Osteoarthritis is one of the most common health issues in dogs. You might see or hear it being called by other names such as “degenerative joint disease” or shortened to just plain “arthritis.”* It affects an estimated 25 percent of dogs (1). Unfortunately, signs of arthritis in dogs can be difficult to observe—especially the earlier signs—so you may only notice when the disease gets worse and changes in your dog’s behavior become more obvious. Since arthritis causes pain, you should be aware of the signs so you can try to spot them as soon as possible and understand what to do if you think your dog may have this condition.
*The true definition of arthritis means inflammation of the joint and includes many causes of joint inflammation, in addition to osteoarthritis. If we mention “arthritis” in this article, it specifically means osteoarthritis.
What is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a gradual deterioration in the structure of your dog’s joints. The changes cause pain and mean that the joints don’t move as well as they should. Actions such as jumping into the car for a fun day out, or climbing up the stairs for the morning wakeup call become difficult for your dog. Over time, even normal everyday activities, such as walking, sitting down, or standing up, become challenging for your canine companion. This is, of course, worrisome, but there is a lot that you can do to help your dog live a good life with arthritis (more on this to come).
Joints are complex structures that are sensitive to damage. At the surface of the two (or more) bones making up a normal joint, there is a special type of slippery cartilage (articular cartilage) that allows the bones to glide past each other in opposite directions with minimal friction. Decreasing friction is important because joints are used millions of times over the course of a dog’s life. The joint itself is surrounded and cushioned by a sac (joint capsule) that contains a thick, slippery fluid (synovial fluid) that also helps in smooth movement. The joint is stabilized by a series of tendons and ligaments, which are tough, bungee-like ropes that help keep the joint aligned and guide proper movement. The muscles on either side of the joint work in harmony to drive movement and stability.
In a joint with osteoarthritis, the cartilage is damaged. This smooth bone coating starts to wear away and the surface no longer glides. The joint becomes inflamed and painful. Pain means your dog won’t want to use the joint as much. If your dog doesn’t use the joint as much, the muscles and supporting structures of the joint become weaker. This can have an even greater impact on movement if the joint becomes less aligned. If your dog is not moving or exercising as much, it can put extra strains and stresses on the joint. As she changes her body position to try to take weight off the painful joint, this can cause pain elsewhere. It’s like a wheel that keeps turning—as the wheel turns, the pain and changes get worse.
Osteoarthritis gets worse over time and there is currently no cure. The pain from arthritis leads to a decrease and, eventually, loss of mobility. While there is no cure, veterinarians have many strategies to help manage the pain and inflammation, build strength, and support mobility, and pet parents can work with their veterinarians to help.
Let’s take a closer look at the causes, signs, and treatment options for osteoarthritis in dogs.
Causes of Arthritis in Dogs
People associate the signs of arthritis with older dogs, but it’s actually a problem that often starts early in life (2). Arthritis in dogs is usually caused by joints that don’t develop normally (developmental joint disease) or joint injury (2). Joint injuries can occur at any age, but young, energetic dogs are at risk.
Young dogs can develop arthritis due to the way that their bones and other structures fit together (conformation). In these dogs, joints are abnormal from birth and prone to damage, leading to early arthritis. For example, many brachycephalic (short-faced) breeds such as Pugs and Bulldogs suffer from congenital abnormalities of the knees (patellar luxation) and hips (hip dysplasia). Hip dysplasia is common in German Shepherd dogs and other large and giant breeds, which can also suffer from similarly poor structure in the elbow (elbow dysplasia). If you get your dog from a breeder, make sure the parents have passed their pre-breeding soundness exam with “excellent” or “good” hip, knee, and elbow scores (3). While this increases the likelihood that a puppy will have normally developed joints, it is not a guarantee.
Injuries can lead to arthritis due to tearing of the tendons surrounding the joint, damage to the joint capsule, or damage to the bones of the joint. Anything that takes a joint out of perfect alignment leads to abnormal movement of the joint and wearing of the joint structures.
Risk Factors for Arthritis in Dogs
Other factors that can increase your dog’s risk for arthritis include obesity and intense activity. Some movement is required to keep your dog’s cartilage healthy and keep the supporting structures strong, so too little exercise can also put your dog at risk.
