If your dog’s muzzle is getting grey and arthritis pain is threatening to steal the joy from those golden years, you want to ensure your home is safe and comfortable for your older dog with mobility challenges. Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby draws from her many years of loving and caring for senior dogs to share these eight practical ways to help your dog with arthritis at home.
If you’re like me, and your dog has been celebrating a tenth birthday for the past three years, it may be easy to forget your dog is a senior. Most dogs are great at concealing their age. But as they develop arthritis and their mobility changes, it may become more apparent that the years are taking a toll.
Recognizing arthritis in senior dogs
As arthritis progresses, some older dogs will have a harder time standing up from a lying position or jumping up into the car or onto the bed. Others may look stiff, act sore, or begin limping when they walk.
It can be easy to attribute the signs of arthritis to age-related slowing down and assume this is normal behavior for a senior dog. However, many times this isn’t the case. (For more on differentiating aging from arthritis, please check out my article: Is It Canine Arthritis or Aging? 7 Signs of Arthritis in Dogs.)
If your dog is in the golden years—or close—there are simple steps you can take at home to give the gifts of mobility, comfort, and more good days. However, before you break out your DIY building skills, shop online, or implement any of the other tips I am about to share with you, first please make an appointment with your dog’s veterinarian.
If you want to help your dog with arthritis, first call your vet.
Going to the vet is extremely important, especially for older dogs. I would argue that other than you, your veterinarian is your dog’s biggest ally.
As a veterinarian, I believe it’s my job to listen carefully to what dog parents are saying and read between the lines to pick up on changes that they may not realize are significant. A thorough nose-to-tail examination and some diagnostic tests (if needed) complete the picture. Then we can work together to tackle whatever challenges your dog is facing.
If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with arthritis based on a physical examination and your observations, don’t despair. There are countless ways to help a dog with arthritis at home!
Options like pain medications, joint supplements for dogs, physical therapy, laser therapy for dogs, and acupuncture can all help relieve arthritis pain in dogs. There isn’t a particular treatment that is superior to the others. In fact, the best results often come from a multimodal approach—using several of these options together. Much like people, each dog responds differently, so finding the right combination for your dog can take a bit of trial and error but pay huge dividends in quality of life.
How can I help a dog with arthritis at home?
Medical advice from your veterinarian is invaluable when you are trying to manage your dog’s arthritis pain. However, arthritis treatments like physical therapy and acupuncture are usually performed at your vet’s office, so you may be wondering how to help a dog with arthritis at home.
To address this concern, I want to share with you eight at-home arthritis management tips that can make a huge difference for your senior dog.
1. Create a prescription medication plan with your vet and track your dog’s progress.
Based on your dog’s exam findings and medical history, your veterinarian may prescribe certain medications to help decrease joint pain. These include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Opioid medications
- Muscle relaxants
- Medications to reduce nerve pain
Your dog may take some of these medications on a once-a-day or twice-a-day basis long term. Other medications might be used on an as needed basis. Work with your veterinarian to create the medication plan that is right for your dog and keep your vet updated on how your dog is doing. I advise my clients to keep a simple daily journal for their senior dogs because it helps us chart changes, improvements, potential medication side effects, and make more objective assessments of progress.
By the way, I understand that getting your dog to take prescription medications isn’t always a walk in the park. I’ve been there with my own four-legged family members. That’s why I came up with my five favorite tips if your dog won’t take pills.
A word of caution about pain medications for dogs with arthritis
Never give any human pain medications to your dog unless directed to do so by your veterinarian. Dog-specific NSAIDs are commonly prescribed for arthritic dogs because they effectively reduce inflammation and relieve joint pain. However, you must never give your dog human NSAIDs due to the risk of life-threatening side effects. Learn more in my article: Can I Give My Dog Advil?
2. A supplement a day keeps the joint pain away.
Before we start discussing joint supplements for dogs, we need to briefly review some relevant joint anatomy. When bones come together to form a joint, the ends are covered with a layer of cartilage. This cartilage acts as a shock absorber and helps the bones glide smoothly against each other when the joint moves.
