaging their brains with training.

To read more about what exercise puppies can do and to demystify the ‘5 minutes per month’ read this article

What are we looking out for?

The early signs of OA in dogs are often subtle and easy to miss. No matter how minor the changes may seem, don't ignore them as they could indicate your dog is struggling with OA.

It's important to keep an eye on any changes because by the time the signs become more obvious -such as limping or avoiding normal activities –their condition may have already progressed to a more severe stage.

This is particularly noteworthy in our young dogs - the study showed that those dogs with clinical OA, a limited number recognised signs of impairment. 

This is best described as VERY subtle adaptations to the puppies that may only be picked up if we use 'screening' alongside tools like LOAD. As many of the puppies in the study had bilateral (two joints impacted) their adaptations to function, may have been more subtle and harder to pick up than if they had unilateral issues which resulted in a slightly more obvious limp or hobble or as seen in forelimb lameness and dip or nod of the head. 

There may be a link to some behaviour changes seen in dogs. Veterinary Behaviorist Sarah Heath discussed that there are a wide range of possible behavioural manifestations of pain.

Some of them are direct consequences, such as aggressive responses to being handled, refusal to exercise, inability to access parts of the territory, vocalisation and night-time waking. However, there are also a number of other possible behavioural manifestations with a pain component to their aetiology; some common examples would include exaggerated canine fear responses to noises, strangers or other dogs.

We commonly see behaviour issues in young dogs, and the reason for these manifesting can be numerous. But, given the possible involvement of pain it is always very important to work alongside a veterinary surgeon with knowledge in behaviour so that they can also assess if pain could be a component in the behavioural manifestations.

One review, looking into behaviour cases indicated that a conservative estimate of around a third of referred cases involve some form of painful condition, and in some instances, the figure may be nearly 80% of dogs have a pain component to behaviour. 

How can we help our arthritic dogs - young or old?

There are so many ways we can help, OA is best managed using multiple interventions which will likely also mean using a multidisciplinary team

You need to think about:

  • Medication

  • Evidence-based supplements (note, many make unsubstantiated claims)

  • Weight management

  • Exercise routine

  • Home adaptations

  • Addition therapies such as physiotherapy

  • Lifestyle changes 

You can ensure you use steps and ramps to avoid high jumps and high impact landings.

Ensure your dog has a bed that is not a hazard - lumpy-bumpy beds with little support can hinder rather than help. Although many dogs have their favourite sleeping spot, using a firm, stable, large bed can provide them with comfortable stability. Ensuring our home is hazard free, for example, putting rugs down so your dog does not slip on hard flooring, ensuring their access to the garden is not a huge drop or step (you may need a ramp), ensuring that their bowls are raised in a comfortable position and they can eat on a non-slip surface.

Read more on ways to manage osteoarthritis on this link: Osteoarthritis in dogs


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