Degenerative diseases

Physical Therapy for Dogs with Arthritis

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. April 25, 2021
Physical Therapy for Dogs with Arthritis

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Arthritis in dogs, specifically in its most common form osteoarthritis, is a degenerative condition affecting their joints. While there are many different reasons why a dog can develop arthritis, age is the largest contributing factor. Genetic predisposition is also important to recognize and it can even stem from trauma. Arthritis itself is a swelling of the joints which leads them to become less effective and results in various symptoms. Pain is a significant symptom. Since arthritis cannot be cured, managing these symptoms is essential in maintaining quality of life in the dog. This is where physical therapy can be useful.

At AnimalWised, we explain the benefits of physical therapy for dogs with arthritis. We show you the different types of physical therapy available and help you to know what treatment might be best for your dog.

You may also be interested in: Treating Arthritis in Cats
  1. Arthritis in dogs and its symptoms
  2. Types of physical therapy for dogs with arthritis
  3. Benefits of physical therapy for dogs with arthritis
  4. Physiotherapy as a preventive treatment

Arthritis in dogs and its symptoms

Arthritis is a condition characterized by joint degeneration and one of the most obvious effects of aging in our dogs. One of the first symptoms of this disease is that our dog moves less, a symptom ignored by many owners who believe that it is something normal. In actuality it is a general loss of physical condition caused by age and a process which we should do our best to slow down.

More specific symptoms of arthritis in dogs will develop as the disease progresses. Dogs are animals which are too adept at hiding their pain, one reason we need to be sensitive to signs of pain in dogs. You may see your dog stops following you around as much as they did, perhaps mistaking this for a lack of interest. In reality, they are usually finding it too difficult to move around as before. Even getting up from lying down can be difficult.

Dogs do not get bored of exercising and enjoying physical activity. While they will always have periods of down time, if they are no longer running and expending energy, there will be a reason behind it.

A decrease in activity due to arthritis in dogs has the following consequences:

  • Muscle deterioration: amyotrophy is the loss of muscle mass due to the decrease in physical activity. Fibrosis also usually appears, which occurs when the connective tissue invades the joints. It is common for our dog to suffer from pain and muscle contractures that especially affect the muscles of the cervical area and the spine.
  • Collagen and tendon deterioration: arthritis causes them to progressively lose their structural and mechanical qualities.
  • Joint problems: arthritis involves a decrease in the synthesis of proteoglycans, loss of bone under the cartilage due to demineralization, erosion of the cartilage and the appearance of osteophytes (abnormal protrusions of bone that damage the joint). As a consequence, there is a decrease in joint flexibility, giving rise to ankylosis. Movements are increasingly reduced and the joint remains stiff and locked in one position, reducing its vascularity and expediting its degeneration.
  • Consequences in the bones: we can observe a decrease in bone synthesis and an increase in bone resorption, leading the bones to become increasingly fragile.
  • Vascular consequences: the blood capillaries (small blood vessels that nourish the bone and the joint) decrease in number, the return of venous blood to the heart also decreases (venous stasis) and lymphatic drainage is reduced (lymphatic stasis).
  • Central nervous system: the nervous system is less and less stimulated. This hypo-stimulation can cause the inhibition of nerve cells and a partial paralysis (paresis) of the muscles or even a complete paralysis in the long term.
  • Weight gain: since arthritis results in a decrease of physical activity, weight gain is a secondary symptom. Increased weight puts even more strain on the joints and encourages further deterioration.

Types of physical therapy for dogs with arthritis

Physical therapy, also known as physiotherapy, refers to an ever-evolving group of curative or preventive treatments to improve a dog's physiology. They are generally based on the action of water, movement, thermal agents (cold and heat), electricity, sound waves and light. Most of the techniques that are applied to humans have been adapted to animals.

While physical therapy is essential for almost all arthritic dogs, not all treatments are the same. The type of physiotherapy for a given dog will depend on various factors, not least the extent, location and type of their arthritis. Also, some therapies are more beneficial than others. Research is also a key issue as the efficacy of some treatments is still in question.

