The effects of aging have caught up to Bridget. A 13-year-old miniature schnauzer and cocker spaniel mix (i.e., a schnocker), Bridget has a difficult time moving. When she wakes up from a nap, she walks with a slight limp. She hasn’t been able to jump up on any furniture. And whether Bridget’s standing on all fours or laying on her side, her right leg trembles like an Eskimo warding off cold weather.

Based on her behavior, I suspected that Bridget was suffering from osteoarthritis. I researched the disease—what it is, its causes, how it’s detected and treated—to see if my dog was affected by it. If you believe your dog could also have osteoarthritis, then consider the following information to be a helpful guide.

Overview

Otherwise known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage surrounding the joints deteriorates. The decline in cartilage is permanent and progresses over the dog’s life.

The erosion of the cartilage causes the ends that form a joint to make contact, resulting in inflammation and pain. In some cases, osteophytes, or “bone spurs,” form on bone close to the joint, causing further pain.

Causes

According to PetEducation.com, there are two forms of DJD. Primary DJD develops as a dog ages and the joints are used over its life. Secondary DJD happens where there is another condition affecting the joint (hip or elbow dysplasia, for instance).

Dogs who are obese, diabetic, or have hyperlaxity (loose joints) have a high risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Other causes include a previous injury and—if the dog is a working or athletic dog—strenuous activity.

For Bridget, there are two causes that could explain her current state. The first is her weight. Although she isn’t obese, Bridget is and has been slightly overweight. I can’t attribute her weight to, say, a metabolic disorder or a love of food and treats. I am certain, though, that her additional weight isn’t helping at this stage in her life.

The other cause could be a previous injury. One day, around the time Bridget was five years old, she attempted to stand on her hind legs and beg for a treat that my stepfather had in his hand. Her right leg slipped on the hardwood kitchen floor, causing Bridget to land on her right hip.

After a few days of discomfort, Bridget’s behavior turned back to normal, and she hadn’t expressed any symptoms of that fall. I have wondered, though, if that pain has started to creep back.

Symptoms

The symptoms of osteoarthritis differ between dogs, depending on age, which joints are affected, and how far the disease has progressed. One recognizable symptom is the dog’s gait, since the dog will put more weight on the healthier joints. But perhaps the most noticeable symbol of osteoarthritis is limping. This is just one of the symptoms that I noticed in Bridget. If your dog looks stiff after waking up, is unable to jump up and off furniture, or has difficulty walking up and down steps, then this could be an indicator.

Diagnosis

A veterinarian will typically perform a physical exam after assessing the symptoms of osteoarthritis. If necessary, the veterinarian will take x-rays of the affected joints and possibly perform laboratory tests or more intensive physical exams.

Treatment

Although osteoarthritis can’t be cured, various treatment options can be employed to manage symptoms. Surgery is an option if the dog is in serious pain—if it has hip dysplasia or osteophytes near the affected joint. Surgical procedures include arthroscopic surgery and reconstructive surgery that could involve joint removal/replacement.

Medications such as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and Glucocorticoids (cortisone) are usually given to reduce pain and inflammation. Blood tests will be run in order to check liver and kidney health before veterinarians prescribe NSAIDs. Although cortisone has a stronger anti-inflammatory effect than NSAIDs, long-term use may cause serious side effects.

Physical therapy will improve the motion and strength of the affected joint. Options include massaging the joint to increase blood flow, taking a walk twice daily for 15 to 20 minutes, and swimming, which boosts muscle mass while being a low-impact exercise.

Because osteoarthritis will worsen, it is necessary to manage your dog’s drug selection and dosage over time. Surgery may become necessary in the future even if the symptoms aren’t currently metastasizing. Keep activity level light even while trying to bolster your dog’s joint motion and strength. When it comes to diet, foods rich in omega fatty acids can decrease inflammation.

Prevention

The most important thing you can do to prevent osteoarthritis is to keep your dog at a healthy weight. Any additional weight adds stress to the joints, leading to future damage and more severe arthritis. Light exercise without excessive pressure and a healthy diet are essential for maintaining a healthy weight.

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As for Bridget, my parents took her to the veterinarian after they noticed symptoms. The veterinarian stretched and massaged the affected joint; after evaluating, she prescribed a twice-weekly steroid injection containing polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (PSGAG) and a pill called Tramadol to be taken two-to-three times daily.

Although Bridget was not officially diagnosed with osteoarthritis, my parents and I are more aware of her symptoms and will continue to manage them for the rest of her life. – Jared McNutt

Jared McNutt will be a senior at The Ohio State University this fall, majoring in English with a minor in Professional Writing. His two dogs–Bridget, 13, and Bailey, 7–are both schnockers, a miniature schnauzer and cocker spaniel mix.