Arthritis is a generic term used in veterinary medicine to define joint degeneration. Joints are parts of the body where bones come together, allowing bending and movement. In the joints the bones are held together by ligaments and muscles. In between the bones there is a cushion that absorbs the shock caused by weight of the body as the animal walks. This cushion is made of a sack (joint capsule) filled with a viscous (slippery) fluid called synovia. In the joint, the bone surface is covered with cartilage, a tissue softer than bone that creates a very smooth surface.
A joint may become damaged (arthritic) because of trauma, aging, birth defects (conformation) and rarely, because of infections. The disease involves damage to the cartilage, which looses its smoothness; loss of viscosity of the synovia; and increasing pain that restricts joint movement.
Most commonly, joint degeneration in domestic pets occurs in the spine (disk disease). Here the intervertebral joints degenerate, causing stiffness in the movement of the spine. Inflammation and deposition of calcium in the intervertebral spaces also affect the roots of the spinal nerves, causing deficiencies in the organs that depend on the nerve conduction. This may translate into urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence or constipation. At times the nerves are badly inflamed, causing pain along the nerve. Thus the animal may become lame without actual damage occurring in the affected limb.
Standard therapy for arthritis involves the use of Non Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). These are drugs that inhibit an enzyme called cyclo-oxygenase, which mediates the synthesis of prostaglandins – mediators of pain and inflammation (COX 2) as well as protection of gastro intestinal mucosa (COX 1). Meloxicam is the most commonly used NSAID for animals. Meloxicam is very well tolerated by all types of dogs but because it is a COX 1 inhibitor it may cause ulceration in the gastro intestinal tract, and it should be avoided in dogs with known gastro intestinal sensitivities (chronic diarrhea, IBS, food intolerance). Newer NSAIDs that are COX 2 selective are being developed. NSAIDs cause renal failure and possibly liver damage.
However, acupuncture is very effective in the treatment of arthritis. Acupuncture restores the function of the joint and affected nerves by stimulating circulation. In some cases acupuncture is combined with NSAIDs to reduce the dose of the drug and the frequency of acupuncture treatments.