Pet Talk: Does your pet actually have arthritis?

Neuropathy is often mistaken for arthritis, however, both conditions can be present at the same time. Weakness in the hind legs is a common sign of neuropathies. Medications can be powerful. Treating a cancerous tumor with an appropriate chemotherapeutic drug often yields excellent results. However, treating a bacterial infection with a cancer drug—rather than an antibiotic—is far less rewarding. The medication must be matched to the condition to have worthwhile results.

I see many aging dogs, many of whom come to me for "arthritis." The problem, and the reason many owners seek my services, is the medication the dog is taking is not really helping. Maybe the dog’s muscles are disappearing, or he has trouble going up the stairs, or he can’t climb onto the bed. Frequently, I find these situations to be examples of a mismatch between the medication and the condition.

Some degree of arthritis is fairly common as dogs age. However, there is another sneaky problem that likes to masquerade as arthritis. It fools people into treating the wrong condition. This condition is known as a neuropathy.

Neuropathy simply means disorder or disease of the nerves. The lesion, or location of the problem, can be either be in the central nervous system (the brain or spinal cord) or in the peripheral nervous system (any nerve not in the central nervous system). There is a whole host of causes of neuropathies including injuries, metabolic disorders, tumors, degenerative disease and many more. Often, the cause falls into the category of idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown.

Regardless of the cause, here is why neuropathies can masquerade as arthritis: Muscle function is governed by the nervous system. Strong, coordinated muscles require robust, healthy nerves. For the muscles to function normally, the message from the brain to the muscles must travel quickly and without interruption. Any interruption of this message along any section of the nervous system leads to abnormal muscle function.

This abnormal muscle function often manifests as weakness and atrophy. Arthritis, or joint pain, can also manifest as weakness and muscle atrophy. For this reason, a dog who has muscle atrophy in his hind end and is having trouble negotiating stairs or slick surfaces may have arthritis. He may also have a neuropathy, or he may have both.

The key to optimizing treatment results is matching the treatment to the condition. Performing a detailed (and non-invasive) neurologic exam can not only determine whether the movement abnormalities noted are due to a neuropathy, it can determine the location of the lesion, or problem. Correct identification of the debilitating condition and the location of the lesion is crucial to treating the problem most effectively.

Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Rimadyl or Galliprant, can be effective in alleviating arthritis pain. Treating a neuropathy with an arthritis drug, however, is often highly unrewarding.

Here is the bad news: neuropathies, even after correctly identified, are challenging to treat (depending upon the cause). The good news is: physical medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, laser therapy and rehabilitation) are the most effective modalities that veterinary medicine can offer for treating many neuropathies. An integrative approach with a solid diagnostic exam, appropriate medications and targeted therapeutic modalities can keep our canine companions strong, comfortable and active well into their golden years.

Dr. Elizabeth Dooher, MS, DVM, of Integrative C.A.R.E. Ltd., is a mobile veterinarian specializing in chiropractic, acupuncture, rehabilitation, and laser therapy. She can be reached at Elizabeth@Integrativevetcare.com or 970-331-9625.

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