CASE STUDY: Matilda, The Senior Labrador with Arthritis

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arthritis, senior dogs, vital vet

Looking at the Whole Picture Means Listening to the Family

When I look at my schedule on the computer for any given day, there will be a variety of patients and ailments. Peppers the poodle for vaccines, Momma Kitty for “limping on and off for 6 months.” Some just say “2nd opinion having issues – wants to talk to doctor”.

This was the case with Matilda. A 12 year old yellow Labrador Retriever. Once the client and patient are in an exam room, the technician takes a detailed history, along with a baseline temperature, pulse, respiration, etc. They then leave the chart outside the closed door and it is my turn.

I always try and read the history before I go in, to get a jump on what problems may be going on. The owner notes difficulty with stairs, trouble rising, reluctance to go outside. The weight, temp, pulse all look good. At the end of this history there is a spot for other comments, and the technician had written “owner considering euthanasia, pet just not herself.”

This makes me pause, and I try to imagine what else is going on. Are there other issues at home, other stresses? I also respect the human-animal bond and if an owner says it is time to stop, they spend their whole lives with their pet. I sometimes only see them once a year for 30 minutes.

I head into the room, and am greeted by a middle age woman, her teenage son and the woman’s mother, hunched over from chronic back pain. Matilda is lying on the floor, smiling away and tail thumping. I squat down and begin to pet her as I talk with everyone.

Matilda hasn’t wanted to play as much, she likes to lie around a lot, she fell down the 3 steps going outside last week. Once they found her lying in her own urine by the back door. They had taken her to their regular vet a few months ago, she was diagnosed with arthritis, and was started on an anti-inflammatory.
They had seen improvement, but then she started having diarrhea and her liver values went up, so they had to stop the drug. That was 3 months ago, and they have seen her slide downward ever since. Mom says she doesn’t know what else to do. They love her, but they are wondering if it is time to put her to sleep.
I say that we can discuss that in a minute, after I examine her. I run my hands all up and down Matilda’s coat, note the little bit of tartar on her teeth, feel the creaky stiff elbow joints up from and note the lack of muscle tone and hip extension in both of her back legs. However, her heart and lungs sound good, her pulses are strong, and the rest of her is pretty good.

I ask her to stand up and she definitely has difficulty rising on the slippery exam room floor, but she can do it. We take her outside for a walk on the pavement, and although gingerly, she does take good strides and goes up and down the parking lot twice. At the end, I can see she is tired, so I carry her back in.
I speak with the owners, agreeing with the likely diagnosis of multi-site arthritis. There are some good things here: no neurological problems, no torn ligaments. The lack of muscle tone and creaky joints are the telltale signs for arthritis, and I doubt it is something more serious than that. Arthritis can be tough, painful, and especially when it is affecting each of Matilda’s four legs. Some days, one leg may hurt more than the others, and it does explain why she would have a hard time getting up. Do we need radiographs (X-rays) to confirm this? Not necessarily but, if we wanted to, we could. However, if things continue to progress poorly, we should definitely take a look.

Arthritis is a very common diagnosis in dogs, and, more often than not, it will be in more than one joint. This can make these cases challenging. The first line class of drugs we use are the NSAIDs. The Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs. Dogs need to take ones designed for dogs, and people take ones for people.
The vast majority of the time these drugs are very safe, but nothing is 100%. Problems can range from stomach ulcers to kidney and liver problems. With careful dosing and monitoring via blood tests, these drugs can be a great asset in the battle against arthritis.

The chances for severe problems with these drugs are slim, but when your pet is the one with a reaction, slim doesn’t matter. In Matilda ‘s case, she didn’t handle one of the medications well. That’s why it is necessary to carefully monitor for problems and perform follow-up blood work.

I discussed our options with the owners. To answer their question about putting her to sleep, I tell them “I don’t see her day in and day out, and if you feel she is suffering, we can talk about that. But why not discuss other options and see how she does? If she does not improve, then we can revisit euthanasia.” That seems to make the son and grandmother a bit comfortable, but I see hesitancy on Mom’s face.

