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Is my senior dog in pain?

Senior dogs hold such a special place in our hearts, and for good reason! They have been with us through thick and thin for many seasons of our lives. Sometimes when you are with your dog day in and day out, it is easy to miss the signs of aging. 

You can view this article as a friendly reminder that monitoring your senior dog’s joint health is important. 

When is a dog considered a senior? 

The definition of a senior dog changes with breed and size, with giant breeds reaching senior status at eight years of age or even younger, while smaller breeds may not be considered a senior until they are 11 years of age (1). 

Some dogs are fortunate to reach senior status without any health problems, but many, like their human counterparts, suffer from a variety of ailments, most notably, conditions causing moderate to extreme joint pain. 

Common senior dog health issues

The most common type of canine arthritis is degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis (2). 

Osteoarthritis is estimated to affect one out of every five dogs in the United States (2). 

Many dog owners worry that their dog is suffering from arthritis. Signs that your dog could be experiencing joint pain include:

  • Reluctance to move;
  • A previously active dog that is not willing to do the things it used to enjoy;
  • Lameness (limping); 
  • A dog that responds unusually when you touch it by yelping, flinching, or biting; 
  • A dog that shows a general change in behavior, often seeming more irritable or tired;  
  • Muscle atrophy (a general wasting away of unused muscles) often making their hindquarters appear smaller and weaker than previously; and  
  • Excess licking, chewing, or biting at the painful area, sometimes even creating patches with no hair.

If the joint pain is severe or persistent, the dog may show other signs of pain including excessive panting (even when they are not hot), an increased heart rate, or fly snapping. 

Fly snapping or fly biting describes a syndrome in which dogs appear to be watching something and then begin snapping at it (3). 

A study by Frank et al. suggests that fly biting may be caused by an underlying medical disorder and typically resolves when the underlying medical issue is resolved (3). 

Best practices for senior dog joint care

First and foremost, dog owners who suspect that their pet is suffering from joint problems, such as arthritis, should consult with a veterinarian to build a plan for managing their pet’s pain and inflammation.

There are many pain management options available ranging from prescription pharmaceuticals to environmental changes to more natural solutions for dogs. 

Additionally, in 2018, it was estimated that 56% of pet dogs in the United States were overweight or obese (4). Yamka and colleagues found that overweight dogs had increased levels of arthritic markers, even though they did not show any lameness (5). 

In their second study, the dogs that lost weight had a decrease in markers of inflammation, indicating that managing obesity may help manage arthritis, likely as a result of reducing the load exerted on the joints because the animals have reduced their body weight (5).

Swimming has been suggested as an exercise that helps dogs lose weight and build muscle without putting additional strain on the joints and connective tissue. 

Bottom line: keep your dog at a healthy weight and maintain an exercise routine that they can tolerate. Your dog’s digestive tract is absolutely related to their joint health. 

And finally, in recent years, the market has been bombarded with over-the-counter joint supplements to help prevent, or reduce the symptoms, of arthritis. Glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM are among the most popular and most extensively researched ingredients (6), but evidence for the pain-modifying effect of cannabinoids and their drug derivatives is increasing (7) and are the focus of our next article. 

Stay tuned for more information about what joint supplements to give your dog for the best outcome as they age!

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