Question: My eight-year-old Labrador, Heather, has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and is now struggling to jump into my van or navigate the stairs. My vet wants to prescribe anti-inflammatories and painkillers long-term. Can you suggest any more natural options?
T.L., via email
Answer: Probably the most common skeletal disease seen in dogs, osteoarthritis is the progressive degeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone, resulting in the formation of bony spurs at the margins of the joints, which cause pain and swelling.
Wear and tear is likely the most common cause. When an animal walks, plays or runs, a lot of stress is inflicted on the joints. When this happens repeatedly over the years, the joint cartilage breaks down, and arthritis can develop.
This is most often seen in older animals, but it can also happen in young ones who are overworked, or in those with developmental conditions such as hip dysplasia (see WDDTY May 2018).
Arthritis can also develop after joint trauma, such as a fracture, ligament injury or dislocation, especially if the joint has been operated on.
Overweight and obese pets have a much higher chance of developing osteoarthritis, and certain dog breeds, like German Shepherds, Labradors or other large breeds, tend to suffer from it more frequently.
Signs and symptoms
Most pets with osteoarthritis will exhibit some form of lameness or stiffened gait. Dogs will show a reluctance to jump into cars, and cats will stop jumping onto higher surfaces.
Because the actual articular cartilage lacks nerves, your pets will not feel pain initially, so they'll continue to be active. This can actually make matters worse, because the disease then progresses to the next stage.
Once a lot of cartilage is destroyed, the cushioning effect in the joints is lost, and therefore the surrounding joint tissues, joint capsule, ligaments and bones become swollen and painful.
This is when we see lameness, which can be intermittent, can affect more than one joint, and can be made worse by prolonged rest, exercise or cold weather. The affected joint may be swollen, hot and painful.
Modern-day management of osteoarthritis usually consists of adequate pain relief, weight control and regular exercise.
The most popular medications used for osteoarthritis in dogs are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They can bring down the inflammation of the joint rapidly and effectively in the short-term. However, they can cause side-effects when used long-term.
There are plenty of natural remedies that can help with osteoarthritis in dogs. Here are the ones I've found to be most useful.
Diet. Dogs with arthritis like Heather can have an excellent quality of life if you can provide a healthy, balanced diet that supports the joints along with natural joint supplements (see below).
Feeding your dog top-quality, organic food that has not been over-processed and is devoid of synthetic preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, hormones and artificial colors can go a long way in healing. Home-cooked food and raw food are good choices. High-quality natural commercial diets, such as Darwin's (www.darwinspet.com) in the US and Natures Menu (www.naturesmenu.co.uk) in Europe, are now available to make it easy for owners to feed raw meals to their pets.
If your pet is overweight, then strict weight loss measures should be put in place, as the already struggling joints cannot carry the excess weight. You must always feed your pet the right amount and feed them for the weight you want them to be, rather than the weight that they are. Many vets have free weight clinics that can help you achieve this.
Joint supplements. Several nutritional supplements can help rebuild cartilage and promote joint lubrication, including glucosamine, chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids. Green-lipped muscle is one source of omega-3 fatty acids that is very palatable for dogs. There are also lots of branded combination supplements available, including Synoquin—a 100 percent natural blend of chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine hydrochloride, dexahan (a purified form of krill oil, a rich source of omega-3s), zinc and vitamin C—and Cosequin, a combination of chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine and manganese ascorbate. These can be very effective in both advanced and early cases of arthritis.
Vitamins and minerals. Antioxidants play a key role in protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals. In joint disease, these free radicals are produced by cells surrounding the joint as a result of abnormal strains and poor alignment.
Adding therapeutic levels of the antioxidant vitamins C and E, along with the mineral selenium, another antioxidant, to your dog's diet for at least three to six months can help to combat these free radicals. The dose can then be reduced to protective maintenance levels. Vitamin E and selenium can cause high blood pressure in some pets, so be sure to monitor this.
