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Understanding and Treating Arthritis in Sporting Dogs

New and traditional therapies can help, but prevention is preferred.

Understanding and Treating Arthritis in Sporting Dogs

Arthritis is often the main culprit that sends gun dogs into early retirement, but fortunately, this disease can be managed, and even prevented. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

There’s an assumption among gun dog owners that, in exchange for good food, shelter, and a chance to perform their craft, a hunting dog offers a decade or more of unparalleled athleticism and companionship in the field. After all, few would invest the expense of time and resources required to sculpt a polished veteran from raw ore if their luster faded too quickly. Alas, it happens, and there’s no more sorrowful tale than that of a gun dog lamentably cut short of its prime years. While I’ve witnessed accidents and deadly illnesses prematurely snuff the eternal fire of a good dog, as a veterinarian, I commonly blame arthritis as the disease most likely to send our canine companions into early retirement. 

two pointing dogs eating dog food in field
For most healthy dogs with good underlying joint conformation, simply supporting a lean and fit physique wards off most common cases of early onset or chronic osteoarthritis. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

What is Canine Arthritis?

Arthritis, or more commonly osteoarthritis (OA) in our canines, is a far-reaching medical phrase used to describe inflammation in one or more joints. The term can be used to characterize acute cases where there is a sudden onset of joint inflammation, but mostly commonly in our hunting dogs we speak of arthritis in terms of those chronic, festering conditions. Chronic osteoarthritis often occurs as a consequence of a lifetime of joint misuse and abuse, either through obesity, genetics, injury, or in some combination of each. 


Regardless of the root cause, many chronic arthritis cases involve sites of heavy mechanical stress and notoriously poor blood supply, offering a perfect storm of chronic wear-and-tear that outpaces the body’s ability to heal. Most commonly, the disease is slow to progress, with a penchant for stealthiness and an almost imperceptible progression of symptoms.

The Labrador and golden retrievers are two sporting breeds most commonly afflicted with osteoarthritis, and my experience in the clinic supports this data. In these breeds especially, a subset of their pedigree is prone to early onset of the disease due to genetically preprogrammed misalignment or improper development (dysplasia) of the joints. While I’ve seen osteoarthritis affect nearly every hunting breed, these two predominate in tragic cases of career-ending joint disease in my experience. Regardless of the breed you choose, it’s worth limiting your breeder search to those committed to eliminating a genetic predisposition toward dysplasia. Responsible sporting dog breeders will insist on rigorous pre-breeding screening through OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) or PennHip assessments of joint health

upland bird hunter and golden retriever hiking in a field pheasant hunting
The Labrador and golden retrievers are sporting breeds commonly afflicted with career-ending osteoarthritis. In these breeds, a subset of their pedigree is prone to early onset of the disease due to genetically preprogrammed misalignment or improper development of the joints. They’re also more prone to obesity. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

An Ounce of Prevention

Regardless of the cause of arthritis, it’s universally accepted among veterinarians and hunting dog enthusiasts that prevention is by far the preferred treatment for this disease. Fortunately, gun dog owners have complete control over the single most effective means of disease prevention: Maintaining a healthy body condition. For most healthy dogs with good underlying joint conformation, simply supporting a lean and fit physique wards off most common cases of early onset or chronic osteoarthritis. 

While it seems like a simple task on the surface—we do, after all, control what and how much goes into the food bowl—the propensity of obese animals seen in the clinic suggests that dog owners either fail to recognize proper body condition or choose to ignore it. Regardless of the justification, veterinarians treat a disturbing number of debilitated gun dogs crippled by a lifetime of excess weight and joint stress. I don’t want to use this platform as a soap box, rather I’d prefer hunting dog owners understand the best treatment for osteoarthritis just so happens to be the easiest and most economical option. As a seasoned old gun dog vet once shared with me, “You’ll get far fewer problems out of a lean dog than a fat one.” 

Should I Give My Dog Supplements?

Prevention options have also expanded to include certain canine supplements as a means to ward off significant disease in dogs that are predisposed to severe osteoarthritis. While most joint supplement companies simply infer (without any data, mind you) that what works well in human patients will seamlessly transfer to dogs, there have been reputable studies documenting the efficacy of a few of these compounds in canines. Reach for brands that offer high quality sources of glucosamine hydrochloride (not glucosamine sulfate), chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids first, as these ingredients boast a fairly extensive body of research along with many anecdotal reports of positive results. Some other ingredients fall under the categories of baseless fad (I’m looking at you, turmeric) or pure fiction, but nonetheless persist due to their strong attraction to consumers wooed by a desire to provide their dogs with what they perceive as more natural—and by extension, healthier—alternatives. Consult with your veterinarian when contemplating adding supplements to your gun dog’s diet. 

