Everything You Need to Know About Spinal Arthritis in Dogs

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In pets, same as in humans, arthritis is widespread among seniors. The most common type of bone disease in dogs is spinal arthritis which stems from extended degeneration of the vertebral column bones, joints and supportive tissues.

The early signs include stiffness and pain but are often misunderstood. This arthritis type is gradual and becomes more severe over time. 

Although not fatal, spinal arthritis in dogs is associated with debilitating pain and discomfort. 

What is Spinal Arthritis in Dogs?

Spinal arthritis is a particularly common form of osteoarthritis and is prevalent among old dogs. The disease manifests with debilitating back pain and stiffness that reduce the dog’s mobility and quality of life. 

The disease is more common among senior dogs than senior people. The reason is straightforward – the dog’s spine shape and horizontal spine positioning exert more pressure on the vertebrae.

The pathophysiology of the degeneration part of spinal arthritis is the same as regular osteoarthritis. As the vertebrae’s cartilage wears down, their bone surfaces start rubbing, which results in friction, inflammation, swelling, and bone spurs formation.

As dogs age, the cartilage in the joints thins out, and eventually, the cartilage cells die. When the cartilage cells die, they produce enzymes with inflammatory properties. The enzymes trigger joint inflammation, and since the protective cartilage layer is gone, the inflammation quickly spreads to the bone.

Causes of Spinal Arthritis in Dogs

Once again, spinal arthritis and osteoarthritis are very similar. The cause dogs develop arthritis within their joints is the same they develop arthritic changes within the spine.

In simple words, spinal arthritis is caused by natural wear and tear.  This does not mean that spinal arthritis in dogs is exclusively associated with old age.

This form of osteoarthritis is more common among senior dogs, but pets can experience spinal arthritis in their youth too. However, when a young dog develops spinal arthritis, the cause is traumatic injury.

Finally, osteoarthritis runs in the family lines, which means the condition has a genetic component. If your dog’s parents had some form of DJD, chances are your dog will have it too at some point in its life.  

For example, a dog with hip dysplasia is at higher risk of spinal arthritis – the hip issue affects the overall posture and strains the back. This dog will have osteoarthritis in its hip joint and spinal arthritis in its vertebrae.   

Symptoms of Spinal Arthritis

Spinal arthritis in dogs causes generalized body stiffness, affecting your pet’s mobility, range of motion, and agility

Back pain is the primary symptom of spinal arthritis, but it is not the only one. Dogs with spinal degenerative joint disease (DJD) develop bone spurs and joint swelling. 

The dog’s decreased mobility and reluctance to exercise are evident symptoms, but more often than not, the dog owner assumes they are due to old age. 

Plus, the owner may be unaware of his dog’s arthritic changes during the early phases because dogs are very good at hiding pain and discomfort. 

Not all plus 10-year old dogs will develop spinal arthritis. However, when the dog’s signs and symptoms include back pain, stiffness, decreased range of motion, and stamina, spinal arthritis is a very possible diagnosis.

To determine whether your dog has arthritis or its changes can be attributed to old age, you need to explain the situation to your vet thoroughly. 

Degenerative Joint Disease Diagnosis 

The veterinarian may perform a full-body examination and then pay extra attention to the spine. Usually, x-rays of the spine are sufficient for the vet to set the spinal osteoarthritis diagnosis. The veterinarian will make blood tests and urinalysis to evaluate the dog’s overall health. 

Based on the findings, the severity of the signs and symptoms, and your expectations as owner, the vet will make a treatment strategy. Sometimes the vet may recommend combining different treatment options. 

Common Signs of Spinal Arthritis

There are several signs considered as arthritis red flags. All signs stem from the severe pain and include: 

  • Difficulty laying down and getting up
  • Painful crying while moving
  • Severe pain upon touch 
  • Troubles going up and down stairs
  • Decreased joint range of motion 
  • Altered gait and/or standing positions
  • Stiff gait particularly during cold weather
  • Slower response rate
  • Excessive licking of the joints
  • Pronounced lethargy
  • Sudden weight gain 
  • Decreased mobility and movement 
  • Unusual clumsiness

Treatment Options for Spinal Arthritis

Backbone arthritis just like all forms of osteoarthritis triggers irreversible arthritic changes that cannot be cured, only managed. 

Early diagnosis is important as it allows managing the degeneration of the joints before it is too advanced. 

There are different treatment options and each dog needs an individually tailored therapy plan. Regardless of the approach, the goals include:

  • Pain and discomfort relief 
  • Improved mobility and joint range of motion 
  • Inflammation managements 
  • Joint health promotion

To achieve these goals, the vet may recommend combining different medications and treatment options. 

Medication

Medications are used to manage the inflammation and achieve pain relief. There are several options.

Non Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Medications (NSAIDs)  

The basis of arthritis management are non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because they achieve both pain relief and inflammation reductions.

It is worth mentioning that the use of these medications is associated with side effects. Before prescribing NSAIDs, the vet will evaluate your dog’s overall health.

If your dog has liver or kidney issues the vet will recommend an alternative as these issues make the side effects more severe. If there are no concerns, the vet will give NSAIDs but may recommend frequent blood work and regular checkups. 

Steroidal anti inflammatory drugs 

Steroids are another group of medications suitable for treating joint related pain, discomfort and inflammation. In fact, they are more potent than NSAIDs but also more likely to trigger side effects, especially if used in the long term. 