Then I notice the lack of a wedding band. Now I start to see it: single mom, has her mother living with her, and raising her teenage son. And then there is Matilda, now having issues. This cannot be easy. I also do not want them to feel rushed or pushed in to a decision, one way or the other.

We review some practical options for them. Oral supplements like Glucoasamine and Chondroitin can take weeks to see improvement, and may not work for every patient. The same can be said for fish oil supplementation. In the long term, these are helpful, but I know we need to give this family a time frame to see which way Matilda is going.

The difficult thing about arthritis is that it can take months and years to come on and show signs. So, expecting an overnight quick fix doesn’t happen. Knowing that she had a reaction to one of the NSAIDs, I am hesitant to have her on another one long-term. However, it is this class of drugs that we often see the fastest response to, often in 1-2 weeks. And they are different enough that a pet can have problems with one and be fine with another. But if she is on a new one long term and then has issues, we will be back revisiting this same issue.
Ultimately, we agree to start Matilda on a new NSAID, but they won’t start it until I get the blood work back tomorrow. Then I will see her in 1 week and 4 weeks after today for a follow up.

As a rehab practitioner, I also lay out a plan for daily massage and passive range of motion exercises for Matilda, any of the family members can do. We also talk about providing some traction on the kitchen floor to aid in her getting up. We also talk about making some laps in the backyard to get her some exercise.
Keeping arthritic joints moving definitely helps. When we do not move as much, we lose muscle mass, which then puts more strain on the joints to bear the body weight when we do move. Simple exercises help painful joints and also decrease the need for pain medications.

Knowing that her mobility improved with the first drug, I am expecting her to improve again on the new one. As long as her body is handling the new drug well, I plan to not have her on it every day long-term. At the one-week check we repeat blood work to make sure she is tolerating them.

The owners do not notice much improvement with her mobility, but the blood work shows she is handling the new drug well. At this point, I prescribe my long-term plan. Adequan is an injectable medication of polysulfated glycoaminoglycans. These are the building blocks to healthy joints, and also have anti-inflammatory properties. It also has 1/10 the risk of side effects as the NSAID’s.

The catch, you ask? We have to give injections twice a week for 4 weeks, then about once a month. They need time to build up in the body, so it can take 3-4 weeks to see improvement. Also, the first month can be expensive, just because of the number of injections. I have tried to make this easier by teaching the majority of owners to give the injections under the skin at home, to save time and money in the commute. It also allows them to escape having to wait in the lobby for 15 minutes for a 1 minute visit. This also saves the arthritic dog multiple car rides, which can be tough on them. Some owners are a little hesitant to give injections, but since most pets do not have a fear of needles, the injections usually go well.

As the Adequan builds up in their system, I usually find I can wean the patient down on the NSAID, therefore minimizing our chances of side effects. I find that most pets do need some oral pain relief from time to time. Adequan works only on joints, and if we slip and fall we can strain a muscle or tendon, and NSAIDs are also great to reduce that inflammation.

Mom is still hesitant, but she does start the Adequan, and I plan to see them in 3 weeks. At the next recheck, I was running late, so I didn’t read the history. I just went into the exam room and was greeted by Matilda at the door, smiling, wagging and leaning into me. Smiles abound on Mom, son and Grandma too.
Matilda is much more comfortable, and she is only taking the oral NSAID every other day. Grandma asks me if she can take Adequan herself, I smile and tell her to ask her doctor. (To my knowledge, Adequan is not used in people).

They agree to keep up with monthly injections, and eventually Matilda is only taking an NSAID on an as needed basis, which turns out to be about once a week. They have also kept up with daily massage and range of motion exercises. As they head out to the exam room, Mom stays back to thank me for not putting Matilda to sleep a few weeks ago. “I really didn’t want to, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

As a veterinarian, we have to not only examine the patient but the client. It turns out that most of the time it’s all about listening, and just presenting practical options.

Author: Matt Brunke, DVM, CCRP, CVPP, CVA , Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation