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Managing the risk...

Agility is a high-impact sport which requires the dog to be powerful, fast, agile, precise, flexible, responsive and highly focused, not only during competition but also during the many hours of training that are required. Because agility dogs have increased wear on the joints throughout their active sports career, they appear to be more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis (OA), and the disease tends to start at an earlier age. In an article commissioned by Canine Arthritis Management specifically for Agilitynet, International competitor and trainer Jana Gams talks about how to identify arthritis and reduce the chances of your dog developing this painful disease.

Arthritis (Osteoarthritis - OA) is the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs. It is a degenerative condition that involves inflammation of the joints. Some resources indicate arthritis affects nearly one in five dogs over one year of age in the USA (Johnston, S.A. 1997). Dogs that are elderly, obese or have had a long athletic career such as agility are more likely to suffer from OA.

The tasks that an agility dog performs, such as jumping, running over an A-frame and weaving, result in much greater forces placed on a dog's joints compared to simply running on flat ground. They also increase the wear and tear on the joints and the soft tissue structures around them. Once the joint cartilage starts to wear away, the underlying bone becomes exposed, causing painful rubbing of bone against bone. The condition ends up with the development of OA and the eventual loss of cartilage within a joint.

Joint trauma
OA results in a vicious cycle of pain and inflammation within the affected joint, ultimately reducing the ability of that joint to fully flex and extend. Over time, it reduces the dog's ability to participate in agility sport, as optimal performance relies on the ability to fully flex and extend their joints in order to produce the power needed to perform the required tasks and moves.

Approximately 32% of dog athletes develop an injury (Cullen et al, 2017). Each injury to either the joint surface or its surrounding structures (joint capsule, ligaments, tendons) can potentially lead to joint instability and direct or indirect damage to the joint surface. This increases the risk of developing OA within the joint in the long term. Injuries to one leg or one side can result in that side being underused. As a result, the dog may favour the 'good' side when turning or taking off for jumps, leading to muscle asymmetry and imbalances.

Most dogs running in agility are highly motivated and driven to run, so their pain perception might be reduced during participation in the activity. This means that a lot of early orthopaedic problems can remain hidden. Pain may present only as a slight favouring of a particular limb while performing certain tasks, showing up in dogs as a less powerful ability to take off, more knocked bars, a difference in their ability to turn, tight changes in weaving performance pattern (e.g. switching single-stepping to double-stepping pattern), loss of speed (seen as slower course times) or missed contacts. Some dogs might intermittently seem lame after rest, or mild muscle tremors can be noted after heavy exercise. These subtle but important clues can indicate underlying OA but are often attributed to old age in dogs.

Keep your dog fit
In order to reduce the risk for early development of OA in agility dogs, certain precautions can be taken by agility trainers. Sufficient warming up before each sports performance and cooling down afterwards can improve tissue elasticity and overall mobility of the dog, decreasing the risk of getting injured.

Breed selection is also important as some dogs may be less suited to the stress and strain that agility puts on their body. Those dogs may be better suited to the lower level competitions to ensure that they can enjoy participating for longer.

Early and regular full body assessments might be the first step towards preventing OA in canine athletes. A veterinary physiotherapist will be able to assess the range of motion of the joints and pick up any subtle changes in muscle mass or asymmetry before any signs are seen at competition.

It is important to have these regular checks with the same person so that they can build up a relationship with you and your dog and, therefore, notice any changes before the disease progresses. By the time degenerative changes are noticed on X-rays, it is nearly impossible to reverse the changes that have already occurred, and it is extremely difficult to halt the progression of the disease.

Establishing a proper conditioning plan for the agility dog in co-operation with a qualified physio specialist will help to improve the dog's physical condition, strength, flexibility, balance and co-ordination. Improved physical condition will improve the dog's ability to execute the sport-specific tasks in a better way. It will also improve the ability to withstand the increased forces on the dog's joints during competition in a better way as well as help reduce the risk of injury.

Regular manual therapies can improve tissue relaxation after training or competition days as well as provide optimal range of motion in muscles and joints. In addition to the therapeutic and conditioning approach, controlled diet (balanced and rich in nutrients) and joint supplements additionally help to preserve optimal joint health.

Returning after injury
Because OA is a degenerative, non-curable and progressive disease, continuing the sporting career in dogs after diagnosis of OA should be carefully considered. Depending upon the severity, pain and physical abilities of the dog with OA, some dogs can successfully return to high-level competition with the help of regular monitoring of the progression of the disease and targeted physiotherapeutic and strengthening approaches. However, unfortunately some dogs will not be able to return to high-level competition.

As agility dogs are very energetic, stopping competition may affect their quality of life. If this is the case, switching to lower-impact activities should be considered. Perhaps a less challenging course for older dogs or dogs suffering from arthritis could be made. This course would probably take out the A-frame and the tight turns as well as jumps, making it similar to a Hoopers course.


         Johnston, S.A. Osteoarthritis. Joint anatomy, physiology, and pathobiology. Veterinary Clinic North America Small Animal Practice. 1997; 27(4):699-723)

         Cullen et al. The magnitude of muscular activation of four canine forelimb muscles in dogs performing two agility-specific tasks. BMC Veterinary Research (2017) 13:68

         Peter J. Lotsikas. Management of Osteoarthritis in Performance Dogs, Clean Run.

About the author...
Jana Gams, DVM, CCRP is an active trainer and competitor who has taken part in both Agility and FCI obedience competitions at an international level.

She combines her passion for these sports with her professional field of work in veterinary rehabilitation/sports medicine to provide educational material in the form of online canine conditioning classes, workshops and lectures.

Jana is CEO of Dogs4motion Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Center in Slovenia and works with sports dogs on a daily basis which include participants of World Agility Championships and other events.

Photos: Dogs4motion

Thank you to Canine Arthritis Management for organising this article in the interest of promoting good practice and making competitors aware.
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First published: 15th April 2022


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