Exploring Treatment Options For Osteochondrosis

In both veterinary and human medicine, artificial joint replacements have become more common as technology has advanced. Animals may receive an artificial joint for a variety of reasons, one of which is osteochondrosis.

Dr. Brian Saunders, a veterinary orthopedic surgeon and associate professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses this condition and its treatment options, including joint replacement surgery.

Osteochondrosis (OC) is a developmental skeletal disorder in which improper cartilage development leads to abnormally thick areas of cartilage. This thickened cartilage is predisposed to weakening and can develop fissures or cracks, or even break off to float freely within joints.

“We see OC most commonly in the shoulder of dogs, but we also see it in other locations such as the knee, the elbow, and the ankle,” Saunders said. “This problem is not limited to our canine patients; it occurs in a variety of species.”

Although any joint can be affected by OC, patients do not necessarily experience pain from the condition in all of those joints. Clinical signs of pain are most often seen when substantial pieces, or “flaps,” of cartilage have dislodged from the weight-bearing surface of the joint.

Many cases of OC can be treated with a minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery, followed by rest, rehabilitation, and, if needed, follow up medications. If the dog’s activity is reduced for a period of time, a form of cartilage called “fibrocartilage” can form to cover the affected area of the joint.

In cases of extreme damage, however, another option is to replace the joint with an artificial implant.

While hip replacements have become relatively common in veterinary medicine, joint replacements more commonly affected by OC are less frequent and carry more risk.

“A lot of dogs with problems in these joints have already undergone surgeries and, in many of these cases, there is a documented or suspected infection at some point along the way,” Saunders said. “When there has been an infection in a joint, even if the infection is clinically resolved, there’s a high likelihood that a joint replacement implant will become infected, even if advanced measures are taken in surgery to prevent infection of the implants.”

However, for younger dogs with OC or those that have not undergone numerous previous surgeries, joint replacement can be a viable option for treatment. Saunders’ team in the Texas A&M Small Animal Teaching Hospital’s Orthopedics Service performs dozens of joint replacements each year — including elbow, knee, and ankle replacements.

One factor for owners to consider is the lengthy and intensive recovery period.

“The main commitments for the client are the finances, the exercise restrictions, and the need to bring the dog back for multiple rechecks after surgery,” Saunders said. “It’s a pretty intensive postoperative recovery, including leash walks only for three months, no off-leash activity indoors or outdoors, two to four medications for several weeks after surgery, and a fair amount of physical therapy.”

But after getting through the recovery, dogs that have undergone a successful joint replacement will have no limits to their activity. Even better, they will no longer be in pain from OC.

Saunders highly recommends that owners of dogs with OC speak to a veterinarian who has specialized in orthopedics to learn more about all treatment options.

Every dog deserves to live without pain, and through treatments that range from medications and minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery to joint replacement surgery, owners have the opportunity to advocate for their animal to make that happen.

Pet Talk is a service of the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.