Each case is different and only a veterinarian trained in functional re-education will be able to determine the type of physical therapy a dog will need. This will be determined after examining our dog and finding physiotherapeutic exercises suitable for them as an individual.

Depending on the dog, physical therapy options may include:

  • Cryotherapy: the use of cold to manage pain and inflammation.
  • Thermotherapy: the use of heat and its analgesic properties and also as preparation for exercise.
  • Hydrotherapy: the reduction of the weight of the animal on its joints thanks to the buoyancy in the water and the massage effect of the water on the dog's muscles. Allows the dog to exercise with less pain, improving muscle quality and cardiac activity. I our veterinarian has a treadmill submerged in water, the dog can walk or swim without trauma. Physical exercise in the water reduces pain and ankylosis, it also limits muscle loss.
  • Massage: produces a stimulating or relaxing effect depending on the type of massage. Helps to increase blood circulation and tissue drainage. In addition, if the veterinary clinic is far from the dog's home, our veterinarian can teach us massage techniques to apply this physiotherapy technique ourselves to our dog with osteoarthritis in short sessions at home (see video below).
  • Kinesitherapy: the veterinarian gently manipulates the dog's joints through stretching techniques. May also include passive or active therapeutic exercises of mechanotherapy with balls, plates, trampoline or also with proprioception exercises.
  • Electrotherapy: can be used to fight pain (analgesic effect) or to increase muscle mass.
  • Ultrasonography: the use of ultrasound has massage, warming and analgesic effects in the deep areas of the tissues.
  • Laser: it has an analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-oedematous effect.
  • Shock waves: may have a defibrosing effect on tissues.

It is important that all the techniques that we apply ourselves to our dog at home under the advice of our veterinarian are atraumatic and painless. If our dog suffers from osteoarthritis, jumping, intense exercise, running on hard floors, going up and down stairs and other strenuous physical activities are not recommended. Instead, we should provide short walks and allow our dog to swim in water where possible.

Benefits of physical therapy for dogs with arthritis

If our dog suffers from arthritis, physiotherapy is an important treatment to help fight against this degenerative disease. With proper care, physiotherapy can allow for:

  • Decrease in pain and sometimes reduction of medication
  • Preserve or even regain joint flexibility
  • Maintain or regain muscle mass
  • Stimulate the nervous system and vascularization of tissues
  • Maintaining ideal weight
  • Improve heart activity and fitness

The sooner we act, the more effective the therapeutic treatment proposed by our veterinarian will be. The lesions caused by osteoarthritis at the bone level are irreversible, so it is best to prevent them from deepening. As for problems secondary to arthritis such as amyotrophy, ankylosis and increased body weight, physical therapy can also help reduce their effects, but it will take more time if we start in an advanced stage of the disease.

Since arthritis will worsen when the dog is obese, diet is an important factor. It is likely your veterinarian, in conjunction with physiotherapy, will introduce a diet catered for overweight or obese dogs.

Physical Therapy for Dogs with Arthritis - Benefits of physical therapy for dogs with arthritis

Physiotherapy as a preventive treatment

To obtain better results and avoid the appearance of diseases such as osteoarthritis, we can start practicing physiotherapy in our dog from the age of 5. This is especially important with large dog breeds, but may not be needed until a little later for small breeds. In the case of dogs with hip dysplasia or osteoarticular problems, we must ensure regular follow-up after the pathology has been diagnosed.

We should also bear in mind that we need to provide the right levels of physical activity for our dog. Some dog breeds may be more inclined to hyperactivity, but the exercise needs of a dog will depend on the individual. Over-exercise can be just as harmful as too little activity. Speak to your dog to ensure you are providing your dog with the correct regimen.

For some specific information, take a look at our articles on how much exercise Labrador Retrievers need and how much you should exercise a Beagle.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Physical Therapy for Dogs with Arthritis, we recommend you visit our Degenerative diseases category.

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Physical Therapy for Dogs with Arthritis