Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease, involves progressive damage to the joints. The cartilage lining the joint erodes away and the bone proliferates in response to the damage (similar to the way scar tissue sometimes proliferates in wounds). The joint capsule surrounding the joint can also become thickened and stiff. OA is very common in older dogs, and can also have an early onset in dogs with congenital or traumatic joint abnormalities.
Osteoarthritis tends to be a slowly progressive disease, though signs can occasionally appear to come on suddenly. Affected animals may show the following signs:
Though these signs are common in older animals, they are not 'normal' and we should make an effort to identify and treat them.
Osteoarthritis often results from abnormal stresses within the joint. The most common example of this is hip dysplasia (See Hip Dysplasia Information Sheet), where the 'ball' of the hip does not fit properly into the 'socket'. Trauma can alter the conformation of a joint and lead to progression of osteoarthritis. Obesity can also place undue stress on joints. However, even animals with normal joints can eventually develop osteoarthritis, particularly if they are very active.
Osteoarthritis is often a 'presumptive' diagnosis, based on history and clinical signs. We will check for joint pain, crepitus (a 'crackly' feeling within the joint that results from bone rubbing on bone), reduced range of motion (resulting from thickening and stiffness of the joint capsule) and any other joint abnormalities. The only way to definitively diagnose osteoarthritis is to take x-rays of the involved joints and identify associated changes, usually under general anaesthesia. However, often we will just treat symptomatically unless we have a reason to suspect that a condition other than osteoarthritis may be causing the clinical signs we are seeing.
There are several aspects to a successful osteoarthritis management plan. It is important to realise, however, that we are not curing the problem – we are just trying to slow down its progression and provide pain relief.
If all this is not enough and your pet is still unacceptably painful, there may be surgical options. This will depend on the joints involved and any underlying musculoskeletal disease.
Here you can find information and advice about common problems and diseases. Please remember, though, that this information can't replace a visit to the vet!