Excess body weight is thought to contribute to the development of arthritis because of the extra strain and stresses that it puts on the joint, potentially increasing the wear and tear. In addition, body fat can increase inflammation. Though we can’t draw an apples to apples comparison between humans and dogs, human data estimates that each extra pound of weight puts an excess 1.5 to 5 pounds of stress on a joint (4). This will cause joints to become painfully damaged years earlier than they otherwise would have.
Signs of Arthritis in Dogs
Signs of arthritis in dogs can be difficult to spot. In the early stages, changes could be as subtle as noticing that your dog is slower and looks slightly more awkward when getting up in the morning or less willing to jump up onto the couch for cuddle time. You might notice that she occasionally lags behind a little on walks. Your dog may be trying to avoid or minimize pain and discomfort. Dogs (especially young dogs) with a hip-sway or pronounced bottom wiggle when walking can also be early signs of pain caused by arthritis.
Arthritis pain may cause your dog to develop an occasional limp after an especially active day. As arthritis progresses, you may notice a more consistent or pronounced limp or your dog may have difficulty getting into position to go to the bathroom. Stiffness that improves as the day goes on is a hallmark symptom of moderate arthritis in dogs. Limping is an action to try to take weight off of a painful part of the body. If your dog is limping, she is in pain.
As arthritis becomes severe, it limits your dog’s ability to move. Many everyday activities are incredibly difficult or even impossible. Dogs with severe arthritis may look anxious or tense. They may avoid, make failed attempts, or refuse to jump or climb. When trying to sit or lie down, they may pace or circle before flopping down, rather than lowering their body gradually to the floor. They may walk very slowly and only walk short distances, if at all.
Signs of osteoarthritis in dogs may include:
- General stiffness, especially early in the day
- Stiff movements
- Moves more slowly
- Slow to rise
- Tires more easily
- Unable to jump or perform other high-impact activities
- Limping (occasional, frequent, or consistent)
- Reluctance to exercise
- Restless when standing
- Slow or unable to get into position to go to the bathroom
- Difficulty rising or moving on smooth surfaces
- Uneven wearing of nails or paw pads
There can be other reasons for these changes, so make sure to speak to your veterinarian.
Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs
The diagnosis of arthritis in dogs has three main components, all equally important: history (your description), a physical examination of the dog, and X-rays.
History: It’s important for your veterinarian to have as complete a picture as possible. Since it’s often easier to see changes in your dog in a home environment, as opposed to during a vet visit, you are in a prime position to help with diagnosis. Any changes you notice in your dog at home are important in diagnosing the presence and severity of arthritis. These changes could be things you notice every day or ones that only show up every once in a while. Let your veterinarian know about any changes you’ve noticed—or better still, take videos of your dog and share the best ones during your visit.
Physical examination: Your veterinarian will conduct a full physical exam to check your pet’s general health, suitability for treatment, and eliminate other causes. Part of the physical examination will include feeling (palpating) your dog and testing mobility and range of motion in the joints, as well as looking for areas of joint pain, instability or weakness. A full orthopedic examination will also check reflexes and subtle changes to joint function.
Your veterinarian will check to see that your dog’s joints are aligned and sitting in the proper place. She will also look for any evidence of abnormal joint development, such as in patellar luxation and hip dysplasia.
X-rays: Arthritis shows up on X-rays as changes to the bones of the joint (such as bony outgrowths as the disease progresses), as well as changes in space between bones.
Importantly, the results of each part of the examination may not show the same degree of arthritis in a dog. X-rays in particular may not show significant joint damage even though a dog is in pain. Conversely, X-rays of a dog with severe hip dysplasia may look painful even though the dog isn’t showing signs yet. However, this information is still important because it helps your veterinarian choose the right management for your dog, and X-rays can help rule out other causes of pain.
Canine Osteoarthritis Staging Tool 5
During your dog’s physical exam, your veterinarian may use a tool called COAST (Canine Osteoarthritis Staging Tool) to diagnose and stage your dog’s arthritis. COAST is a way to standardize the assessment of arthritis and track its progression. COAST incorporates pet owner input as well as components based on the veterinarian’s physical examination and X-rays. Using a more objective tool like COAST early in life can help track progression of arthritis more accurately. That way, you and your veterinarian can spot changes much sooner.
COAST is broken up into five stages in dogs. Stage 0 is a healthy dog. Those with Stage 1 OA (pre-clinical) have an increased risk of developing OA due to breed, intense activity, obesity, advancing age, or joint injury or surgery. By the time a dog reaches Stage 2 OA, she will be showing some signs of pain (e.g., occasional limping, stiffness), or signs may only be noticeable after particular activities. Stage 3 OA is moderate arthritis, and the dog is likely to limp or show other signs of pain consistently. She may no longer be able to participate normally in her daily activities. Stage 4 OA is severe arthritis. Dogs who reach this stage have difficulty moving around and may be reluctant to engage in even the most gentle activities.
Dog Arthritis Management
Though osteoarthritis in dogs cannot be prevented or cured, it can be managed. Ways to manage the disease include:
- Pain control
- Appropriate exercise
- Weight management
- Joint diets/supplements
- Joint protection agents
- Rehabilitation program
- Complementary therapies
- Making a few changes to the surroundings at home
Effective management strategies involve multiple types of therapies to try and address the arthritis and the resulting pain. Not only are there multiple options to manage the disease, but using different treatment options together often yields better results. Your dog’s total treatment plan will be developed with your veterinarian and often other members of the clinic team. They might also partner with or recommend other professionals, such as physiotherapists/rehabilitation specialists.
Osteoarthritis Pain Management for Dogs
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) designed for dogs can help control pain and inflammation associated with canine osteoarthritis. NSAIDs reduce pain, which is important for the comfort of the dog and to help improve mobility. There are several types of NSAIDs available for dogs, including Galliprant® (grapiprant tablets) and Deramaxx® (deracoxib).
See important safety information below for Galliprant and Deramaxx.
Only use products developed and approved for dogs—not medication for humans, as these can harm your dog—and always follow your veterinarian’s instructions. NSAIDs are most effective for chronic pain if given regularly as prescribed.
Depending upon your dog’s general health and the severity of her pain, your veterinarian might recommend other pain relievers. These may include gabapentin, tramadol, amantadine, and several others. However, the majority of these options are not veterinary approved, so their use in dogs is considered off-label.
Dog Arthritis Supplements
Your veterinarian may discuss supplements to help treat your dog’s arthritis, such as:
- Joint diets: Common ingredients in therapeutic joint diets include omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussels (6). Low-calorie options can also help with your dog’s weight management program.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids found in high concentrations in fish oil may reduce joint inflammation when taken orally (6).
- Glucosamine and chondroitin: Often bundled together in a single oral supplement, glucosamine and chondroitin may aid in repair of damaged joint cartilage (7). A derivative of chondroitin is also available as an injection given by your veterinarian. It can help control signs associated with canine arthritis by binding to building blocks of cartilage to help prevent further wear and tear.
- Perna canaliculus (green-lipped mussels): Green-lipped mussels may offer anti-inflammatory properties (6).
- MSM (methyl sulfonyl methane): MSM may aid in joint repair and is said to have anti-inflammatory properties (8). It is often added to glucosamine and chondroitin oral supplements.
- Cannabinoids (CBD): Cannabinoids are reported to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce pain (9).
There are a lot of different supplements available and not all are proven to be useful for dogs with arthritis, so make sure to do your research. Talk to your vet about which products might be most effective for your dog—as well as the recommended dosage.
Exercise and Canine Rehabilitation
Your veterinarian can recommend an appropriate exercise plan for your dog and may refer you to a canine rehabilitation specialist. Learning and practicing specific exercises to help strengthen the muscles around the joint and improve the movement of the joint during exercise can make a huge difference in the way your arthritic dog feels. Canine rehabilitation specialists use multiple modalities, including underwater treadmill therapy, range of motion exercises, and complementary therapies. They are likely to give you exercises that can be easily done at home.
These include treatments such as hot and cold therapies, therapeutic laser, massage, acupuncture, electrical stimulation, herbal supplements, and others. These therapies are often recommended alongside other more traditional medications to address arthritis and pain from different angles and improve outcome.
General Cost to Treat Arthritis in Dogs
Cost will vary widely depending on the size of your dog, severity of arthritis, and which management options you choose. After initial diagnosis ($100-$500), monthly cost will be somewhere between $30 and $200 to help your dog’s arthritis pain. Certain causes of arthritis may benefit from surgery, which could cost a few thousand dollars.
How to Help a Dog with Arthritis
In addition to the medications, supplements, and in-clinic treatments available, there are several things you can do to help a dog with arthritis. Most of these are also beneficial for younger dogs and those with increased risk for arthritis.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce the burden of arthritis on your dog. Your veterinarian may recommend a therapeutic diet or refer you to a veterinary nutritionist.
Regular exercise is important in slowing down the degeneration of joints that causes arthritis, but the amount and type of exercise will depend on the individual dog. Moving helps keep joints healthy and strengthens the muscles that support them. Low-impact exercise, such as walking, is important at every stage of life. Swimming or walking in the water are excellent forms of exercise that strengthen muscles without putting strain on joints. Exercise is important in reducing arthritis risk, but extreme types of exercise can exacerbate arthritis. Not every dog is built for every type or level of activity. Consult your veterinarian or physical therapist to select the right activities for your dog.
Around the house, an orthopedic dog bed may allow your arthritic dog to get into and out of bed easier as well as support her joints during sleep. If your dog is allowed on the bed or couch, ramps can make it more comfortable for her to get on and off. Ramps can also be useful for the car or going in and outdoors. Slippery surfaces like hardwood, tile, and linoleum are problematic, because they offer limited grip. Placing rugs, yoga mats, or other easy-to-walk surfaces around the house can help an arthritic dog get around better.
- Hip dysplasia
- Patellar luxation
- Cranial cruciate ligament injury
- Elbow dysplasia
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Immune mediated polyarthritis
Galliprant is an NSAID that controls pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis in dogs.
Galliprant Importance Safety Information
Not for use in humans. Keep out of reach of children and pets. Monitoring is recommended if used long term. Should not be used in dogs who are allergic to grapiprant or with other anti-inflammatory drugs. The safe use of Galliprant has not been studied in dogs younger than 9 months of age and less than 8 pounds, breeding, pregnant or lactating dogs, or dogs with heart disease. The most common adverse reactions were vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite and tiredness. View full product label for complete safety information or contact your veterinarian.
DERAMAXX Chewable Tablets are indicated for the control of pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis in dogs.
DERAMAXX Important Safety Information
Not for use in humans. For use in dogs only. Keep this and all medication out of reach of children and pets. Store out of reach of dogs and other pets in a secured location in order to prevent accidental ingestion or overdose. As with all drugs in this class, side effects involving the digestive system, kidneys or liver may occur. These are normally mild, but may be serious. Pet owners should discontinue therapy and contact their veterinarian immediately if side effects occur. All dogs should undergo a thorough history and physical examination before using DERAMAXX. Regular monitoring is recommended. Use with other NSAIDs or corticosteroids should be avoided. Please see the product insert for full prescribing information.
Disclaimer: The author received compensation from Elanco Inc., the maker of Galliprant and Deramaxx, for her services in writing this article.
- Lascelles D. Joint Pain in Pet Dogs and Cats. International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) Fact Sheet. 2016.
- Lascelles D. Canine Osteoarthritis – Developing a Care Pathway. Veterinary Proceeding: NAVC Conference 2014 Small Animal. Retrieved from https://www.vetfolio.com/orthopedics/canine-osteoarthritis-developing-a-care-pathway
- Statistics by Breed. OFA – The Canine Health Information Center. Retrieved from https://www.ofa.org/diseases/breed-statistics#detail
- How Fat Affects Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/related-conditions/other-diseases/how-fat-affects-osteoarthritis
- Cachon, T. & Frykman, O. & Innes, John & Lascelles, B Duncan X & Okumura, M. & Sousa, P. & Staffieri, Francesco & Steagall, Paulo & Ryssen, B.. (2018). Face validity of a proposed tool for staging canine osteoarthritis: Canine OsteoArthritis Staging Tool (COAST). The Veterinary Journal. 235. 10.1016/j.tvjl.2018.02.017.
- Johnson KA, Lee AH, Swanson KS. Nutrition and nutraceuticals in the changing management of osteoarthritis for dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2020;256(12):1335-1341. doi:10.2460/javma.256.12.1335
- Bhathal, Angel et al. “Glucosamine and chondroitin use in canines for osteoarthritis: A review.” Open veterinary journal vol. 7,1 (2017): 36-49. doi:10.4314/ovj.v7i1.6
- Butawan, Matthew et al. “Methylsulfonylmethane: Applications and Safety of a Novel Dietary Supplement.” Nutrients vol. 9,3 290. 16 Mar. 2017, doi:10.3390/nu9030290
- Gamble LJ, Boesch JM, Frye CW, et al. Pharmacokinetics, Safety, and Clinical Efficacy of Cannabidiol Treatment in Osteoarthritic Dogs. Front Vet Sci. 2018;5:165. Published 2018 Jul 23. doi:10.3389/fvets.2018.00165
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