Just like humans, dogs can develop inflammation. But what is inflammation? When should it be treated, and how?
In this article, we'll discuss the biology of inflammation in dogs, diseases caused by chronic inflammation, strategies for reducing inflammation, and more.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural process produced by the immune system. There are many "natural anti-inflammatory" products for sale, but it's not necessary to reduce inflammation in every dog.
Most of the time, the inflammatory response protects your dog's body from germs like bacteria and viruses (1). It also clears damaged cells and promotes healing after injury.
The Immune System and Inflammatory Response
The immune system is made up of specialized cells and natural signaling chemicals. This complex network controls the body's ability to fight off disease-causing microbes. A typical immune response involves redness, heat, and swelling; your dog may develop a fever, or the affected area may be warm to the touch.
Activated White Blood Cells
Immune cells are a key part of the normal inflammatory response. These cells monitor your dog's entire body; they are the first line of defense against many types of "foreign invader" like bacteria. Sending white blood cells to an infection or injury is like calling in a cleanup crew: they tidy up to make way for your dog's healthy cells to thrive.
Altered Blood Flow
During inflammation there is also increased blood flow to the affected area. Blood vessels widen in response to chemical signals from the immune system. These changes send more immune cells to the site and promote tissue repair.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
So far, we've discussed the upsides of inflammation. This type of acute inflammation occurs in the short term and resolves when the job is done.
In some cases the acute phase of inflammation can be dangerous, such as with severe allergies (anaphylaxis). But for the most part, short-term inflammation in dogs occurs for a good reason.
However, inflammation can become harmful when it lasts too long (chronic inflammation). If we follow the "cleanup crew" example mentioned earlier, chronic inflammation happens when the cleaners don't know when to stop.
During chronic inflammation, the immune system's efforts start to damage healthy cells. This "friendly fire" can wreak havoc and require treatment to reduce inflammation.
What Causes Inflammation in Dogs?
If your dog suffers from chronic inflammation, the appropriate anti-inflammatory strategy will depend on the underlying cause.
Causes of chronic inflammation in dogs include:
Infection with parasites (worms, fleas, protozoa)
Allergies and food sensitivities
Repetitive or non-healing injuries
Inflammatory Health Conditions in Dogs
"Good inflammation" is crucial for your dog's health because it helps fight disease. However, inflammation can also become a problem of its own.
Inflammatory conditions usually occur when the immune system overreacts to something. Alternately, inflammation can go on for too long, causing damage.
Joint Inflammation: a Common Source of Chronic Pain
Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) is a common ailment in older dogs. This form of arthritis different from rheumatoid arthritis, which is less frequent in dogs than in people.
In dogs, osteoarthritis is a form of low-grade, long-term joint inflammation (2). The condition worsens gradually over time. Symptoms of arthritis in dogs include:
Difficulty getting up
Reluctance to jump, play, or climb stairs
Irritability or changes in temperment
Loss of muscle mass
Dog owners are often quick to notice skin inflammation (dermatitis). Multiple conditions can lead to this type of inflammation in dogs, so contact your veterinarian to determine the specific cause.
Your dog's skin is a protective barrier that protects the body from disease-causing microbes. When the skin is inflamed, the barrier is weakened. Skin inflammation also causes itchiness; your dog's scratching damages the skin even more. As a result, secondary bacterial infections are common with inflammatory skin conditions.
Skin inflammation can occur in a specific area or across multiple regions. For example, only the front legs and paws are affect in most dogs with hot spots (acute moist dermatitis).
The most common type of dog ear infection (otitis externa) involves chronic inflammation of the skin inside the ear. Discomfort (scratching and rubbing the ear) is the most common symptom of an ear infection in dogs. The ear may also have a foul odor.
Digestive Tract Inflammation
The digestive system extracts energy and nutrients from your dog's food. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a common syndrome caused by chronic inflammation in your dog's gut.
Clinical signs of inflammatory bowel disease in dogs can include:
Chronic upset stomach (vomiting and/or diarrhea)
Importantly, there are many conditions with similar symptoms to IBD. Your veterinarian will perform tests to rule out other causes of digestive inflammation before diagnosing IBD.
Treating Inflammation in Dogs
To effectively treat your dog's inflammation, visit your veterinarian. Your vet will perform a thorough physical examination, review your dog's history, and perform diagnostic tests.
This process at your vet's office will help find the underlying cause of inflammation for your dog. Understanding the root of the problem will lead to faster, more effective treatment.
Anti-inflammatory remedies from your veterinarian can provide significant pain relief for dogs suffering from inflammation (3). For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often prescribed for dogs with osteoarthritis.
Like any treatment, anti-inflammatory medications have pros and cons. In dogs, NSAIDs can have adverse effects on gut and kidney health when used long-term.
Your veterinarian may prescribe a low dose of NSAIDs or recommend regular blood tests to reduce the risk of side effects.
Never give your dog NSAIDs made for humans. Dogs are more sensitive to NSAIDs than people, and the dose in human products can be dangerous for dogs. If your dog gets into your bottle of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, contact a veterinarian immediately.
Managing Body Weight
Research suggests that controlling body weight can help reduce inflammation in dogs. For example, overweight dogs are more prone to joint injuries. These injuries can increase the risk of osteoarthritis later in life.
Managing your dog's body weight may involve changes to your dog's diet, a regular exercise routine, or other interventions. Unexplained weight gain can also be a symptom of disease. Talk to your vet to manage your dog's weight effectively.
Diet and Nutrition
Changing your dog's diet can support their anti-inflammatory treatment, especially for pups with digestive health conditions. If your dog has a poor diet or food sensitivities, simple changes can be helpful for relieving inflammation.
In general, avoid feeding your dog table scraps, especially if they are high in fat or calories. When shopping for dog food, look for high-quality protein sources.
Some dog food brands also offer prescription diets specially formulated for your dog's condition. You can also try switching to a different source of protein, such as venison or fish. Fish is also a good source of inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
Healthy treats are another opportunity to reduce inflammation using your dog's diet. Dog-safe fruits and vegetables like carrots, apple slices, and blueberries have natural anti-inflammatory properties.
Natural Anti-Inflammatory Remedies
Natural remedies for inflammation are popular among pet owners. Importantly, no natural remedy can replace medical treatment. Talk to your veterinarian before starting a new supplement.
In the world of dog inflammation, fish oil is often recommended for its anti-inflammatory properties. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which support healthy skin and may reduce pain in dogs with joint problems (4).
When shopping for fish oil, choose a brand with transparent quality control policies. Follow the product storage directions closely; fatty acids can go bad. If the product smells rancid or "off," replace it.
Supporting a Healthy Immune Response
Chronic inflammation in dogs is a common problem with many variations. Fortunately, treatment options are available. Whether your concern is pain, digestive tract symptoms, or something else, consult your veterinarian to soothe inflammation. Your vet will find the underlying problem and help you build an effective management plan. Together, you can get your dog back to feeling their best.