Osteoarthritis is the most common ailment affecting ageing dogs, and natural therapies can help to manage the condition. Caroline Zambrano reports.
Osteoarthritis (OA) – also called degenerative joint disease – involves the slow erosion of joint cartilage, causing the bones to rub against each other every time the joint moves. OA can be inherited (as in the case of hip dysplasia), caused by wear and tear as the animal ages, or be the result of injury to a previously normal joint.
No matter what the cause, OA turns into a painful and debilitating condition if not managed appropriately. Fortunately, the disease often responds to various treatment options, such as anti-inflammatory medication, nutrition and dietary supplements, exercise regimes and stem cell therapy. Natural therapies can also help to reduce pain and return the joint to normal function in many dogs, regardless of age.
Dr Karen Goldrick, veterinarian and editor of the Journal of Veterinary Botanical Medicine for the Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association (VBMA), uses the power of nature to treat a large number of dogs with OA. “Most are older dogs, but some are very young dogs with skeletal growth problems, eg hip or elbow dysplasia. They are prone to back problems, suffer from long-term joint problems and need lifetime support for the pain and osteoarthritis,” she said.
Dr Goldrick says natural therapies are an effective alternative for pet owners who want to manage their dog’s pain without nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). “With regular acupuncture, chiropractic and other natural therapies, you can reduce the need for (chemical-based) drugs,” she says.
“We also find that most animals do better if they are getting home management, such as massage, stretching or special exercises. It prolongs the benefit derived from the natural therapy treatments.”
Rae Hennessy has been an animal acupuncturist for more than 20 years and the majority of her patients are older, so she spends a large proportion of her time treating dogs with osteoarthritis. Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles into specific points on the dog’s body, but it isn’t as scary as it sounds. “Most dogs find it relaxing and many sleep during their treatment,” Rae explains.
“The needles stay in place between 5 to 20 minutes depending on the size, age and condition of the dog.” Acupuncture is based on energy flowing through the body along meridians or channels, and the needles are placed in specific points along those channels to affect the flow of energy. “The end results are a reduction in pain, inflammation and stiffness, and increased mobility for arthritic dogs, thus improving their general quality of life,” says Rae.
“It can also be used alone or in conjunction with other therapies depending on the severity of the condition, the age and the preferences of the owner and/or vet.” Hennessy believes that one of the great benefits of acupuncture is that it has minimal side effects. “That is particularly important when arthritis occurs in a very young dog, as it means the dog can undergo regular treatment for many years without concern, or when arthritis occurs in a dog that cannot take regular medications,” she says.
Pioneered by American veterinarians in the 1970s, gold beading is implanting gold beads at the acupuncture points of the area that needs treatment. The gold beads are very tiny and provide longterm stimulation of the acupuncture points, explains Dr Goldrick.
“Gold beading can be a good option for patients with severe osteoarthritis,” she says. “The advantages are that it gives longlasting results; pain relief lasts several months. But it’s expensive and needs to be done under general anaesthesia.”
The expense may be significantly offset by fewer visits to the vet for treatment of arthritis, Dr Goldrick adds, and she also recommends seeing a vet accredited in veterinary acupuncture for the procedure.
Trigger points are localised tender spots in muscles that form after injury or misuse. Trigger point therapy releases the trigger point so that it stops causing pain, says Dr Goldrick.
“Trigger point therapy involves deactivating the trigger point with acupuncture, and then directly stimulating the painful point itself.” This stimulation can be delivered directly, using an acupuncture needle, or indirectly, using Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS), a form of neuromuscular electrical stimulation especially used in pain management. “Then we perform strong compression massage and stretch out for a good minute.
It’s uncomfortable to go through but it helps to improve mobility,” Dr Goldrick explains.
Chiropractic treatments work to treat secondary pain of OA. “An animal with sore hips will automatically shift their gait to compensate,” explains Dr Goldrick. “That puts stress on their back, resulting in muscular tension.
When tension lines in the spine are not straight, you get more back pain and this creates more difficulty walking.”
Again, the value of chiropractic treatment can be extended with simple back massages and stretching exercises at home in between sessions.
Prolotherapy involves the injection of an irritant solution (such as dextrose and Vitamin B12) into a damaged joint, which can cause a healing process, says Dr Goldrick. “It results in miniature scarring; it tightens up and stabilises the area outside the joint.”
Dr Goldrick adds that prolotherapy may not be suitable for larger dogs, but vets trained in prolotherapy have used the treatment successfully in smaller dogs with low-grade luxating patella or anterior cruciate injuries, which can cause significant discomfort.
Prolotherapy can be combined with aquapuncture – the injection of a homeopathic anti-inflammatory solution into appropriate acupuncture points around the joint – to get even better results, Dr Goldrick says. “Acupuncture helps to reduce pain and prolotherapy helps to stabilise the joint; both work together to help reduce osteoarthritis and improve mobility, and hopefully can be used in place of surgery,” she says.
Physiotherapy aims to rehabilitate and improve musculoskeletal disorders such as OA through a variety of treatment techniques. Some of these techniques include using machines (such as TENS units) to help control pain or improve muscle function, bandaging or strapping to treat swelling and support joints, application of warmth or ice for pain, swelling or spasm control, and hands-on massage, manipulation and joint mobilisation.
“Physiotherapy is fantastic for looking after joint health and keeping range of movement,” says Kristine Edwards from Sydney Animal Physiotherapy. “We move the joint, stretch muscles attached to joints and aid with joint nutrition.”
For dogs with OA, an individualised exercise regime including walking can help to reduce pain and improve mobility. This could mean a change to a dog’s daily walk schedule. “Arthritic dogs may need to do shorter and more frequent walks rather than long walks,” Kristine says.
Many physiotherapists use treadmills as part of a walking program for their arthritic patients. Marian Murray from Canine Comfort says treadmills provide a controlled environment, offering assorted speed and training modes depending on the exercise requirements.
“If you’re working on a specified area of the body, you can have the treadmill on a decline to work the front end of the dog or have it on an incline to work the rear end,” Marian explains. “You gently stretch the animal slightly without putting pressure on the animal or causing discomfort.” For some dogs though, nothing beats a walk in the park.
Treadmills are not intended to replace the dog’s favourite place to visit, explore, socialise and exercise, Marian says. “It provides a controlled environment and provides a nice consistent surface for the dog.” Your dog can also use it whether it’s raining, snowing or scorching hot outside – conditions are always right for a walk on the treadmill indoors.
Hydrotherapy is exercise, treatment or rehabilitation in water. Physiotherapists use heated pools or underwater treadmills, and sometimes both. “Hydrotherapy builds up muscle strength while avoiding strain on painful joints,” says Kristine. “If the water level is up to the belly level or hip level, it’s supporting 70 per cent of the dog’s weight. It’s wonderful for arthritic dogs to be able to exercise with pain and weight taken off its sore joints.”
What about swimming? “Swimming is generally terrific for general fitness,” says Kristine. “But if the dog has had cruciate ligament surgery or hind limb problems, it does better with walking as it needs to bear weight on the hind limbs.” While swimming can help to work the hind legs if done correctly, Kristine has seen that dogs can be terrific at cheating. “They use their front legs but not their hind limbs.” “Owners need to watch them – really see what they are doing. But dogs can’t cheat when walking in water.
Whether you are looking for someone to provide a specific treatment or you are not sure what natural therapy is best for your dog, finding someone with the appropriate training and qualifications to provide advice or treatment is key.
There are holistic vets and integrative vets, who combine conventional and holistic veterinary practices.
You can locate an accredited holistic practitioner at: