Just like humans, dogs can develop aches and pains due to arthritis as they age. However, arthritis isn’t solely an old dog disease. While the likelihood of a dog developing this painful condition does increase with age, research indicates that arthritis affects approximately 20 percent of all dogs over 1 year old (1).
Read on to learn more about how to detect, treat, and manage dog arthritis.
What is Arthritis in Dogs?
The term “arthritis” refers to inflammation within the joints. The most common cause of canine arthritis—and what people usually mean when they use the term arthritis—is osteoarthritis. You may also hear osteoarthritis referred to as degenerative joint disease. This article will focus specifically on osteoarthritis in dogs.
Osteoarthritis in dogs is a degenerative condition, meaning that it’s an effect of wear on tear on a joint over time. This condition is more common in older dogs, although it can also occur in young dogs with certain risk factors. When arthritis occurs, it causes pain and stiffness in the affected joint, negatively impacting a dog’s mobility.
Causes of Arthritis in Dogs
Osteoarthritis is an effect of repetitive motion. Over time, repeated movements cause wear and tear on the cartilage and other components of a joint. Any dog can develop arthritis, but a number of risk factors have been identified.
Overweight dogs are at an increased risk of arthritis. Not only does carrying excess body weight place increased strain on the joints, but fat itself releases chemicals that promote inflammation in the joints and elsewhere in the body.
Arthritis is also more common in dogs with underlying joint abnormalities. Conditions like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and medial patellar luxation typically lead to arthritis over the course of a dog’s lifetime. Therefore, the same genetic factors that predispose a dog to these conditions can also predispose them to arthritis.
Finally, age is a risk factor for arthritis. While arthritis can occur in young dogs (especially dogs with joint abnormalities), a dog’s risk of arthritis increases with age.
Stages of Arthritis in Dogs
Arthritis is a chronic, progressive condition. Arthritis increases in severity over time, typically progressing from mild to moderate to severe.
- Mild: A dog with mild arthritis shows a subtle decrease in mobility when performing certain activities. For example, your dog may be fine for long walks around the neighborhood but limp when running after a ball. A dog with mild arthritis may have slight stiffness in one or more joints, especially after periods of activity or long periods of rest.
- Moderate: A dog with moderate arthritis has a consistent limp affecting one or more legs. This limp will be apparent with any movement, whether the dog is walking or running.
- Severe: A dog with severe arthritis is uncomfortable most of the time, even at rest. They may have trouble lying down comfortably (acting restless) and they often have difficulty getting up after sleep.
Dogs with arthritis may have good days and bad days, but the general trend is for a dog’s arthritis to progress over time.
Dog Arthritis Symptoms
In the earliest stages of arthritis, a dog often will not show any symptoms. In these early, asymptomatic stages, arthritis can only be diagnosed with an X-ray. As your dog’s arthritis progresses over time, however, your dog’s symptoms will also progress and become more pronounced.
Signs of arthritis in dogs may include:
- Stiff gait
- Limping (intermittent or continuous)
- Limping when running, after heavy activity, or after long periods of rest
- Difficulty lying down or getting comfortable
- Difficulty getting up from a sitting or lying position
- Difficulty walking on slippery surfaces
Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs
A diagnosis of arthritis requires a thorough physical exam. Your veterinarian will assess your dog’s overall health, paying special attention to your dog’s joints and assessing their range of motion. A physical exam helps your veterinarian rule out other causes of your dog’s clinical signs.
Next, your veterinarian will likely recommend X-rays of the affected leg(s). These X-rays allow your veterinarian to look for bony evidence of arthritis, while also ruling out other causes of pain or discomfort (such as bone fractures). Your dog may need to be sedated for these X-rays, depending on the joint(s) to be imaged and your dog’s temperament.
Additional testing may also be needed, depending on your dog’s individual case. Laboratory tests, including a complete blood cell count (CBC), serum biochemistry profile, and urinalysis (UA), allow your veterinarian to assess your dog’s overall health before prescribing medications that may have side effects. Advanced imaging, such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be recommended to provide a better look at the joint(s).
Dog Arthritis Treatment
Arthritis is a chronic condition and it cannot be cured. Therefore, the goal of arthritis treatment for dogs is to manage your dog’s pain and slow the progression of arthritis.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are the most common arthritis medicine for dogs. If you’ve ever taken Advil for an injury or a chronic condition, you have seen firsthand how NSAIDs work to control pain and inflammation. Advil is toxic in dogs (along with numerous other human NSAIDs), but canine NSAIDs control the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis and are typically accompanied by minimal side effects.
Nutraceuticals and dog arthritis supplements can also play a valuable role in the treatment of arthritis. Glucosamine and chondroitin work to strengthen the joint fluid and cartilage that comprise your dog’s joints, while omega-3 fatty acids work to counteract inflammation. Your veterinarian may also recommend polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (PSGAG) injections to further support your dog’s joint health.
If these treatments alone are not adequate to control your dog’s pain, your veterinarian may prescribe additional pain medications. Gabapentin, amantadine, and other medications, when combined with NSAIDs, can provide additional pain relief with dogs suffering from arthritis-related discomfort.
Physical therapy, acupuncture, laser therapy, and other interventions may also be recommended to treat your dog’s arthritis.
Managing Arthritis in Dogs
The best thing you can do to minimize your dog’s arthritis is to keep your dog at a healthy weight. Ideally, a dog with arthritis should be maintained at the low end of their healthy weight range. Work with your veterinarian to help your dog reach their ideal body weight.
Prescription diets can play a valuable role in the management of arthritis. Weight loss diets for dogs may be recommended to promote initial weight loss, and joint diets can provide long-term weight maintenance as well as supplements to promote joint health.
Slippery surfaces can be difficult for dogs with arthritis, so ensure that you have non-slip rugs on any wood or tile floors that your dog may need to cross. Dog ramps can be used to provide access to beds and couches, minimizing the joint impacts associated with jumping off elevated furniture.
Exercise can be helpful, as long as you take it easy. Forego fetch, frisbee, and running in favor of low-impact exercises like walking or swimming. Don’t exercise your dog to the point of exhaustion. Instead, focus on gentle, low-impact exercise to help build the muscles that stabilize your dog’s joints.
Preventing Arthritis in Dogs
Many cases of arthritis have an underlying cause that is rooted in genetics or a prior injury. Therefore, even the best care will not prevent all cases of arthritis. However, there are some simple steps that can help reduce your dog’s risk.
If you’re purchasing a puppy from a breeder, research common orthopedic conditions associated with that breed. Then, ensure that the breeder you are working with performs recommended genetic testing to reduce the risk of joint abnormalities in their puppies. For example, if you’re buying a German Shepherd puppy, it’s important to ensure that the parents have been screened for hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Parents with joint abnormalities are more likely to pass on these joint abnormalities to their puppies, increasing the risk of arthritis.
Feed your puppy a high-quality dog food that is appropriate for their life stage and breed. If you have a large-breed dog, it’s important to feed a large-breed food. Feeding an imbalanced diet or allowing a large-breed puppy to grow too quickly can increase the risk of joint disease and later arthritis.
As your dog reaches adulthood, focus on weight maintenance. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight can reduce the risk of arthritis, and slow the progression of arthritis if it does arise.
- Hip dysplasia
- Elbow dysplasia
- Medial patellar luxation
- Anderson KL, Zulch H, O’Neill DG, Meeson RL, Collins LM. Risk Factors for Canine Osteoarthritis and Its Predisposing Arthropathies: A Systematic Review. Front Vet Sci. 2020;7:220. Published 2020 Apr 28. doi:10.3389/fvets.2020.00220