The winter bone chill Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Thursday, 20 May 2010 17:49
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In this column veterinarian Dr Liesel van der Merwe provides practical assistance for common problems in companion animals. She is a specialist physician at the Onderstepoort animal teaching hospital and a senior lecturer in the section of small animal medicine. Send your questions to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs due to degradation of the joint cartilage by enzymes which are produced due to inflammation within the joint. It can be broadly divided into primary and secondary arthritis depending on the causes.

Secondary arthritis is most common in dogs and cats and arises from traumatic joint disease (fractures or ligament ruptures), abnormal joint shape or conformation causing abnormal pressures (hip or elbow dysplasia), infection and immunemediated joint disease.

With increasing joint incongruency there is increased cartilage damage.

This causes inflammation. Joint incongruency also stimulates the development of bone deposits in the joint capsule and ligaments around the joint in an attempt to stabilise the joint. Once established, OA cannot be cured, only managed, and progression is slowed down. Because of the hereditary component with dysplasia, OA is not only a disease of older animals but can occur in young animals. OA is more common in dogs, but is present and possibly underdiagnosed in cats.

The most common symptom of OA is lameness, usually gradual in onset, which worsens after exercise or minor trauma. A period of stiffness after rest is an important sign of joint disease and is often present in OA before the onset of lameness. Stiffness is worsened by obesity, long periods of exercise and cold, damp conditions. Only in severe cases will the stiffness persist and the dog show behavioural symptoms such as aggression and depression, due to constant pain.

A good orthopaedic examination as well as radiographs (X-rays) in selected cases are necessary to make the diagnosis. In some cases surgery may be indicated (loose bone chips or ligament ruptures), but in the majority of cases medical management is the way to go. General supportive measures include weight loss and exercise.

Many dogs become symptom free when they reach their target weight and are more easily managed with medication. Many reducing diets are available. Exercise moderately.

Inactivity leads to muscle weakness and an accumulation of inflammatory products in the joint due to poor blood flow. Over-exercise, on the other hand, can cause further cartilage damage and inflammation.

Gradual initiation of low-impact exercise is the way to go. There are various facilities offering hydrotherapy and physical therapy.

Medical treatment includes anti-inflammatories, pain killers and nutritional supplementation (nutraceuticals). A combination of therapies has the best results. My aim is to try the nutraceutical route first and only if this treatment shows no results after a period of about 30 days would I start routine anti-inflammatory treatment.

Modern anti-inflammatory drugs are safer and more specific, but can still cause side-effects such as ulcers and kidney damage. Nutraceutical supplementation has come a long way.

Chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine are basic components of cartilage and can prevent or reverse further degradation of joint cartilage and also have an anti-inflammatory effect. However, only use products from reputable veterinary companies.

Diets rich in essential fatty acids reduce inflammation and pain. There are veterinary diets with increased levels of chondroitin and glucosamine and essential fatty acids, reaching up to therapeutic levels in the advanced joint disease diets.

My advice to those of you with stiff arthritic dogs this winter is to get them a warm place to sleep. Insulate the ground under their baskets or blankets using rubber matting or cardboard boxes.

Get your dogs going in the morning with a gentle walk around the garden to loosen the joints. Gradually start an exercise programme to maintain muscle strength, which will assist with joint function.

Put your dog on a diet to reach normal body weight. Start feeding a diet specific for joint disease, or alternatively a good diet and add joint supplements with chondroitin, glucosamine and essential fatty acids.

Don’t be afraid to use anti-inflammatories as needed. A check-up at your veterinarian may be required to check kidney function in older animals.


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