How To Manage Your Dog’s Arthritis During Winter’s Chill

By Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Although I currently reside in Southern California where winter hardly frosts the ground, I’ve lived in parts of the U.S. where temperatures plummet and life becomes more challenging during inclement weather.

Winter creates additional health challenges for pets suffering from arthritis (joint inflammation).  It’s especially hard for pets having osteoarthritis (OA), which is the progression of arthritis to the degree where joint surfaces become irregular and range of motion becomes compromised.

Owners of arthritic dogs must take extra precautions to prevent worsening of their pets’ conditions in wintry weather.

The Effects of Reduced Blood Circulation on Joints

Cold temperatures can affect tissues on a whole-body basis. Hypothermia occurs when a dog’s body temperature drops below the normal range of 100-102.5 F (+/- 0.5).  Reduced blood flow to the extremities (limbs, feet, ears, etc.) to preserve the vital organs (brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver), blood flow) occurs with hypothermia.

Blood flow to skin and other tissues in the layers below the skin surface also is restricted upon exposure to cold or with hypothermia.  Oxygen and nutrient delivery and removal of metabolic waste from body tissues is reduced, which can lead to improper function of affected organ systems and cell damage or death.

When body parts are sufficiently exposed to extreme temperatures (< 32 F), a pet’s skin can become cold to the touch and appear pale pink, white, or blue.  Frostbite can occur and ultimately progress to gangrene, which requires extensive and likely  expensive veterinary medical and surgical treatment.

Deeper to the skin and top layers of tissue are muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and other structures that are also negatively affected by lack of proper blood flow.  Colder joints are less-capable of having normal range of motion and providing comfortable support for the body.  As a result, your pet can exhibit the following clinical signs:

  • walking with a stiffer gait
  • having increased difficulty going from a siting or lying down position to standing (or vice versa)
  • being less able to go up or down stairs or onto or off of elevated surfaces
  • sliding on slippery surfaces (polished cement, hard wood floors, tile, etc.)
  • exhibiting discomfort (vocalizing, growling, etc.) when the affected joint is touched
  • acting lethargic
  • showing a decreased appetite
  • other

Discuss a Multimodal Pain Management Plan with Your Veterinarian

The best approach to pain is a multimodal one, where more than one treatment option is used to keep a pet comfortable and having a good quality of life so that fewer or smaller doses of pain medications potentially having negative side effects are needed.

The multimodal method incorporates body weight management, lifestyle modification, complementary and alternative medical treatments (physical rehabilitation, laser, acupuncture, chiropractic, etc.), regular administration of chondroprotective (joint supporting) nutraceuticals and herbs, and judicious use of a medications.

As compared to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and pain-numbing medications (opiates, GABA-analoges, etc.) chondroprotectant nutraceuticals are generally very safe have minimal side effects.

The oral chondroprotectant I recommend for my patients is ActivPhy.  Its unique blue-green algae extract (phycocyanin) has been scientifically proven to reduce the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) enzyme associated with arthritis.  Your dog’s consistent consumption of ActivPhy can potentially have an effect like giving an NSAID and reduce the need to take such a drug.

ActivPhy also contains ingredients that protect cartilage (glucosamine, MSM, etc.), combat tissue oxidation (i.e. antioxidants like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, etc.), promote bone health (boron), naturally reduce inflammation (Omega-3 fatty acids, etc.) and even have an anti-cancer effect (Turmeric, etc.).

The better managed your dog’s arthritis is with the multimodal approach, then more likely he’ll be able to tolerate the negative effects cold has on his joints.

Keep Your Pooch Moving and Limit Exposure to Cold Environments

A dog that is affected by arthritis will have his condition worsen if he’s spending more time in a lying down position as compared to being up and moving.  Like with hypothermia, a less-mobile dog generally has reduced blood flow to the joints and other body parts.

Just because inclement weather is motivating you to spend less time outside being active doesn’t mean that you just give in to nature’s will and become a 24/7 couch potato.  Additionally, each ounce or pound of winter weight your pet gains will put more stress own all body tissues and likely will worsen his arthritis and mobility problems.

Keep your arthritic dog up and moving around the inside of your home.  Take leash walks around the interior perimeter of your house instead of trudging through ice and snow.  Set up barriers around which your dog must walk so that he’s forced to use his core strength and proprioception while evading obstacles.

For dogs having severe osteoarthritis or other mobility problems, keep trips outside in freezing temperatures limited to only a few minutes.  If you have to choose a time to exit the warm confines of your home, then do so morning, afternoon, and evening for your dog to urinate and defecate (or whenever your dog is in need of eliminating).

Dogs that have less-advanced arthritis and improved mobility can spend more time outside and may still be able to participate in walks and other forms of exercise despite winter’s chill.  Being active in the cold and snow puts more stress on any pet’s body than otherwise incurred during dry and temperate climates, so schedule a wellness exam with your veterinarian before permitting your pet to vigorously exercise in the cold, snow, or ice.  Ailments like arthritis, heart and lung disease, hyper-/hypothyroidism, kidney and liver failure, cancer and others can be exacerbated by exercising in inclement weather.

Protect the Body and Joints With Fur and Covers

If your dog will be spending time outside this winter, he may need to wear some form of protection from the elements to prevent frostbite and hypothermia.  A healthy coat of fur may be sufficient for some pets.  Those having thin or unhealthy fur and skin or lacking a protective layer of body fat may benefit from moisture repelling-fabric pet garment or foot covers.

Seek your veterinarian’s advice about what qualities you should look for when shopping for winter accessories to protect your dog’s torso, feet, and possibly other parts.

Have a safe and fun winter.  Make sure to take preventative measures to protect your pet’s joints and whole-body health despite cold temperatures and snowy terrain.

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