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A war on Arthritis & Dysplasia right from Puppyhood

Prevention rather than Cure - Growth plates and Young Animals

Meet the new addition at Stallard VPR 🐶 Mitsi is a 9 week old Lurcher cross and we are super excited !

Like every new puppy owner I know how easy it is to get carried away and forget how fragile our new family member is. Don’t get me wrong playing and socialising is a huge part of their development ! However we must also consider that puppies bones are not the same as our adult dogs. By taking simple considerations we can actually reduce the risk of painful conditions like Hip dysplasia and Osteoarthritis in the animals in adulthood!

As promised this blog will discuss the considerations required when you have a new young animal addition to your family. Now I have promised myself this will be an informative piece but certainly not doom and gloom ! I mean this is an exciting time for your family and so I do not want to be preaching or overshadowing the excitement, however what I do want to ensure is that by making these small changes that you give your animal the best possible start to life, avoid unnecessary pain in their futures and maximise the duration they are a loyal member of your family. Another promise to myself is this will be concise, I am a “waffler” by nature and so as my clients know when I get going there is no easy way to stop me chatting away, so I apologise in advance for any tangents.

Point 1 - Structural relevance

Firstly to quantify the importance of why we need to make the following changes we need to first understand the basic structures involved - namely ‘Growth Plates’ (their scientific name is ‘Epiphyseal plate’). These soft areas at either end of long bones are actually areas of cartilage where cells rapidly replicate to produce bone and hence ‘growth’, in young animals and humans alike these cartilage areas are a temporary structure that later calcifies to become hard bone a process commonly called ‘closing’ due to hormonal changes during puberty. In animals most growth plates are considered ‘closed’ at 12 months old with the majority of longitudinal growth complete by 8 months of age, however in larger breeds these may not fully close until 18 months old. Also newly developed bone has very low bone density making them vulnerable to fractures and breaks through minimal stress and strains compared to adult bones.

Point 2 - How easy is it to “overdo” it ?

Vulnerable immature structures / cartilage rich areas such as these areas of new bone growth are at a considerable risk of injury in young individuals, be it excessive exercise causing structure fatigue and failure, or through a slip, twist or impact. The biggest household contributor to developmental issues has got to be Slippery surfaces such as laminate flooring (e.g. wooden, tiled, Lino etc…), they may be practical flooring for households and easy to clean however these surfaces are ‘enemies’ for young animals. Slipping can not only cause developmental risk but may also cause strain or tearing of soft tissues such as ligaments/ tendons which in turn leave their joints vulnerable to further injury through laxity and an inability to reduce excess movement and wear. There are things we can do to help with this issue - don’t worry I am not suggesting re-floor your house!

Point 3 - Injury / excessive exercise consequences

Now why is injury or excessive exercise such a bad thing when we consider these specific structures you may ask? Well damage to this Epiphyseal cartilage or growth plate can be not only be painful (presenting as lameness/ limping, and/or swelling), but can in fact be of detriment to the animals development. Damaged growth plates can result in ‘bowed legs’ where either the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) edges of the plate is damaged preventing cellular replication and therefore causing bones to grow unevenly, this can also cause ‘lopsided’ animals if e.g. one limb is injured and growth is stunted in this limb only.

Where the elbow or hip joint has abnormal development this is often called “dysplasia” causing the joint components to not quite ‘fit together’ as they should. Now often specific breeds are pre-disposed hereditarily to this abnormal joint growth and hip / elbow scores are important considerations when purchasing a puppy (good scores reduce their risk of these factors), however injury/ excessive exercise as well as other factors such as weight and diet can exaggerate the conditions. Bone abnormalities and joint dysplasia pre-disposes the animal to arthritic changes by changing the forces/wear on the structures, creating laxity and excessive wear conditions in later life such as osteoarthritis which can be extremely painful and reduce mobility.

We do however have to consider the importance of exercise in moderation - without exercise bone density will not increase, new bone will not lay (due to Wolffs law), soft tissue structures will not strengthen and injured structures will not repair! As a physiotherapist controlled targeted exercise is our most useful technique, but it has to be just that ... both controlled and targeted ! As a professional I have an in depth understanding of the role each structure plays and how to target specific structures to reduce injury and improve strength, however as a basic rule of thumb break exercises down to their simplest form and slowly increase either the duration of the exercise (by approx a minute per week or rep increments) or intensity of the exercise , never increase both duration and intensity at the same time! Not to blow my or my colleagues own trumpets but guidance of a qualified Vet physio is the best course of action when designing exercise programmes to avoid injury - very much like a personal trainer at the gym or a human physio!

