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Dog Joint Pain: 4 Ways to Provide Relief

Woman hugging senior dog
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When you’re used to your dog bounding up the steps, hopping up on the couch, and jumping around when they see their leash, it can be alarming if they become slow to rise or seem stiff

If you’re noticing that your dog seems stiff or reluctant to participate in activities, this could be due to dog joint pain. Joint pain can be caused by dog arthritis (joint inflammation), or other health issues.

While limping is an indicator of joint pain, there are several other early warning signs that a dog has joint pain.

We spoke to veterinary experts to learn more about joint pain in dogs and the signs that could mean a dog is suffering from joint pain. 

Causes of Joint Pain in Dogs

Although there are numerous causes of joint pain in dogs, they generally fall into the category of either developmental joint issues or degenerative joint issues, says Dr. Rosalie M. LoScrudato, of NorthStar VETS Veterinary Emergency, Trauma, and Specialty Center in New Jersey.

Developmental joint issues include those problems arising from genetic or heritable conditions. This means the joints don’t develop properly. These issues include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, angular limb deformities, chondrodystrophic deformities (uneven growth of long bones), or osteochondritis dissecans (OCD or OD), an inflammatory condition that occurs when the diseased cartilage separates from the underlying bone.

Certain breeds are predisposed to joint pain in dogs, usually large breed dogs. For example, Bernese Mountain Dogs are more likely to develop elbow dysplasia (an abnormal development in the elbow joint) and Rottweilers have an increased prevalence of hip dysplasia.

Degenerative causes of dog joint pain include repetitive injury to the joint, infections in the joint, immune-mediated diseases of the joint (immune-mediated polyarthritis), cruciate tears, poor nutrition, and obesity. Cruciate tears are often seen with impact on the dog’s joints, like jumping on and off a couch or while running. Obesity puts excessive stress on joints and can exacerbate joint disease including arthritis, says New York City-based veterinarian Dr. Rachel Barrack, certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified veterinary Chinese herbalist.

“The deterioration of the joint structure and inflammation within the joint lead to progressively painful arthritis,”  says LoScrudato.

The two main types of arthritis in dogs are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is common in senior dogs and large breed dogs. Osteoarthritis is estimated in about 20 percent of all dogs over a year old, according to data collected from over 200 veterinarians in North America

Signs of Joint Pain in Dogs

Chocolate Labrador limping

Limping is most obvious but unfortunately is not often the first sign of pain,” says Dr. LoScrudato.

Dog joint pain symptoms include the following:

  • Difficulty rising
  • Lethargy
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling at the joints
  • Decreased walking distance
  • Reluctance to play or engage with owners
  • Sleeping more
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reluctance to go up/down stairs or on/off furniture
  • Difficulty getting into the car
  • Changes in gait
  • Slipping while walking
  • Chewing, biting or licking painful areas
  • Increased licking all over their body

Some behavioral indicators that your dog might be experiencing dog arthritis or dog joint pain include:

These can be misinterpreted as signs of behavioral issues or dismissed as signs of ‘normal aging’ but may be signs that your dog is in pain, says Dr. LoScrudato.

When to See a Veterinarian about Dog Joint Pain

“Any time you suspect your dog may be experiencing any kind of pain, this warrants contacting your primary care veterinarian for further diagnostics and intervention to alleviate discomfort,” says Dr. Barrack. 

A progressive change in your dog’s behavior or reduced interest in physical activity is another reason to contact your pet, Dr. LoScrudato recommends. “In addition to a full physical examination, veterinarians will gather a full history and discuss changes they and the owners have noted.”

Diagnostic procedures like radiographs (X-rays) may be recommended, Dr. LoScrudato says. “Trial of pain medications may also be used to see if pet parents notice any improvements in their pets after use.”

Collectively, this information can help determine if pets are experiencing joint pain and what further course of therapies may be warranted. If the dog joint pain is caught early enough and is treatable, the vet may recommend medications, dietary changes, supplements, and physical rehabilitation.

“Some conditions require surgical intervention while others can be treated with more moderate management including Western medications and supplements, acupuncture, and/or traditional Chinese herbal therapy,” Dr. Barrack says.

Most cases of dog arthritis causing joint pain will require long-term management.

Dog Joint Pain Relief: 4 Ways to Help

Corgi on ramp to couch

You want your dog to get joint pain relief as soon as possible but know that it’s going to be a long-term process to find a resolution or simply help alleviate some of their pain and discomfort.

Once dog arthritis is present in a joint, it is likely to progress over time.

“[The vet’s goal] is to maintain comfort and slow down the progression,” says Dr. LoScrudato. “This is most effectively done using a multi-modal approach based on each dog’s clinical signs. Multi-modal means using a varying combination of techniques, medications, supplements, and therapies to reduce discomfort.”

Here’s how you can help with dog arthritis symptoms and dog joint pain:

Address the Inflammation

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and analgesics are commonly used to help dogs experiencing inflammation and pain, including in their joints. “Humans should never use their own medications on their pets!” Dr. LoScrudato says. NSAIDs intended for people can cause gastrointestinal ulceration and kidney failure when given to dogs.

Disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs (DMOADs) such as Adequan can alter the progression of dog arthritis by improving the health of the joint fluid and cartilage.

Acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal therapy can alleviate the inflammation and discomfort associated with osteoarthritis, says Dr. Barrack.

Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, microlactin, turmeric, and green-lipped mussels have been shown to reduce inflammation and joint pain. Joint supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin can also be helpful. Only use supplements under the direction of your veterinarian.

Practice Weight Management

Weight management is crucial for helping dogs with mobility issues. Losing weight reduces the load on a dog’s joints and muscles. Recent studies also show that fat tissue contains factors that promote inflammation which causes pain and the progression of arthritis.

Veterinarians can help owners determine if their pet is overweight and create a weight loss plan to achieve a target weight.

Consider Alternative Therapies 

Consulting with a rehabilitation therapist who can offer advice on exercises, stretching and massage techniques appropriate for your pet is an excellent way to actively participate in a pet’s therapy program. Acupressure and massage are great things owners can do at home when snuggling on the couch to help alleviate some of their dog’s joint-related aches and pains,” says Dr. Barrack.

Swimming is also a great low impact exercise that can help dog arthritis symptoms by increasing muscle mass which in turn helps strengthen and support joints. It can also be a good way to increase your pet’s activity level if you’re encouraging them to lose weight without increasing stress on their joints.

Make Modifications to Your Home

Keep your dog more comfortable by making some slight adjustments to your home. 

Providing ramps to get in and out of the house or vehicle and on/off furniture can be beneficial. Anti-slip mats or carpets can be added to areas that are frequently used by your dog to help prevent falls. 

Consider a heated dog bed or an orthopedic dog bed to provide maximum comfort and take pressure off your dog’s joints. 

Create places where your dog can relax away from overly enthusiastic housemates – such as other pets and toddlers — so they can rest.

“The benefits of adapting the home environment, weight management and lifestyle modifications cannot be over emphasized,” says Dr. LoScrudato.