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Caring for a dog with osteoarthritis

Abstract

An owner describes how life changed when her dog was diagnosed with osteoarthritis

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What can help your approach

  • The diagnosis of canine osteoarthritis may impact owners’ lives in a number of ways. Make time to discuss how both dog and owner are coping at regular intervals and provide as much information and support as possible during re-check appointments.

  • The veterinary surgeon-run Canine Arthritis Management group provides excellent resources and support for both vets and owners about the disease, particularly in relation to simple but effective household adaptations: www.caninearthritis.co.uk

  • Decision making appears to be particularly difficult for owners whose pets have a chronic disease such as osteoarthritis. Many owners are likely to appreciate any information on how the disease might progress over time, how long that might take, and what they should be looking for to determine when their dog should be put to sleep. A range of quality of life and osteoarthritis assessment tools exist that may help with both monitoring and decision making.

My black Labrador was six years old when she was diagnosed with arthritis following an acute shoulder sprain. I was stunned. My healthy, energetic dog was now facing a painful, chronic and degenerative disease that would be with her for the rest of her life. The initial treatment was painkillers ‘as required’ and a joint supplement, and for a while we got along pretty much as usual. But her gait was never the same again, and each ensuing winter saw a deterioration in her mobility and, inevitably, quality of life for us both.

Having cared for ageing parents, I knew that when a condition is chronic, as opposed to terminal, it has as great an impact on the everyday life and wellbeing of the carer as well as those with the condition. I still had my companion, but our activities and pleasures together were becoming compromised. I was worried about the degree of pain and discomfort she was feeling, as she was always stoical and determined. If I wanted a more active walk, I felt guilty as she looked so sad when I left her at home alone, and my time away was limited to four hours.

Longer term planning, such as holidays, was also difficult – how would she be in six months’ time? Gradually I wondered where my ‘normal’ life was disappearing to, as everything primarily revolved around her needs. It was similar to caring for an elderly relative; for carers, there is a lot of uncertainty and as time goes on physical and mental wellbeing begin to suffer as the decline continues, bit by bit.

There was also the increasing financial cost. She now needed daily medication, and it was trial and error to find painkillers with no adverse side effects. I researched other treatments, conventional and alternative: we had a four-week course of physiotherapy, over a year of monthly hydrotherapy, a Bioflow magnetic collar, homeopathic remedies, and a three-monthly review consultation with the vet. My dog was insured, but I’d made a few claims and when she was nine, the annual premium rocketed from £700 to £2000, which was in itself prohibitive. I could have spent more on acupuncture, orthopaedic beds, or a dog-wheelchair, but on a limited budget I felt that it was not possible to do all that I would have liked.

The vet practice was supportive, but I felt that they did not go far enough to re-assess my dog’s condition each time. A short appointment in a cramped surgery doesn’t give a vet the opportunity to study physical ability, or to discuss in detail the daily problems, possible methods of alleviation, and the owner’s domestic and financial circumstances, or support networks and views on euthanasia.

I felt my dog withdrew from me – was I doing something wrong, or was it just her condition?

The stresses of daily long-term caring are similar for people and animals. With the best will in the world, stresses take their toll and sometimes you fall short of your own expectations, experiencing feelings of exasperation and resentment. I felt my dog withdrew from me – was I doing something wrong, or was it just her condition? Over the last two years, her deterioration was more marked. Her spirit was always willing, but physical discomfort was getting the better of her. She would lie for hours in the same position. On walks, after 10 minutes, she would lie down. I had to help her up and down the stairs and into the car, and a 30 kg Labrador is not easy to manoeuvre.

Once the decision for euthanasia was reached, I wondered after if I pushed her too hard, or if I should have done more. Practitioners do their best, but they are detached from the emotional situation, and for the owner, this is the hardest part. Caring can be isolating, and a neglected carer is a poor carer, and you always wonder – ‘Did I do it right?’

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