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Inflammation in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and How to Help
We all know what inflammation is when we experience it. But did you know dogs experience the same types of inflammation that humans do? The same pain and discomfort, the same tiredness. It’s downright uncomfortable.
But relieving inflammation in dogs is possible. Let’s dive in and learn more about inflammation, what causes it, and how you can help your canine companion recover and live their best life.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural process that the body goes through in response to any type of “foreign invader.” That could mean anything from bacteria to a thorn to a chemical to a broken bone. Inflammation is the body’s general response and it starts almost immediately. The cellular level response is the same in dogs as it is in humans, cats, horses, and all other mammals.
Inflammation has five characteristics: redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function. Redness and heat result from increased blood flow to the area while swelling occurs from the accumulation of fluid. Inflammation is painful due to a variety of factors including chemicals released by the body. The cumulative result of the first four characteristics is a loss or reduction of function such as limping or diarrhea.
Inflammation is common in dogs and though the process is similar throughout the body, we give it different names based on where it’s happening and what kind of loss of function it causes.
Key Areas of Inflammation in Dogs
Diseases that end in -itis are diseases of inflammation. For example, otitis is inflammation of the ear and colitis is inflammation of the colon. Sometimes that inflammation is due to a pathogen (bacteria, virus, or parasite), such as whipworm colitis, but stress colitis causes the same set of symptoms without any foreign invader.
Below are some common areas of inflammation in dogs:
Skin and Tissue Inflammation
Dogs with allergies tend to develop inflammation of the skin (dermatitis) and ear (otitis). Often that inflammation will lead to the secondary bacterial or yeast infections that require antibiotics to resolve. Each tissue of the body has a characteristic appearance when inflamed. For example, most pet parents recognize the puffiness of conjunctivitis, which is inflammation of the tissue surrounding the eye.
Inflammation of the Digestive Tract
Inflammation in the digestive tract is very common in dogs, especially ones who eat things they shouldn’t or are fed high-fat table scraps. That inflammation can occur anywhere from the esophagus to the stomach to the small intestines to the colon. Pancreatitis, inflammation is the pancreas, is common in certain breeds of dogs such as Schnauzers.
As dogs age, the most common inflammatory disease is arthritis, or inflammation of the joints. There are two main types of arthritis—rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is far more common in our pets and is caused by the accumulation of tiny injuries to the joint over time. This means it is a chronic type of inflammation and explains why arthritis is so debilitating.
Signs of Inflammation in Dogs
Signs of inflammation in dogs depend on the organ or tissue involved. When it’s in the skin, inflammation causes redness, warmth on touch, and swelling. Inflammation can be all over an area and appear as thickening of the skin or can be in the form of a rash or hives. A dog’s ears develop similar signs of inflammation but also develop a foul odor. Your dog may flinch when you touch an area of inflammation.
Inflammation of muscles and joints may be less visibly obvious until your dog starts to move. Because inflammation is painful, dogs limp when the problem is in a leg. Inflammation of the back can cause a dog to be unable to stand up.
The pain of inflammation in any location can cause a dog to feel tired, not interested in playing, lose their appetite, and generally not be themselves.
Not eating can be due to inflammation anywhere but is very frequently associated with inflammation of the digestive tract. Vomiting and diarrhea are often seen as well.
How to Help Inflammation in Dogs
Here are some veterinarian-approved things you can safely give your dog to help reduce inflammation.
Some substances are naturally anti-inflammatory, including fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) and turmeric (curcumin). These naturally occurring substances reduce overall inflammation in the body and are safe for most pets.
While there are many human diets that are touted as anti-inflammatory, these are not nutritionally balanced for dogs and should not be fed to dogs.
Recently cannabinoids (CBD) have shown to have strong anti-inflammatory effects in dogs (1). In fact, a recent study in dogs found a decrease in arthritis pain and improvement in activity in dogs taking CBD after just 4 weeks (2). Importantly, there were no harmful side effects detected in the dogs in the study.
CBD mimics endocannabinoids, a substance the body naturally makes to help reduce inflammation. In addition to reducing the progression of inflammation, CBD may have the added benefit of reducing pain and the anxiety that often comes along with pain in pets.
Topical remedies for skin inflammation can be very effective. Shampoos or lotions containing phytosphingosine help reduce the skin irritation and discomfort of many types of dermatitis. Phytosphingosine is often combined with an antiseptic to address any infection involved. Epsom salt soaks or compresses can reduce inflammation caused by an injury and most pets tolerate these surprisingly well as long as there is not an open wound.
Take caution with any type of topical cream or lotion as your dog is likely to lick it off and so they need to be verified as pet-safe by your veterinarian.
Anti-inflammatory medications are an effective way to reduce inflammation in your dog. NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) are a class of medications that interfere with the body’s inflammatory process.
DO NOT give your dog NSAIDs designed for humans as they can cause serious illness in your pet. Always speak with your veterinarian about safe anti-inflammatory medications for your dog. Dog-safe NSAIDs are usually well-tolerated and you can see symptom relief within hours. Dogs on NSAIDs for chronic pain should have their blood work checked regularly.
Steroids are a class of medication based off of hormones that occur naturally in the body. Steroids are very powerful at reducing inflammation but when taken orally (making them available to the whole body) also come along with side effects ranging from annoying to serious. Therefore, they should only be given this way when absolutely necessary. A better use of steroids is to target inflammation by using them topically such as for inflammation of the ear or eye.
Inflammation is a common ailment in dogs but luckily it is easy to spot and there are many ways to reduce it.
References Cited in This Article
- Nagarkatti, P., Pandey, R., Rieder, S. A., Hegde, V. L., & Nagarkatti, M. (2009). Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs. Future medicinal chemistry, 1(7), 1333–1349. https://doi.org/10.4155/fmc.09.93
- Verrico, Chris D.a,b; Wesson, Shondac; Konduri, Vanajad; Hofferek, Colby J.d; Vazquez-Perez, Jonathand; Blair, Emeke; Dunner, Kenneth Jrf; Salimpour, Pedramg; Decker, William K.d,h,i; Halpert, Matthew M.d,* A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of daily cannabidiol for the treatment of canine osteoarthritis pain, PAIN: April 24, 2020 – Volume Articles in Press – Issue – https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001896