Point 4 - What can we do?

Prevention rather than Cure is the best method! Early considerations by owners and introduction of physiotherapy intervention can be much more successful as preventive measures to reduce the effects for as long as possible by strengthening muscles and improving movement patterns consequently aiding quality of life rather than trying to ‘turn back time’ on already damaged structures and painful movement/ gait abnormalities, and even may avoid complex and expensive surgeries. Sometimes surgery cannot be avoided however pre-rehab exercises can strengthen supporting structures improving post-surgery repair and rehabilitation.

Everything in moderation;

Right from the get go with your new pup follow these very simple tips;

  • Controlled exercise durations - a general rule of thumb recommended by the UK Kennel club is 5 minutes of exercise per month of age in the first year- twice a day.

  • Mental stimulation - puppy are playful so there is no avoiding those adorable ‘Zoomies’, however by increasing mental stimulation through e.g. ‘snuffle mats’, teething toys and clever treat hiding then the excessive playfulness can be controlled.

  • Keep off the lead time to a minimum in open new spaces, I hear you when you feel frustrated as recall is a important skill that is most successful if done in open spaces as a young animal - but in exciting new environments they are more likely to execute abrupt stops and out of control 'zoomies'.

  • Avoid playing with larger / older dogs where they can be bowled over, this can quickly become boisterous and injury can occur. Try and arrange to meet up with a dog of their own age/ size to encourage safer socialisation.

In Pups and Dogs of any age;

  • Avoid Slippery flooring in the house - runners / mats are your best cost-effective friend when it comes to covering laminate/ slippery flooring in high traffic areas, it is especially important in long hallways where they can gather speed or around corners e.g. kitchen areas and where the stand for their feed/ water bowls. Or alternatively some owners have had success with "non slip socks" for their dogs.

  • Raised food and water bowls - by raising their bowls you prevent overloading of the forelimbs or the need to 'bend their knees' in the longer legged dogs to reach their bowls. Overloading can be painful for animals who already have arthritic change, back or neck pain or those with Hip/ elbow dysplasia. Get creative ! You do not need to buy a whole new bowl stand, use books, cushions or a step instead.

  • Stair gates - as cute as your new addition following you upstairs may seem the excessive and concussive forces placed through their joints can be significantly damaging as they are overloading their front limbs going down stairs.

  • Sofas - if you are soft like me then your new addition will have free rein on the furniture (I mean there is nothing more heart warming than snuggling on the sofa after a long day….) However a step/ cushion at half height of the sofa can reduce the distance they are jumping down and really help avoid concussive forces or risk of slipping on landing (Children's potty steps are ideal as they are often non-slip!) If a step is not feasible then a non-slip mat over the landing surface is better than nothing.

  • NO ball throwers - ball throwers are a dog at any ages worst injury nightmare - by repetitively gathering excessive speeds and then abruptly stopping and turning to catch the ball they are placing incredible forces through their joints and I see injuries as a direct result of just that all too often ! If you want to throw a ball for your dog then an arms throw is more than adequate distance and speed wise and with regular breaks between throws you can avoid fatigue related injuries also (please consider Soft structures are fatigued prior to visible panting/ tiredness). Also slippery surfaces like wet grass can increase the risk so think about surface implications.

There are many other considerations we can make for your animal and these are just the “highlights” that I consider to be the most important. It is incredible the visible difference simple things like these can make almost immediately, and I have many clients with older dogs suffering from arthritis that feel incredibly guilty for not knowing these sooner - to those I want to re-iterate YOU DID NOT KNOW! You should not feel guilty for your animal leading a full and loved life that is not the aim of this blog, however if I can educate just one owner and improve an animals quality of life then I will have met my goal.

Contact me at Stallard VPR for any more bespoke information on your particular dog as I understand although simple these changes aren't always easy to implicate - to book an appointment use the following contact methods;

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