As your dog ages or joint mechanics change due to an injury, the cartilage becomes worn. Over time this degenerative process will lead to arthritis. Now bone is rubbing on bone, the once cushy cartilage has become thin, causing the joint to become inflamed and painful.
What is the best joint supplement for dogs?
A variety of compounds have proven useful for addressing arthritic changes from different angles:
- Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate — Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) are the building blocks of healthy cartilage, making them one of the most popular joint supplement ingredients.
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) — This compound helps form new cartilage and can reduce pain and inflammation.
- Turmeric/curcumin — More commonly used as a human supplement, turmeric/curcumin shows promise in reducing pain and inflammation in dogs with arthritis.
- Hyaluronic acid — This type of GAG is a major component of joint fluid and helps make cartilage more resistant to wear and tear.
- Omega-3 fatty acids — Anti-inflammatory properties are one of the benefits of Omega-3s for dogs that make them useful for managing arthritis pain.
My favorite joint supplement for dogs with arthritis
Joint supplements come in a vast array of blends and formulations of the compounds discussed above. It can be hard to know which one is “best” for your dog. I have spent countless hours researching joint supplements, and hands down, my two favorite ingredients are New Zealand green-lipped mussel for dogs and deer velvet supplements for dogs. They are combined in my hip and joint supplement product called Dr. Buzby’s Encore Mobility™
These 2 ingredients provide :
- Chondroitin sulfate
- Hyaluronic acid
- Proteins and growth factors
Together, the blend of compounds in Encore Mobility can support joint health, reduce inflammation, and improve mobility for dogs with arthritis. Plus, it comes in tasty tablets that most dogs love, and side effects are virtually non-existent.
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3. Keep tabs on your dog’s diet.
Did you know that diet plays a big role in your dog’s joint health? Paying attention to how much and what kind of food your dog is eating can be a simple way to help your arthritic dog at home.
Feed your dog the right amount of food
It can be easy for doting dog parents to accidentally overfeed their dogs. After all, those begging puppy dog eyes can be so hard to resist. However, showing your love through food may be doing your dog more harm than good, especially when arthritis enters the picture.
When you maintain your dog at a healthy weight or, if indicated, help him shed those extra pounds, there is less pressure on the joints. This translates to less pain and improved mobility.
If you’re wondering whether your dog is overweight, you can find out by calculating your dog’s canine body condition score and discussing your concerns with your veterinarian.
Select the correct kind of food for your dog
Many of the commercially available foods found in pet stores are well-balanced and contain the correct amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. Always read the label to figure out who the food is designed for. Puppies, adult dogs, senior dogs, overweight or underweight dogs, and dogs with various activity levels have different nutrient requirements.
If your dog is overweight, your vet may advise feeding a set number of calories per day. Consider using one of the foods specifically designed to be low-calorie or formulated to help with weight management. Alternatively, ask your veterinarian if a therapeutic weight loss diet is a good idea for your dog. Although I’m conservative about recommending prescription diets, it’s been my experience that prescription metabolic diets designed for weight loss tend to work extremely well. Homecooking for your dog is another good option, but should be done under the supervision of a board certified veterinary nutritionist. (More on this next week!)
When feeding a regular diet (not one designed for weight management) with the goal of helping your dog lose weight, the strategy of greatly restricting the amount fed is not ideal and poteanially dangerous. This could unintentionally restrict essential vitamins and minerals your dog needs to stay healthy. This article from UC Davis Veterinary Medicine on nutritional management of weight explains and advises that overweight dogs lose no more than 2% of their body weight per week.
4. Bring on the exercise in moderation.
If you have watched your arthritic dog get up after lying down for awhile, or if you are afflicted with arthritis yourself, you know that creatures with arthritis may have a stiff gait. The longer they stay in one position, the harder it is for them to get up and go.
Exercise is important for all dogs regardless of their weight. It is also great for dog parents. Getting some fresh air and a chance to stretch your legs together can be a great way to increase your bond with your dog. Additionally, it can be a fun way to help your dog with arthritis at home.