two german shorthaired pointer dogs eating dog food
Reach for supplements that offer high quality sources of glucosamine hydrochloride, chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids first, as these ingredients boast a fairly extensive body of research along with many anecdotal reports of positive results. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

There are two main considerations for hunting dog owners regarding supplements. The first, and most important, is to keep in mind that the supplement space is mostly unregulated and often profitable, a perfect recipe for welcoming players that do not have your gun dog’s best interest at heart. Not all ingredients are created equal in terms of quality and quantity, and many formulations of joint supplements fall short of therapeutic levels for managing osteoarthritis. Second, supplements that work as chondroprotectants (cartilage sparing) and inflammatory mediators often have a relatively slow onset of observable benefit. Keep your expectations in check while you experience a delay in results.

In the spirit of prevention, research also suggests there is a notable benefit in starting these supplements early in life, even in pups as young as eight weeks old. As a veterinarian, I support owners of higher risk breeds employing the early supplementation strategy along with a healthy diet and lean body condition.


Managing Arthritis

Because of the delay in results, supplements tend to work best in conjunction with faster-acting, traditional anti-inflammatory medications. NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, target one or multiple steps along the complex pain and inflammation pathway in the body. Hunting dog owners likely already have carprofen (sold under the trade name Rimadyl, among others) on hand from a previous animal injury or procedure, and it works well for managing mild-to-moderate pain for chronic arthritis patients as well. 

Like other NSAIDs, carprofen has side effects from long-term use or at higher doses, involving in particular the stomach, liver, and kidneys. Owners must weigh the benefit of pain management for senior dogs that struggle with liver or kidney issues against the risks of further damaging these body systems. Fortunately, your veterinarian can guide you towards oral options that combat inflammation through alternative mechanisms. Most of these are medically more forgiving for long-term use, albeit less friendly on your wallet. 

old german shorthaired pointer retrieving a ruffed grouse
Because of the delay in results, supplements tend to work best in conjunction with faster-acting, traditional anti-inflammatory medications. NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, target one or multiple steps along the complex pain and inflammation pathway in the body. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

What About CBD Products for Treating Arthritis?

CBD, or cannabidiol, has gained popularity recently as a tool to manage chronic osteoarthritis. The non-psychoactive element found naturally in the cannabis plant, CBD has a proven track record in human medicine along with a less mature but equally compelling body of research behind its role in combating canine osteoarthritis as well. Complexities in its regulation—due in part to its close relationship with its sister compound THC—have made it challenging for veterinarians to recommend CBD, but restrictions appear to be easing. 

Like with supplements, CBD quality and quantity vary widely, and hunters who hope to add CBD to their arthritic dog’s pain management program should consider veterinary-sourced CBD products and consult with their veterinarian on a proper dosing protocol. 

While popular, keep in mind that CBD is no panacea. Many of my clients have reported excellent results using CBD in their arthritic dogs, but others have noticed no improvement or effect. Like carprofen, the compound is metabolized by the liver, and its use in arthritic dogs with compromised liver function should be carefully weighed against the benefits of using it to manage joint inflammation. There have been very few studies evaluating the long-term medical impact of CBD use in dogs, but anecdotally I can report many clients eventually balk at the cumulative expense in spite of its perceived efficacy. 

Physical Therapy for Canine Arthritis 

I’m a proponent of physical therapy (PT) as an adjunct treatment in chronic osteoarthritis management. In most cases, PT slows the progression of the disease through myriad strategies that either specifically target inflammation or prevent its spread to other joints. In my veterinary career, I have seen many arthritic patients benefit tremendously from targeted cold laser therapy, underwater treadmills, and passive range of motion exercises. The former promotes blood flow to sites of inflammation, and along with it healing and restorative cofactors. The latter therapies are two of numerous options designed to prevent muscle atrophy in arthritic areas and reduce the risk of compensatory injuries in dogs that have learned to place the burden of mobility onto the remaining healthy limbs. 

cold laser treatment for canine arthritis
Many arthritic patients benefit tremendously from targeted cold laser therapy, underwater treadmills and passive range of motion exercises. The former promotes blood flow to sites of inflammation, and along with it healing and restorative cofactors. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)

Fortunately for gun dog owners, there continues to be a strong push for the development of new therapies and medications for arthritis management. New breakthroughs in regenerative medicine and novel medications involving monoclonal antibodies will likely transform how veterinarians and dog owners manage the disease in the future. While prevention of arthritis will likely always be the preferred (and certainly most economical) option, hunting dog owners now have more options for treatment than ever before. 

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