Suggested dosages: for small, medium and large dogs, respectively , give 50, 100-200 and 400 IU vitamin E with 5-10 mcg, 1 20-25 mcg and 50 mcg selenium daily, and supplement with 500 mg, 1,000 mg and 2,000 mg vitamin C twice daily
Hydrotherapy. Exercising in water can be great for dogs with arthritis, especially dogs with weight to lose. The water takes the strain off the joints, encouraging the dog to move without pain. Your vet may refer you to a veterinary hydro- or physical therapist, or you could simply start taking your dog swimming on a regular basis. Small dogs can even benefit from swimming in a shallow pool or bathtub of warm water.
Massage. A daily massage can help to relax tight joints and muscles and increase blood flow to sore, stiff areas. If you're massaging Heather yourself, focus on the hip areas, the shoulders and the back muscles on either side of the spine, but be guided by her reactions.
Acupuncture and acupressure. These traditional therapies can be helpful for arthritic pets. You can even administer acupressure yourself by stimulating the following acupoints on your pet:
Bladder 60: This point is located on the outside of the back or hind leg, in the Achilles depression behind the leg bone, where it meets with the ankle. When your pet is in pain, applying constant pressure for one or two minutes on this point twice daily can provide relief.
Bladder 54, Gall Bladder 29 and Gall Bladder 30: These three points are located in front of the femur (thigh bone), below the hip joint; on the hip bone, in front of the hip joint; and on the backside of the pelvis, below and behind the hip joint, respectively.
Make a three-finger tripod using the thumb, index and middle fingers, placing the index finger at the top of the bone, with the thumb and middle finger on either side. Gently apply pressure at these three points for about a minute to relieve any pain in the hip joint and the area around it. This technique is very useful in dogs with hip dysplasia or arthritis of the hip.
See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for more on giving acupressure to your pet.
A number of herbs can be useful for arthritis in dogs:
Frankincense (Boswelia serrata) helps fight joint inflammation and has been used for centuries in India for the treatment of arthritis.
Suggested dosage: 150 mg twice daily for a medium-sized dog
Turmeric is another potent anti-inflammatory and is commonly added to joint supplements. Devil's claw, alfalfa and yucca can also be beneficial. Sprinkle the raw herbs on your dog's food or buy them as capsules/tinctures and follow the instructions on the label.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) can stimulate the circulation, which makes the herb ideal for conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis. See the box below for a simple nettle dog biscuit recipe.
Chinese herbal medicine is also worth trying. An herbal combination called Mobility 2 is available from vets trained in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM) and can enable pets who are stiff with arthritis to move with ease. A Kan Herb product called Sublime Joint formula is also popular, but is best taken after a consultation with a vet trained in TCVM.
Homeopathy. According to the late homeopathic vet Dr Francis Hunter in his book Everyday Homeopathy for Animals, if the condition improves with mobility, an excellent arthritis remedy is Rhus Tox 30c, taken three or four times daily. But if instead the lameness worsens with movement, then Bryonia 6c is a better option, taken in the same dose as Rhus Tox.
Keep walking. Moderate daily exercise like walking is important for dogs with arthritis, helping the joints to relax and loosen, but make sure you do it right. Aim to exercise your dog at the same time every day, for the same length of time, to prevent stiffness. You can take your dog on regular walks on a leash, starting with a gentle five minutes and building up to a maximum of half an hour twice a day. Make sure you don't overdo it and keep an eye on your dog's symptoms and reactions.
Nettle K9 biscuits
6 oz (175 g) self-rising flour
1 free-range egg
2 tablespoons nettle-infused sunflower oil (you can make your own by combining 1¾ oz [50 g] dried nettle with 18 fl oz [500 mL] sunflower oil and leaving in a sealed jar for four to six weeks)
1 teaspoon unset (runny) honey
1 handful finely chopped nettles
1) Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an 8 x 11-inch (20 x 29-cm) baking sheet.
2 )Mix together all the ingredients in a large bowl to form a soft dough. Spread the mixture ½-inch (1-cm) deep on the baking tray. Bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm.
3) Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into bite-sized squares.
4) Keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days or freeze for up to one month.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com