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Stiffness and lameness in older dogs

old dog

As dogs get older they tend to slow down, just like humans. But how much is due simply to age, and how much is down to pain or physical weakness? Dogs who have adopted a steadier pace tend to be viewed as just getting old, whereas in many cases an early check-up could identify a specific manageable problem.

“Stiffness and soreness of the joints is very common in older dogs,” explained resident Your Dog vet Roberta Baxter. “However, it’s rare for dogs to be taken to the vet for this, unless there is a definite lameness. But we often pick up early signs of developing problems when dogs come in for vaccinations. By catching things as soon as possible, there may be the opportunity to improve the dog’s situation and slow down the deterioration.”

Here we present some of the most common causes of mobility problems in older dogs, and ways they can be helped.

Arthritis

This is the painful inflammation of one or many joints in the body. It can occur in younger dogs, but is most likely to develop with age. “Arthritis can either be the primary issue that has resulted from general wear and tear over the years,” explained Roberta, “or it may develop as a secondary problem following an injury or damage to a joint.”

Food supplements can be beneficial for dogs who have previously suffered from joint damage, before arthritis begins. Often the first signs of arthritis will be stiffness following a period of rest after exercise, or your dog having difficulty getting up. He may also find stairs harder, or become reluctant to get in or out of the car.

“These dogs tend to benefit from supplements that contain glucosamine and essential fatty acids,” said Roberta. “These seem to reduce the pain and possibly improve the health of the affected joints. Anti-inflammatory drugs are often helpful too.”

Changes to the general care of the dog can help as well. It is important for your dog to maintain a healthy weight to minimise the pressure placed upon the affected joints, so adjustments to his diet may be needed. Exercise needs to be given in regular short and steady sessions. Two or three brief walks each day will help keep the dog in good shape, while preventing undue stress being placed on his joints. Long walks, especially when only done once a week or less, should be avoided.

In more severe cases of arthritis, dogs are likely to need regular ongoing medication. Hydrotherapy, acupuncture and magnetic collars may also give relief. “Hydrotherapy can also be used to keep your dog’s mobility as good as possible before any problems occur,” added Roberta. Ensure your dog’s bed is in a warm, dry area and check it is thick enough to protect his joints as he lies down and gets up. Raise his bowl with a stand (you can easily make one with a flowerpot or an upturned bucket) so he can eat more comfortably.

And, although your dog’s a bit slower physically, he’ll still enjoy and benefit from being kept mentally active — interactive toys such as Kongs are ideal.

Did you know?

Sometimes lameness and poor mobility in older dogs is a result them becoming more flat-footed. In these cases it is particularly important to trim their nails regularly to stop discomfort.

Injuries

Older dogs can become more prone to injuries, so before assuming any decreased mobility is simply age-related, make sure there are no underlying problems that need treatment. “Older dogs are more likely to rupture a ligament,” said Roberta, “but this may be the result of them already having an inflammatory joint disorder. Also, if they do suffer a rupture, they are likely to go on to develop secondary arthritis.”

Back problems

Dogs suffering back problems will also slow down. “Back pain or weakness in the hind limbs can result in poor mobility,” explained Roberta. “The dog may stumble, appear weak in the behind, cross his hind legs or even knuckle his foot — when the foot is placed on the floor incorrectly.” This can result from spondylosis — a form of arthritis that affects the spine — or from pressure being placed on the spinal nerve, or possibly a disc prolapse. Your vet will need to assess your dog carefully to determine the severity of the problem and the prognosis.

Bone tumours

Bone tumours may initially display very similar symptoms to arthritis, so are often not detected until they have become more advanced — for example, when a dog suffers a bone fracture for no obvious reason. “If a dog has not responded as well as expected to arthritis treatment, an X-ray can help determine if there is something else wrong,” said Roberta. “If the tumour has not spread, specialist bone surgery can be undertaken, or a digit or limb may have to be amputated.”

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