Short and slow walks around the neighborhood can keep your dog limber and help an overweight dog burn more calories. In addition, these walks help maintain muscle mass to stabilize the joints. Swimming also makes a great low-impact exercise for arthritic dogs and can be an enjoyable treat in the summer heat.
Dogs don’t always know their limits, so beware of letting your dog sprint or do other high-impact exercises. Also avoid the “weekend warrior” model of exercise. It may be seem fun in the short term, but your dog could get injured or suffer increased joint pain.
5. Help your dog get a grip.
Make sure to keep your dog’s nails clipped short. Long nails change the mechanics of the foot and can make walking more difficult, or sometimes even painful. Although it may seem intimidating at first, you can learn how to clip a dog’s toenails with confidence and ease.
If you notice that your dog is having trouble getting a grip on slippery surfaces, consider trying Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips® dog nail grips. ToeGrips help dogs move with confidence by providing extra traction and improving the brain’s perception of where the limbs and feet are positioned.
6. Splurge on that fancy dog bed.
While some dogs enjoy lying on cool wood or tile floors, many dogs also enjoy a nice, comfy bed. Since hard floors may exacerbate joint pain, it is a good idea to consider providing a bed for your arthritic dog. Having a dog bed may also help prevent your dog from becoming injured by jumping on and off the furniture.
Dog beds come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and materials, and the descriptions might just make you want to try one out for yourself. There are many companies that make orthopedic dog beds or beds with cooling memory foam mattresses. If your dog has trouble getting all the way down to the floor, consider using a bed that is slightly elevated. Once again, there is no one size fits all solution. Dogs have preferences and may like one style or level of support over another.
If your dog is reluctant to use the bed you select, keep it in a common area like the living room. You may also want to place the bed next to your bed so your dog can rest there at night. If your dog still doesn’t warm up to the bed, consider trying a different style of bed. With the number of available choices, even the most particular “princess and the pea” pups should be able to find a bed that suits their fancy.
7. Modify your home to help your dog with arthritis.
It can be difficult for an arthritic dog to navigate certain areas of your home like slippery floors and staircases. Here’s where you can be creative! Try the following modifications to help your dog with arthritis at home:
- Help your dog gain traction on slippery floors by putting down area rugs, runners, yoga mats, or even rubber mats that are meant for the tub. This is one of several practical solutions for dogs who are afraid of hardwood floors in addition to the ToeGrips mentioned above.
- Keep your dog’s dishes on an absorbent mat so spilled water doesn’t cause your dog to slip and fall. If your dog is having trouble reaching down to a dish on the floor, consider using an elevated feeder. Feeding your dog on a nonslip mat, such as an inexpensive rubber welcome mat, can provide dinner with dignity for a dog who struggles to stand long enough to eat.
- Ramps and steps can help your dog get up and down from the couch or bed, on and off of the deck, or in and out of the car. If you are handy with tools, you can find plans online to custom build ramps and stairs. Alternatively, they can be purchased in pet stores and online.
- If you don’t want your dog to use the stairs, consider using baby gates to block these areas.
8. Don’t overlook anxiety.
Most veterinarians agree that pain and anxiety go hand-in-hand. Dogs may pant, pace, shake, and hide when they are dealing with arthritis pain. However, these same signs describe anxiety in dogs. It is reasonable to say that a painful dog is prone to being an anxious dog.
To help with anxiety, talk to your veterinarian about medications, supplements, and products such as collars and diffusers for your home.
Want more? Here’s a list of my favorite things for senior dogs.
Happy at home
Arthritis is common in old age, but it doesn’t have to define your senior dog. Have a strategy session with your veterinarian to create a plan that will help prevent injury, alleviate pain, and promote mobility. While in-clinic modalities will play a part in that plan, don’t discount all the ways you can help your arthritic dog be happy and comfortable at home.
Why not try out one — or a few — of these eight tips I’ve shared? Your arthritic senior dog will thank you!
Do you have a creative hack to keep your senior dog happy at home?
Share in the comments below so we can all learn from one another.