If using steroids, the veterinarian will accent the importance of frequent blood works and checkups. 

For dogs that do not respond to NSAID and steroid treatments, the veterinarian could prescribe stronger anti pain medications like gabapentin or opioids. 

CBD Oil

Derived from hemp, CBD oil is a natural and herbal supplement with many health benefits. CBD oil is good for dogs with arthritis related issues because of its following features: 

  • Promotes healthy bones
  • Supports healthy joints and flexibility
  • Eases joint stiffness due to normal daily exercise and activity
  • Provides connective tissue support
  • Can help with degeneration processes 
  • Helps maintain a normal inflammatory response in the body
  • Can help reduce joint discomfort 
  • May help discomfort associated with normal daily exercise and activity.

As a pet owner it is your responsibility to choose a high quality CBD product for your dog. You could use CBD pet oil or CBD infused pet treats. 

Before initiating the CBD treatment talk to your veterinarian. Some medications and supplements should not be used at the same time. Alternatively, you can consult with a DVM specializing in holistic treatments for dogs.  

Alternative Therapies

Alternative treatment choices are becoming the mainstream of managing arthritis in pet dogs. These are some of the most popular alternative therapy options:

  • Physical therapy – there are many different options for pets including passive range of motion (PROM), heat pads, cryotherapy, balance and walking exercises, and land treadmills. 
  • Hydrotherapy – hydrotherapy is excellent if your pet has arthritis because it promotes physical activity and strengthens the legs without straining the back and joints. 
  • Acupuncture – good for relieving pressure points and decreasing the pain and discomfort caused by the arthritis changes. 
  • Pet massages – promote overall relaxation and improved blood flow which speed up the healing processes in your dog. 

Natural Supplements

Dog joint supplements stimulate bone tissue and cartilage formation, lubricate the joints and reduce the inflammatory processes within the joint. Some joint supplements are natural while others are synthesized. 

There are many different natural joint supplements including: 

  • Glucosamine chondroitin – glucosamine builds new cartilage while chondroitin protects it from the damaging effects of radicals. In pets and people, these supplements work best when they are used together.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids – promote joint health by modulating the immune response and decreasing the inflammatory processes in the joints. To achieve its beneficial effects, the dog needs to receive adequate amounts of omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids. When fatty acids are added to the treatment strategy, the dog can receive lower doses of its regular pain medication. 
  • Green lipped mussels – help relieve arthritis signs by reducing joint inflammations. They also strengthen bones and protect cartilage. You can give your dog this powdered supplement by adding it in the food. 

  • Turmeric – makes an amazing joint supplement because of its ability to modulate inflammatory processes within the joints resulting in decreased arthritis related pain and discomfort. As a result, the dog moves easily and pain free. 
  • Eggshell membrane – rich in several components that promote healthy joints, including glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid. There are specifically formulated eggshell membrane soft chews for pets.

If you have doubts choosing the best joint supplement for your dog, do not hesitate to consult with your veterinarian.

It should be noted that these supplements are not medication substitutes and can only be used as part of the treatment.  

Mobility - Green Lipped Mussel Joint Powder
  • This bacon popcorn flavored Honest Paws Joint Powder uses a blend of ingredients that focus on all-encompassing joint health and support.
  • It works to maintain joint mobility, improve cartilage development, and enhance overall bone and joint health.
  • Green lipped mussel extract contains a nutrient-rich blend of natural proteins, minerals and omega fatty acids.

Weight Management 

An overweight or obese dog will have more severe spinal arthitis signs and symptoms becuase the extra weight puts too much pressure on the joint structures. 

If an obese dog is diagnosed with arthritis, weight loss is vital. For a dog with healthy weight maintenance is recommended. 

In pets, just like in people, body weight management includes a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen. 

Exercise and Mobility Aids

Arthritic dogs benefit greatly from controlled exercise. Considering the joints are compromised it is advisable to practice several but shorter walks. Exercise is important because of several reasons, including:

  • It strengthens the legs and muscles
  • Promotes healthy body weight 
  • Supports joint function and pain-free movement.

If you are not sure which exercise regimen is best for your senior dog with arthritis, you could ask the veterinarian for advice. 

To relieve the joint stress and encourage proper movement, your trusted DVM may recommend using mobility aids like back braces or wheelchairs for pets. 

In general your dog will not have to wear the aid tool at all times, only while walking outside or when expecting more challenging physical activity. 

Our Final Thoughts 

Maintaining your dog’s quality of life while managing spinal arthritis is a challenging task that requires a multimodal approach and combining different treatment and medication options. 

Luckily, it is not impossible, when the dog owner and veterinarian work together they can ensure a pain-free and high-standard life for the arthritic dog. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I help my dog’s arthritic spine?

Ensuring healthy body weight, regular low impact exercises, healthy diet, joint supplements, and environmental support are the best ways of managing your dog’s osteoarthritis.  

What can be done for arthritis in the spine?

Physical therapy and pain management are the best treatments for your dog with spinal arthritis. However, each dog needs an individually tailored therapy plan. Your vet will explain the strategy and as an owner you need to follow his/her instructions. 

What causes spinal arthritis in dogs?

The most common cause of spinal arthritis in dogs is natural wear and tear that comes with age. Traumatic injuries and genetics are also predisposing factors. 

Should you walk a dog with arthritis?

Yes, regular walks are important for promoting joint health, strengthening the legs, and maintaining a healthy body weight. However, a dog with osteoarthritis may need additional support during walks.