Forty-nine owners of osteoarthritic dogs expressed interest in participation. Seventeen declined to be interviewed when provided with study details or were unavailable to be interviewed during the study period. Thirty-two interviews were conducted, involving 40 participants who discussed managing 35 osteoarthritic dogs. Male and female participants of a range of ages and backgrounds were recruited from the rural Westcountry to inner city Scotland and fulfilled all aspects of the sampling frame (see S3 supplementary materials for participant details). Interviews ranged from 52 to 170 minutes in duration. Four themes were constructed. The data below comprise a subtheme of the theme relating to the impact on owners of their dog developing osteoarthritis. Illustrative exemplary quotes are included. Where more than one person was involved in an interview, their quotes are identified as interviewee a or b, as determined by in the order in which they first spoke during the interview.
How dogs were walked before developing osteoarthritis
Almost all dogs had a single primary walker who took them on most of their walks. Many owners described a long-standing enjoyment of walking, but a few recalled that they had not liked walking until they acquired a dog. For many, watching their dog having fun enhanced the pleasure of walks, and dogs often acted as a gateway to increased social contact with other walkers. Acquiring a dog had provided several male owners with a perceived legitimacy to walk in green public spaces and had helped a wheelchair-bound man integrate in the community.
You can't help people. Guys walking in a park, it's just not right. And I was walking round the park one day, I saw a guy with his dog one day, and I thought 'I need to get a dog.' I love having a dog, and I love going for walks. So I feel better with a dog. [Interview 26]
My dad was in a wheelchair, but he still managed to take [the dog] out first thing in the morning. And my dad ended up talking to everybody in the street because [the dog] got him out. Granted it was only round the area, but he ended up meeting everybody and talking to people, particularly in the summer. [Interview 31]
Most dogs received two broad, overlapping, categories of walks, which we will term “functional” and “leisure”. “Functional” walks had the primary objective of fitting the dog’s needs to toilet and exercise around their owner’s available time. These were short, local-to-home walks that varied little, and were typically conducted one or twice daily by the primary walker independent of weather or season. Descriptions of these walks often framed them in terms of duty and necessity though some reflected that these walks were useful to make the owner exercise when they might not otherwise do so, particularly in poor weather.
I walk the dogs, only for ten, fifteen minutes, I don't have more time, during lunch, and it's not at a set time point. Sometimes it's at twelve, somewhere between twelve and three o'clock. [Interview 19]
Having a dog does focus you…. that you have to do it….. [Interview 15, interviewee 15b]
“Leisure” walks were usually longer in length, less time pressured and typically occurred in green or rural spaces, sometimes a distance from home. Their location and timing could vary spontaneously in response to daylight, season, weather, the owners’ mood and whether other family members wanted to participate. In this context, owners described walking with the dog, not for the dog. Working owners typically conducted these walks in the evenings, at weekends or on holidays whilst those who did not work usually had less time restriction on their occurrence. Leisure walks often replaced at least one functional walk that would otherwise have occurred on the same day. Several owners described choosing holiday locations specifically based on day-long leisure walks they could enjoy with their dog.
17a I suppose the typical walk would be a mile. But then you could do much longer...
17b Oh, they could do much longer than that.
17a They did ten or twelve. Bertie did eighteen once, didn't he? [Interview 17]
Benefits of leisure walks appeared diverse and multi-faceted, permitting both dog and owner to relax and enjoy their surroundings. Whilst leisure walks were often chosen on the basis of a landscape or route owners wished to visit, some also consciously chose locations where their dog would be able to exercise off lead and play. Pleasure for many owners was clearly derived from watching their dog have fun. Whilst a few actively sought solitude during their walks, many described enjoyable interactions with other walkers in green spaces. Several had developed new friendships as a result. Rarely, owners felt excluded from joining existing social groups of dog walkers if their dog did not fit in, typically due to its behaviour.
You meet all sorts of people. And if you've got a dog, they're happy to talk…. [Interview 12]
So I started going out every morning once I'd dropped the kids off at school. And there's loads of dogs, they meet every morning, that's a wee clique. And I'd say to them “He's no good with other dogs.” And they're “Oh, it's fine, it's fine”. Until he went “Rrrrr” at one of the women….. [Interview 29]
Why dog walks changed when the dog developed osteoarthritis
All owners described a change to their walks following their dogs’ diagnosis with osteoarthritis. Many recalled advice from their veterinary surgeon to reduce their dog’s walk length, to keep their dog on lead exercise only and/or to keep exercise levels consistent day-to-day. Many had tried to adhere to this advice, but some found it impractical.
My vet was very clear about it. You walk him for ten minutes, ten minutes maximum. Ten minutes with him, he stops at every gatepost, at every twig. Ten minutes is about fifty yards! [Interview 12, interviewee 12a]
Commonly, the dogs had also changed the nature of their own walks by walking more slowly and stopping more frequently, usually to sniff but sometimes apparently to rest. Some sat down or looked at their owners when confronted with large hills, rough terrain or after a certain distance or duration. Typically, owners took this as the signal that the dog had had enough and truncated the walk. Dogs were observed to have both good and bad days which impacted on their desire, and ability, to exercise. Some owners had restricted their dogs’ walk length or stopped engaging them in active play to reduce their stiffness the following day, despite sometimes knowing the dog would exercise more if permitted. Several described making daily assessments of their dog’s gait and attitude to decide how far, if at all, to walk them that day. Rarely, owners were keen that their dog went for a walk regardless of their willingness to do so.
I think that one walk a day, and if she can do a mile, then, I wouldn't like to say much more than a mile, I think some of the walks are a-mile-and-a-third, but that's the limit. But I think she seems better for it, and then she probably comes back and she sleeps more soundly. [Int 15, interviewee 15b]
How dog walks changed after the diagnosis
Osteoarthritis led to changes in the length, speed, duration and location of walks. One very severely affected dog was no longer walked, and several large breed dogs were unable to easily get into vehicles so could not be taken on leisure walks. For others, shorter functional and leisure walks were still possible. However, every owner of an older affected dog, independent of their breed or previous behaviour on walks, described their dog’s increasing tendency to walk more slowly, cover less distance and spend more time sniffing. All thought they were walking significantly less far with their dog than before it developed osteoarthritis. Several expressed great frustration at the slow pace at which their dogs’ walks now proceeded, and sniffing behaviour led some owners to continue to walk their dogs off the lead despite receiving veterinary advice to the contrary. Typically, owners walked ahead at their own pace for a few minutes, then stopped and waited for their dog to catch up.
It's the way she's slowed down. She does more sniffing than walking, yes. Yeah, that was one of the significant things that, as she slowed down there was more and more of this sniffing… At first it was a massive pain, very frustrating. [Interview 15, interviewee 15b]
She knows the parks, we go to these big parks all the time, and we get out the car, she knows which way to go, she goes the route. And I've just noticed, the last few months, rather than going the one way she always wants to go, she's now cutting a wee corner off here, a wee corner off there, as if just to get herself back. She knows her limitations. [Interview 26]
Owners of more than one dog described challenges of combining the exercise needs of affected and unaffected dogs. Some took their dogs on separate functional walks, others chose leisure walks where the osteoarthritic dog could take short-cuts or could sit and wait. Rarely, owners had adapted pushchairs, prams or even a wheelbarrow to make multi-dog walks easier.
I've taken her in the wheelbarrow for a long walk, but it was downhill and it was bumpy, and it's hard work. But going back up the hill with thirty-two kilos of dog that got up to look and move was really hard work. [Interview 16]
If we take them out in the woods, you're trying to keep your eye on [unaffected dog] because she’s a long way ahead, or can be, and this one [affected dog] is trailing behind…. [Interview 15, interviewee 15a]
Owners described feeling heightened responsibility and less spontaneity when walking an osteoarthritic dog. Many discussed the need to consider hazards such as walls, steps, bridges and stiles that their dog might encounter, and had learnt to plan routes to avoid these, or had developed novel strategies to cope. This was particularly difficult for older owners, owners of larger dogs and those living in rural areas. A few owners expressed concern that people might think they were being cruel walking a stiff, slow dog down the road, and avoided certain routes for this reason. Conversely, owners of younger dogs described facing difficult comments from other owners about their apparent lack of exercise.
Some stiles are quite high. And I'm thinking 'Hold on, I've got to pick him up.' and then when you lower him down on the other side… Yeah, to be quite honest, I pick him up by his tail and his collar. Just pick him up, get him as low down on the other side before you let him go. [Interview 24, interviewee 24a]
People say 'You don't walk your dog very far.' Yeah, but it means she can keep walking. So we have to accept that other people with Labradors of that age can do miles and miles of walks every day. She can't do that. [Interview 23]
Almost all owners said they would not go for a leisure walk without their dog. Reasons included guilt at leaving the dog behind, feeling that a walk was not the same without their dog by their side, and not being able to find someone to look after the dog while they went out for the day. Several owners said they had gained weight since their dog developed osteoarthritis and reflected that they had not realised how much exercise they had been deriving from dog walking. Consistently for male owners, there was a sense that without their dog they were perceived to be a threat by some women if walking in a rural area. This acted as an additional barrier to them going on rural leisure walks without a dog.
I've said to people, 'I don't walk as far with my dog, I'm putting weight on,’ in conversation, not as a moan. No, I don't take him as far. [Interview 2]
Oh, no. I couldn't go off and leave him here and go for a long walk. I'd feel guilty actually. No, I'd rather do more, shorter walks and let him come with me. [Interview 5]
It's one of those, it's a middle-aged man walking on his own is quite... You can see people going 'What are you doing here?' It's a little bit odd. If you're out in the woods, out in the fields, a guy on his own is a bit strange. You've got a dog with you, and it’s 'Morning! How are you?' [Interview 11]