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Vet Tips: Managing Your Dog's Arthritis With Exercise and Weight Management

Updated on March 18, 2015
DonnaCosmato profile image

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Wet Fetch

Aquatic exercise is easy on achy, arthritic limbs.
Aquatic exercise is easy on achy, arthritic limbs. | Source

Dogs are at high risk of developing arthritis according to the Arthritis Foundation, but that doesn't have to mean your dog is sentenced to a lifetime of pain and reduced mobility.

In today's interview, Dr. Cathy Alinovi, owner of Hoofstock Veterinary Services discusses preventative care methods such as exercise and weight management. Dr. Alinovi is widely recognized for her integrative approach to dog health that includes incorporating alternative treatments and therapies with traditional Western medicine.

Take a Walk for Pain Relief

Regular exercise helps arthritic dogs maintain a healthy weight and feel better.
Regular exercise helps arthritic dogs maintain a healthy weight and feel better. | Source

Question 1: What types of arthritis-friendly exercises do you recommend for your patients?

Dr Cathy: The most common forms of exercise are swimming and walking. Swimming and walking are low impact exercises that do not add strain to the joints.

Swimming: Uses many extra body muscles to strengthen the dog overall.

Caution: For years, rehabilitation centers have promoted the benefits of underwater treadmills. However, underwater photography has shown dogs change their walking behavior to an unnatural gait using underwater treadmills. Therefore, underwater treadmills may actually be contraindicated.

Walking: Helpful hints for pets include walking on surfaces with some cushion—for example, grass as opposed to concrete—and good traction. Many companies offer special booties with rubber grips to help with walking on slick surfaces.

Games: A favorite game for most dog lovers, especially those in the Labrador family, is fetch. However, fetching tends to involve many sudden starts and stops, which can be tough on aching joints.

Fetch modifications allow the happy retriever to continue to fetch without pitting extra strain on the joints. These modifications include playing fetch for brief periods in a small, confined area while keeping the play at a jog. Also, rolling the ball, not throwing it as far, and turning it into a game of hide and seek can reduce the impact level.

Tricks: If your dog is typically very active, teaching it new tricks or teaching it to scent can give your normally active dog a new outlet for expending excess energy that is less irritating to the joints. The key is not to take away the fun; it is to make the fun less stressful on stressed joints. Creative game playing is great for both human and canine brains and bodies.

Swimming is good for arthritic joints

Swimming provides gentle resistance to help dogs improve their range of motion and alleviate arthritis pain
Swimming provides gentle resistance to help dogs improve their range of motion and alleviate arthritis pain | Source

Q2: How does nutrition play a role in reducing inflammation and treating arthritis?

Dr. Cathy: The Omega 3 fatty acids found in nuts, seeds and cold water fish are currently thought to help with the inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis. Omega 3 fatty acids can cause a decrease in inflammation as well as in the degenerative mechanisms of cartilage breakdown.

As pet parents, we can feed our dogs foods high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are joint protective and decrease the amounts of inflammatory chemicals responsible for causing bone and/or joint damage. Even though dogs can manufacture their own vitamin C, therapeutically, foods high in vitamin C help lower the risk of inflammatory arthritis.

These foods include fresh fruits, vegetables and especially berries, which are high in antioxidants. Supplements containing combinations of these anti-oxidative ingredients are now available, but you still want to feed the best food you can.

Fruits and Vegetables Are Good For Arthritic Dogs

Feeding your dog fruits and vegetables can reduce inflammation and ease arthritis pain.
Feeding your dog fruits and vegetables can reduce inflammation and ease arthritis pain. | Source

Q3: Will losing weight help my dog feel better?

Dr. Cathy: Yes! Weight management is essential when it comes to painful joints. Excess weight puts increased stress on the joints and interferes with normal movement.

In general, weight loss helps dogs not only feel better and breathe easier, but also decreases the overall inflammation and puts less stress on joints and muscular attachments. Less stress on the joints allows it to move with the motion for which it was intended. In some cases, weight loss alone can greatly improve clinical lameness, especially in dogs with osteoarthritis of the hips.

Q4: What is the best way to help my dog lose weight?

Feeding a good diet, reducing inflammation, and consistently exercising will help any patient lose weight. Specifically, let's spending some time discussing diet, treats, inflammation, lifestyle issues and thyroid function in greater detail.

