The most common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis. This is a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. It affects 80% of dogs over the age of 8 years old, and potentially up to 35% of dogs of all ages.
Arthritis is irreversible and causes progressive deterioration of the joints, leading to pain, inflammation and decreased function. Arthritis is also called osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD). There are many different medications for the treatment of arthritis and also other options such as alternative therapies and surgery, but the key is to assess and adapt treatment plans regularly.
What is arthritis in dogs?
Arthritis simply means “inflammation of the joints”.
The most common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis. Other types include rheumatoid arthritis and septic arthritis, which is caused by joint infection.
Arthritis is a complex condition that affects not only the cartilage but all of the structures within the joint, and if left unmanaged, it can lead to complete joint failure.
Arthritis can affect any joint and may affect multiple joints.
It is a very common condition that causes stiffness, pain, and swollen joints.
Arthritis makes moving around difficult and uncomfortable.
Arthritis is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse slowly over time.
How does a dog get arthritis?
There is no single cause of arthritis. Many factors play a role, including:
- Body shape or conformation (how a dog is built)
- Being overweight
- Abnormal joint development (e.g. hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, luxating patellas)
- Activity history
- Previous injuries (e.g. past fracture, ligament damage, muscle injury, joint infection)
- Orthopaedic surgery
- Nutritional history
Most dogs with arthritis experience a combination of these factors as their condition develops and progresses. We now know that just “getting old” is not a cause of arthritis.
How to identify the signs of arthritis in dogs?
Dogs are incredible at coping with discomfort. This makes detecting pain difficult.
These are possible signs of arthritis and chronic pain in dogs:
- being more grumpy
- playing with their toys less
- licking their joints
- pacing at night
- low mood
- hunched back
- avoiding putting weight through one of their legs when standing
- changes in body shape due to muscle loss
- low head carriage
- tucked up tail
- different sleeping positions
- enlarged or swollen joints.
- slowing down on walks
- stiffness when getting up after a period of rest
- hesitating when using stairs
- no longer jumping up onto the sofa
- dragging their feet
- weak back legs.
Can any dog develop arthritis?
Dogs that may be more prone to arthritis are:
- Medium to large breed dogs such as Rottweilers, Golden and Labrador Retrievers, and Springer Spaniels
- Dogs prone to developmental joint problems such as:
- Hip and elbow dysplasia: common in Mastiffs, Boxers, German Shepherds, Golden and Labrador Retrievers
- Patellar luxation (kneecap that ‘pops out’): commonly seen in Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers and French Bulldogs
- Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) (joint condition in which the bone underneath the cartilage of a joint dies due to lack of blood flow) commonly seen in Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, Mastiffs, Old English Sheepdogs, Rottweilers
- Overweight dogs
- Dogs with injured or traumatised joints
- Dogs who had previous surgery on a joint (e.g. surgery to treat Cruciate Ligament Disease)
How is arthritis diagnosed in dogs?
To help determine whether your dog has arthritis, a vet will:
- Talk through the history of your dog’s life
- Do an orthopaedic examination
- Take Radiographs (x-rays)
Additional tests to rule out other conditions may be recommended by your vet:
- Blood tests
- Urine test
- Checking thyroid levels
- Joint aspirate and cytology
- Occasionally MRI or a CT scan
What is the treatment for a dog with arthritis?
Currently, there is no cure for arthritis, but through careful management, we can give dogs comfortable and happy lives.
Treatment options can include one or ideally a combination of the following:
- Complementary and alternative therapies
- Intra articular treatments
Medications for a dog with arthritis
A combination of treatments is recognised as the best way to control pain with minimal side effects and protect the kidneys and liver.
Medication commonly used includes:
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Gabapentin and pregabalin
- Other opioids (tramadol – recent evidence suggests this is not as effective in dogs for pain relief when used by itself)
Do not use human medications as these can be extremely harmful and cause fatalities in dogs. Always seek advice from a vet.
Complementary and alternative therapies for a dog with arthritis
Complementary and alternative therapies are often used alongside conventional treatment to help control arthritis symptoms. The various options are below.
Use the following links to find qualified professionals
- Physiotherapy: The Register of Animal Musculoskeletal, Practitioners (RAMP), The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT), National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists (NAVP)
- Hydrotherapy: National Association of Registered Canine Hydrotherapists, Canine Hydrotherapy Association
- Laser therapy
- Acupuncture: Association of British Veterinary Acupuncturists
- Magnetic field therapy
- Chiropathy: The Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP), British Veterinary Chiropractic Association (BVCA)
- Osteopathy: The Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP), European Veterinary Society for Osteopathy (EVSO)
- Homoeopathy: British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons
- Electrohydraulic shockwave therapy
Surgery for arthritis
The surgical approach to managing arthritis in dogs can be simplified into three main categories:
Preventative surgery: Aims to delay the onset of arthritis due to abnormal or damaged joints.
