Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
Panosteitis (meaning inflammation of all portions of a long bone – ulna, radius, femur or tibia) is a common cause of lameness in young, rapidly growing medium and large breed dogs. Many breeds can be affected, including Golden Retrievers, Bassett Hounds, Labrador Retrievers, and Dobermans. However, a disproportionate number of German Shepherds are affected. The disease was first recognized in Europe in the early 1950’s and was later recognized in North America in the 1960’s. Today, it is recognized worldwide. It usually occurs around 5-12 months of age, but certainly can be seen as early as 2 months and as late as 2-3 years of age. Male dogs are more likely to affected than females and females are usually affected when they experience their first heat cycle.
The cause(s) of panosteitis remains unknown, although many theories have been put forward. Some have felt that there was an infectious component (bacterium or virus) because one can transmit the disease from an affected dog to an unaffected dog through a bone marrow transplant. However, no agent has ever been found. Others have conjectured that diet is a factor; some that it is immune-mediated. No one really knows.
However, the fact that it is so common in German Shepherds and has been documented to have a high incidence in certain family lines would imply a possible genetic component to the etiology. For this reason, it is prudent not to use dogs that were affected by panosteitis while young for breeding.
Typically, an affected dog develops an acute lameness with no history or trauma, most often in a front leg, initially. The lameness alone is not of much help in terms of a specific diagnosis, as young dogs can be affected by a number of different bone diseases that cause acute lameness. What is a characteristic of this disease is that the lameness shifts from one leg to another, often after 2-3 weeks? For example, a dog could be lame in its front left leg for 2-3 weeks, then perhaps no lameness for one or two weeks, then the lameness shows up in the right rear leg. This waxing and waning of the lameness and switching between different legs can go on for many months.
Although one might be suspicious that panosteitis is the cause, a definitive diagnosis can usually be quickly obtained with an X-ray. The radiology is worthwhile doing not only to distinguish panosteitis from other causes but also to give a distraught owner some peace of mind that there will be a happy ending to their dog’s lameness and without any surgical intervention.
Panosteitis is, without doubt, a very painful disease. Simply squeezing the long leg bone affected is excruciating. So simply letting the disease “run its course” without pain medication is NOT an option. There are very effective pain medications (Tramadol is NOT one of them), such as NSAIDS, that will readily control a dog’s discomfort. While actively experiencing a lameness “episode” of 2-3 weeks, it would be prudent to keep your dog quiet with minimal exercise.
Fortunately, panosteitis is a self-limiting problem and will usually resolve over a few months with no long-term negative impact. Maintaining the pain medication over the entire period your dog is affected, though, is very important.
Because the cause(s) is unknown, there is essentially nothing an owner can do to prevent this painful disease. Feeding an appropriate diet for your dog is always important as a preventive for many issues and your veterinarian is an excellent source for advice in this area. Should your dog suddenly become lame, and the lameness persists for more than a day, then it would be advisable to have the lameness checked out by your veterinarian.