Canine Arthritis Diets

The best way to improve your dog's diet is by feeding it better quality ingredients. Next, feed based on the weight your dog should be and not its current weight. Most importantly, do not buy a diet food—really.

The crazy logic is most diet foods are high in fiber and carbohydrates. However, for most dogs, increased carbohydrates lead to weight gain just as it would for humans that eat pasta all day. Ideally, we want our overweight dogs to eat the Atkins diet so they will be leaner than on other diets.

Dog Treats

Treats are a huge culprit in weight issues. Most treats are high calorie and/or high carbohydrate and can contain sugars and dyes. Green beans, most fruits, and carrots are good snacks.

Another fun snack can be made by dropping small spoonfuls of plain yogurt on parchment paper and placing in the freezer. Place a blueberry in the center if you'd like; this is optional but adds antioxidants.

These treats have minimal impact on a dog's daily caloric intake. Finally, keep an eye out for others such as spouses, kids, neighbors, or package delivery people who might be sneaking treats to the dog.

Caution: Avoid onions, grapes or raisins as they are hazardous to your pet's health.

Reducing Inflammation

Inflammation has many causes. For instance, low-quality food ingredients are one cause of inflammation. Long-term use of some non-steroidal medications actually promote inflammation.

This is why we want to use pain relievers as needed and as infrequently as possible. Other causes of inflammation are unnecessary vaccines and stress.

Active Lifestyles

The third aspect to helping dogs lose weight is an active lifestyle. Our lives are very busy. It is difficult to exercise ourselves. However, when it comes to the health of our dogs, we may have more incentive.

Regular, consistent, low impact movement helps dogs burn more calories. In addition, as mentioned earlier, the movement also inhibits pain. Therefore, the pet parent has two incentives to help exercise the dog. This exercise can be walking, swimming, or hide and seek, but it should be consistent and consist of low stress on the joints.

Animal Chiropractic

Animal chiropractic techniques may help an arthritic dog have a better quality of life
Animal chiropractic techniques may help an arthritic dog have a better quality of life | Source

Thyroid Function

One important consideration in the case of an overweight dog that just can't seem to lose weight is to check thyroid function. A true thyroid test measures more than just circulating hormone levels. A true thyroid test measures four to five aspects of thyroid function.

Most overweight patients will have low circulating hormone (T4) levels; the question is if the rest of the levels are abnormal or not. If the thyroid gland is functioning normally in an overweight patient, T4 may be low but the other numbers will be normal. Losing weight will result in normal T4 levels. In dogs where thyroid function is the cause of the weight issue, more than T4 will be abnormal.

Acupuncture for Canine Arthritis

Q5: Based on your training in Eastern medicine and traditional Western medicine, what alternative treatments or supplements would you would you recommend?

I tailor my treatment to each patient and each client. Each of the modalities discussed above are part of our discussions in the office. Because pet owners who come to my office are looking for options, some services are chosen more often than others are chosen. What is amazing is how quickly a dog feels better after making diet changes to include real food, supplements to treat the underlying issues, pain medications if needed, and most importantly, chiropractic.

The most important thing is returning the body to function. The better the body functions, the better the brain functions. A well-functioning brain improves a dog's quality of life. Quality of life is the entire reason parents of arthritic dogs come to my office because they want their baby to feel better longer without harmful intervention.

In my hands, animal chiropractic does all of that. All the other treatments are helpful but not key. I do have a handful of patients who just aren't a fan of being adjusted. These dogs prefer acupuncture and/or laser therapy.

For most of my patients, if they are not already being fed human grade food, their pet parents receive the food talk and we start to move toward that path. Once the pet parent understands the decrease in inflammation that results by feeding their pet the highest quality food possible, it makes sense to them to feed their pets real food. Many patients receive herbal pain relievers, while some do better on standard Western medicine.

Supplements will help decrease inflammation in the gut, which only adds inflammation in the joints; therefore, we want less inflammation. After their treatment, most patients go home with assigned homework for the pet parents. Most parents of arthritic dogs want to be involved in their dog's recovery and welcome techniques they can do at home. Homework will include massage, perhaps stretching, low impact exercise, and exercises that help stimulate the brain.

What else do pet owners need to know to keep their arthritic best friend healthy and happy?

With proper treatment, arthritic dogs can continue to live long, comfortable, happy lives.

© 2013 Donna Cosmato


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