Health and Well-Being: Lameness
Young, middle-aged or old, giant breeds can encounter lameness and orthopedic issues throughout their lifetime. Here are the most common ones to watch for, and a couple of uncommon ones.
Panosteitis—or “Growing Pains”—occurs spontaneously in large and giant breed dogs, particularly those growing rapidly. It starts with acute lameness, usually between 5-12 months, though it can start younger or even as late as 5 years old. This is not the result of a trauma: there is no apparent reason for the lameness, and it usually begins in the front legs, and shifts to other legs every 2-3 weeks on average. During that time, exercise must be limited. It affects the long bones of the leg and the pain can range from mild to severe. While panosteitis is “self-limiting,” meaning it should go away by the time the dog reaches 18-24 months, your vet should take x-rays to rule out anything more serious. The pain is real, and may be accompanied by anorexia or lethargy, so you should be sure to request pain medication and/or anti-inflammatory drugs. Some vets feel that diet is responsible for the condition, so a balanced diet geared to large-breed puppies with the proper balance of calcium and protein may help to avoid or minimize it, as well as supplements such as omega fatty acids and anti-oxidants such as Vitamin C.
Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) is another disease that affects large and giant breeds during their early development, starting as young as 4-8 months. Cartilage grows fast in young dogs, and calcifies to fuse with the bone. A defect in some dogs leaves some areas of cartilage uncalcified, so it doesn’t fuse with the bone as it should. Uncalcified cartilage can get loose and split off from the bone, and some loose cartilage can completely break off. Those loose fragments are called “joint mice,” and irritate the joint when it moves, causing inflammation of the bone and cartilage. The most common location is the shoulder, though it can also appear in the elbows of the front legs. With this disease, you see a gradual lameness that shows up intermittently during rapid growth periods. X-rays will reveal if it is OCD or something else, but OCD is not “officially” diagnosed until the dog is 18 months old. Sometimes, very small cracks in cartilage or small flaps of cartilage can heal with a conservative approach of cage rest and restrictions on activity. Anti-inflammatory medication and joint supplements will help, along with some passive “range of motion” exercises you can do with your dog while he’s lying down. Otherwise, surgery will be necessary to remove the offending cartilage, and many vets use an arthroscopic approach. Simcha (right) was one of three feral pups rescued in Eastern Tennessee in February 2015. Although Simcha’s litter mates never exhibited the problem, Simcha was diagnosed with bilateral OCD in May 2015 and operated on in June to relieve her condition.
Cruciate Ligament Tears (also known as CCL or ACL, depending if the ligament is the cranial or anterior cruciate ligament) are one of the most common stifle (knee) injuries in pyrs. They can sometimes be managed, but often require surgery. The best chance of avoiding a cruciate tear is to keep your dog from becoming overweight, maintain a steady and sensible exercise program, not just going on long hikes on weekends and being a couch potato the rest of the week, and avoid having your dog jump into or out of a vehicle. Landing wrong or slipping on ice or smooth floors, can cause hyperextension or rotation that tears the ligament. And of course, the infamous body-slamming Pyr play can take a dog down suddenly. Use a dog ramp for your vehicle and teach your dog to “wait” before doing anything that risks injury. Chronic degeneration is a common cause of ligament tears, particularly in dogs with little angulation in their hind legs, i.e., straight stifles and hocks. If your dog has had a luxating patella, which often shows up in dogs with poor angulation, he is more prone to CCL tears at some point, and dogs who have torn one CCL already are likely to tear the opposite one as well, from excessive weight-bearing during the recovery period. Biscuit (left) had CCL surgery in September 2016 and is shown here a year later as a rescue ambasador in 2017 at a New York adoption event.
If you’re lucky enough to have a dog with a low grade partial tear and no meniscus tear or luxating patella, a conservative approach with physical therapy, controlled exercise, massage, weight control and restricted activity could help the healing process. Avoid sudden transitions from lying down to running, and use anti-inflammatory meds to keep the dog comfortable. If your dog does need surgery, an orthopedist will help you decide which is the best technique based on the tear, your dog’s weight, age and activity level. They range from “lateral suture” for lighter-weight dogs, to TPLO (tibial plateau leveling osteotomy), TTA (tibial tuberosity advancement) or CBLO (center of rotation of angulation, i.e.,”CORA,” based leveling osteotomy). The differences between the last three, which all use a plate and screws, lie in how they angle the bones and whether the meniscus can be preserved or must be released. Recovery times can differ between the surgeries as well.
If your dog experiences lameness, don’t ignore it: he or she should always be examined by a vet. There are many reasons for the more serious forms of lameness, including hip dysplasia, luxating patellas, vascular blockages, disc problems, growths and tumors, vestibular disease, and degenerative myelopathy (there is now a DNA test for DM to identify at-risk dogs), all of which may be treated to different degrees. The most devastating, of course, is cancer. However, there are many other issues that can manifest as lameness (or muscle weakness that causes lameness) and can be diagnosed with bloodwork: low thyroid function, nutritional deficiencies and electrolyte imbalance,toxoplasmosis, neospora, and various tick-borne diseases.