Agility and Arthritis in Dogs

by Dr. Le Hammer BVSc (Canine Fun Sports)

Does Agility and Jumping Courses cause premature arthritis in dogs?

Bottom line is that probably no-one knows.

I guess I can start by talking about what is likely to cause Arthritis, and I am talking about degenerative joint disease and subsequent Osteoarthritis here and not Rheumatoid Arthritis. Basically, it is trauma to the joints,and this often old age wear and tear, but dogs that have had an injury that causes instability in a joint (torn ligaments,etc)will develop premature, or more severe arthritis, as will joints that have a natural instability (e.g. hip dysplasia) or cartilage that has not developed properly (OCD) or joints that donot fit together properly due to a mismatch in bone growth (elbow dysplasia).

Now,as far as my inquiries have taken me, there are no real studies,of any sort,on Sports Injuries in dogs,(other than Greyhound racing- where there is a financial interst- $$$ drive research!).
But my veterinary knowledge leads me to some logical (hopefully) conclusions.

There are concussive forces on joints when a dog lands from a jump,or just running.Several components help absorb these forces:

Muscles (which contract and stretch well, especially if warmed up and not tired),as well as tendons and liaments which donot stretch at all. If the muscles are not functioning properly they are cold or tired then lots of different things can happen.

One is pulled muscles, but also, the ligamants must absorb extra force and this can lead to muscle sprains - it may be just a few fibres with in the ligament, or the whole ligamant may rupture such as a cruciate tear or sprung toe.
There is more compression on joint cartlidge and because the nutrition of cartlidge is pretty poor it does not have a blood supply and depends on joint fluid for oxygen and nutrition then long term, low grade damage is likely to have permanaent effects.

So, what can we do to minimise these effects (assuming they happen)

  1. My first advise would be to Keep your dog FIT.
    The fitter the better, because the muscles become better shock absorbers. Fitness is not just an issue of whether the dog has enough PUFF to run around an Agility field at full speed without tiring.
  2. My second would be to advise Good Warm Ups .
    We may not see effects of running cold immediately, but running with cold muscles may be a component in causing long term, low grade damage to joints.
  3. Avoid repetitive jumping, especially at higher jump heights.
    Repetitive jumping will put more strain on ligaments and joints as the muscles tire. Several short sessions is better than one long session of jumping.I do some warm up work at lower jump heights, then I do a short period at full height, or sometimes, above full height to keep the muscles conditioned to jumping those heights.
    If it is an extended training period, I will then take the jumps back to a lower height for the rest of the session.
  4. As a general rule we should be jumping lower heights
    Some people would like to quote a previos European study that encouraged higher jump heights.
    I donot hold with the theory that higher jumps created steeper take-offs and landings which in turn creates less 'horizontal' force for the dogs legs to absorb. Yes, a flatter jump does create more 'horizontal' force but many dogs donot use a more vertical take off to jump higher - they jump both higher and longer. Also, I feel the dogs body is better designed to absorb horizontal force (otherwise we should never allow our dogs to gallop around the park!) So, I support lower jump heights.
  5. Teach your dogs to turn well
    If a dog lands and turns on a sixpence (five cents for those younger ones) with their full weight on the foot, the torsional forces that the ligaments must absorb would be extreme.
    If, however the dog has been taught to start to turn during the jump( with early commands) ther eis less stress on ligaments.
  6. Get rid of cleats on obstacles completely
    Cleats do not only cause pain by jamming the toes, but the amount of distortion on the feet (that must be accommodated by ligamants and joints) is quite severe. This causes totally unnecessary stress on ligamants.

Cruciate Ligament Injuries
I doubt if agility would increase the risk of cruciate ligamant injuries, unless it is when we throw the ball for the dog at the end as a reward.
Cruciates snap when the dog spins with its hind leg planted firmly on the ground,- the foot does not rotate so the knee must, and the ligamant is overstressed and snaps.
I donot think that agility induces this sort of action, although turning at the 'fly ball' might. Cruciate ligamant injury is the most common orthopaedic complaint in canine veterinary medicine.
So this injury happens frequently, even in the average back yard dog.
Its importance to the agility athlete is whether the dog can come back to competition after surgery. My experience is that with good physiotherapy (and good surgery) that dogs can continue to compete.

Jumping dogs at an early age and damage to growth plates.
This is a totally different issue. Growth plates are not in the joints, and arthritis is by definition, Inflammation of the Joints.
The one exception to this comment is that elbow dysplasia and subsequent arthritis is caused by a mismatch in the growth of the two bones in the forearm.
Jumping and subsequent concussion of a growth plate may be one factor in the mismatch of the bone growth.But growth plates close at different times - slower for larger dogs, sooner for smaller dogs, so setting an absolute age of 18 months is not appropriate.
Certainly,jumping a dog too young is not a good thing.
Unrelated to the growth plates, we also have to consider growing joint cartilage.
Concussive trauma on immature cartilage cannot be a good thing, either. So, general fitness of the young dog, is also revelant, because we know that good muscle condition will help to protect tendons, ligamants and cartilage from damage.
The answer to this is to do less and lower with younger dogs. You can do a lot of excellent training just working with uprights, and maybe the poles on the ground.

Spondylosis - Arthritis of the Spine
Now this is also common in the average pet dog, but often does not cause much of a problem. We see it when we radiograph the dog for some othe reason, the spondylosis is there but the dog shows no sign of a sore back.

It is my suspicion (but far from proven fact) that many of these agility dogs with a sore back would have developed spondylosis anyway, but because the dog does agility it becomes painful for them.
The average dog does not flex their back very often, but a dog that jumps, weaves and does A-frames certianly uses their back a lot.
I do not think this causes the spondylosis, but it makes the spondylosis painful for the dog that, if it were kept in the back yard the problem would never have been noticed.