Q: Our 12-year-old Collie, Amazon, has shaky hind limbs, gets up stiffly, and slips on any surface that’s not carpeted. This has come on very gradually over the years so our vet thinks it’s a normal old-age arthritis thing. Unfortunately, our veterinarian keeps insisting on giving her a pain reliever even though she’s not in any pain. What do you suggest for old dogs with this problem? Are drugs really the answer?
A: Dogs who exhibit signs of “old age” like stiffness, shakiness and slipping on smooth surfaces are typically experiencing the twin issues of osteoarthritis (AKA arthritis) and the degenerative changes to the nervous system that often accompany it.
Arthritis is a joint process that can reduce a dog’s mobility and elicit pain. More typically seen in older dogs but capable of affecting even very young dogs, arthritis can be caused by injury, infection, the body’s own immune system or developmental/hereditary abnormalities.
The most common form of arthritis is referred to in scientific circles as “osteoarthritis” or “degenerative joint disease.” This is what it sounds like is happening to Amazon.
Here’s a simple explanation for arthritis: Normally, joints form smooth connections between bones. Osteoarthritis involves thinning of joint cartilage (a protective cushioning between bones), accumulation of fluid within the joint, and the formation of bony growths within the joint.
Over time, this can lead to reduced joint mobility and pain.
Arthritis is very common, affecting one out of every five dogs. And yet, the condition is often under-recognized by owners who assume the symptoms of arthritis are an inevitable part of their dog’s normal aging process. Or that a dog is not experiencing pain because she doesn’t whine or complain.
Dogs who show any signs of arthritis, like those you describe, can and should be treated. The key is to accept that, despite your assessment, pain is almost inevitable. And even if you disbelieve me and your veterinarian, you should recognize that the veterinary community is united in its belief that drugs (like NSAIDs) are largely responsible for the prolonged lifespan our large breed dogs now enjoy.
Consider that as recently as 10 or 20 years ago, geriatric large breed dogs were most commonly euthanized because they couldn’t get up any more. With the advent of these increasingly safe new drugs, dogs retain that ability for years longer than they would have otherwise.
Think about that before making any definitive decisions about treating your Amazon.