One in five dogs across all ages — including young ones — develop osteoarthritis. When identifying at-risk individuals, it is important to consider ways to help protect their joints, and find joint support formulations that best suit each patient’s needs.
Dogs are living longer (and better) than ever. But longer lives bring consequences, including wear and tear on joints. The statistics are sobering — approximately 20% of dogs across all ages suffer the effects of painful osteoarthritis (OA), although the risk and incidence increase with age. Is there is any way to prevent or postpone the progression of OA in canine patients? Fortunately, we have strategies to help accomplish this. By paying attention to details, we can set the stage in the early life of a dog and contribute to lifelong comfort and mobility.
1. ALLOW PUPPIES TO GROW UP NICE AND SLOW
The myth that a roly-poly puppy is a healthy puppy is just that — a myth. When puppies grow too quickly, they develop an excess of fat cells, setting them up for a lifetime of being overweight and/or obese. This is truly one area in which an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (or many pounds) of cure! Chasing a normal body composition score (BCS) once a dog is obese is challenging for everyone — the veterinary healthcare team, the dog’s owner, and the dog himself. Creating the habit of portion feeding, with meals delivered at regular times, allows for fine-tuning to match intake with output. It also allows the client to notice any deviation from normal eating habits that can be an early sign of disease.
It is the moral obligation of the veterinary healthcare team to make a specific nutritional recommendation, with conviction, tailored to the needs of the individual puppy, and with the guidance of clinical nutritional science. Regular weigh-ins at the practice during growth help the client stay on track and allow for precision portioning. This is a terrific opportunity for a veterinary technician or assistant to spearhead impactful client/ patient outreach. Since overweight and obesity contribute to both the development and the progression of OA, preventing obesity provides excellent and important preventive health care.
2. ENCOURAGE CLIENTS TO MAINTAIN AN ACTIVE LIFESTYLE FOR THEIR DOGS
Dogs need exercise to remain healthy, and joints need to be used to remain strong and functional. It’s important, however, to ensure that activity levels match each breed’s physiology and physique. Shih tzus are not built to run alongside their owners’ bicycles. Conversely, Labradors were not designed to be couch potatoes. Part of our job as veterinary healthcare experts is to guide our clients toward the most appropriate exercise to which their dogs are suited. Exercise and overall activity should not be limited to simple walks around the neighborhood. Therapeutic exercises build strength and flexibility in specific parts of the body.
Identifying potential problem areas created by the dog’s conformation (over which neither the dog nor owner have any control) can guide your choices about which therapeutic exercises to assign. Several excellent rehabilitation texts as well as other rehabilitation resources offer a choice of specific exercises/activities for particular patients. Consistent daily activity coupled with specific therapeutic exercises, starting early in life, can ward off “weekend warrior” syndrome and help dogs retain their functional ability well into old age.
Just as with monitoring weight and body composition, this is an area in which a veterinary nurse or assistant can take the lead to help clients fine-tune their techniques by teaching and executing therapeutic exercises with their dogs. Clients appreciate it when we partner with them for the benefit of their dogs.
3. INITIATE JOINT SUPPORT EARLY
This is especially important in dogs whose conformation or activity portfolio (e.g. agility, backcountry rescue, long-distance hiking/backpacking, etc.) may set them up for early-onset OA.
Some dogs look as though they were built by a committee. Their backs may be super long and coupled with legs that are super short (and often crooked). Some breeds have a higher incidence than the general population of developmental orthopedic issues like elbow or hip dysplasia. While we do not have studies that clearly demonstrate that we can prevent OA by initiating joint support at some pre-symptomatic time, there are a few scenarios in which doing so makes good medical sense.
The crooked legs of chondrodysplastic breeds like Basset hounds and dachshunds are subjected to biomechanical forces that may foreshadow orthopedic issues later in life. Dogs diagnosed with developmental orthopedic issues like OCD or dysplasia (hip or elbow) can benefit from joint support. Likewise, dogs who experience any traumatic injury or whose movement is altered thanks to limb amputation can also benefit from joint support. In these cases, initiating evidence-based joint support may slow the inevitable progression of joint deterioration and the development of OA.
4. DEVELOP A STRATEGY FOR CHOOSING JOINT SUPPORT PRODUCTS
It’s important to have joint support supplements available for clients to take with them when you prescribe these products.
Choosing supplements to provide joint support to canine patients at risk for OA means carefully considering the formulation, not just the ingredients. It is important to look for products whose formulations have been documented to provide benefit in the target species. Fortunately for our patients, more and more companies recognize the need for such information. Some ingredients that have been formulated into products for canine patients with naturally occurring OA include:
• Omega-3 fatty acids (particularly EPA, and in a triglyceride form)
• UC-II (undenatured collagen type-II)
• Perna canaliculus (green-lipped mussel)
Some of our canine patients will find themselves on a path that can lead to joint deterioration and painful OA. That 20% statistic noted earlier is worth remembering because it translates to one in five dogs across all ages — including young dogs who might be easy to overlook. When we identify at-risk individuals, it is logical to consider ways to protect their joints from more rapid decline. And, in considering options for these patients, we have an obligation to look hard at available data for specific formulations in order to be confident that we are making defensible decisions on their behalf. This is about advocating for beings who cannot advocate for themselves. We owe it to them!
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