Stabilising surgery: Aims to slow the progression or control the pain of arthritis. A good example is a surgery that aims to re-establish the stability lost in a cranial cruciate ligament rupture (a disease of the knee).
Salvage surgery: Aims to improve the dog’s symptoms and not to preserve the joint. An example is a total hip replacement or a femoral head excision surgery for hip arthritis.
Intra-articular treatments for arthritis
Managing the disease through injections in the joint.
There are many different intra-articular injection medications and substances:
- Hyaluronic acid
- Platelet rich plasma
- Stem cells
Unfortunately, there is still incomplete scientific work to encourage the use of these treatments more commonly.
What role do you play for your dog with arthritis?
Home treatments for arthritis in dogs
As part of your vet’s treatment plan, often it is advised that you introduce one or more of the following:
- Weight control
- Diet and nutrition
- Home environment adaptations
- Modifying exercise routines
- Heating pads
Weight control for a dog with arthritis
A healthy weight will relieve stress on the joints and is an important part of minimising pain, as well as slowing down the progression of the disease.
Studies have shown that losing 6% of excess body weight will significantly reduce an arthritic dog’s lameness.
Note that 63% of all dogs are overweight, and 90% of owners cannot see that their dog is overweight!
The best way to assess your dog is to look at their body shape. Give your dog a “body condition score” using the body condition score chart.
If you need help reducing your dog’s weight, reach out to a vet nurse.
Body Condition Score (BCS) is a scale that gives a practical evaluation of the fat coverage of your dogs body. By checking how easy or not it is to feel certain bony areas of the body, a score is then produced. There are several scales, from 1 to 5 or 1 to 9. The ideal body condition lies in the middle, so either 3/5 or 5/9.
The body areas normally checked for fat coverage are:
1. ribs and spine
2. hips and shoulders
Here are a few tips on how to do it.
With your pet in a standing position:
- Place your hands on the rib cage and gently feel for each rib, without pressing too hard
- Feel the waist and look from the top and the side (if you have a very furry breed, it may be harder to assess)
- Feel the spine, which runs down the middle of the back
- Feel the top of the hips and shoulders
Diet and nutrition for a dog with arthritis
- Mobility/joint support commercial foods: help with weight management and have the added benefit of including ingredients similar to those found in supplements. This reduces the need for extra costs on supplements and may help reduce the amount of pain medication given.
- Reaching and maintaining optimal body weight: when using other foods, consider your dog’s reduced energy needs.
- Supplements: added to meals can help with optimal body weight and joint support.
Supplements for a dog with arthritis
There are many easily available supplements for dogs. Be careful when buying these, always seek veterinary advice first.
Below is a complete list of supplements that may help to ease arthritis symptoms:
- Avocado & soybean unsaponifiables (supplement made from a specific part of the oil of avocados and from soybeans) – Do not feed avocado fruit to your pet without consulting a professional, there is a risk of obstruction and pancreatitis
- Boswelia (extracted from the bark and resin of the indian boswelia tree)
- Cat’s claw (from an amazonian plant)
- CBD (an active ingredient in cannabis extrated from hemp plant)
- Chondroitin sulphate (extracted from mammalian cartilage, normally cow windpipes)
- Collagen hydrosylates (also known as gelatin, it’s made from collagenous structures of mammals such as bovine tendons)
- Devil’s claw (a plant)
- DPLA (a protein that is believed to have pain relief and mood elevating effects)
- Glucosamine (a natural compound found in cartilage)
- Green lipped mussel extract (a bivalve mollusc extract)
- Hyaluronic acid (a component of joint fluid that gives it elasticity)
- Methylsulfonylmethane (a chemical that occurs naturally in humans, as well as some green plants and animals)
- Omega-3&6 fatty acids (polyunsaturated fatty acids)
- SAMe (a compound found naturally in the body)
- Turmeric & curcumin (turmeric is a plant, whose roots are commonly used to make the spice, while curcumin is the naturally-occurring compound in the plant’s roots that give it the yellow colour)
- Vitamin E
- Willow bark (a herbal preparation that contains salicylic acid from which aspirin is derived)
Home environment adaptations for a dog with arthritis
Features within the home environment can positively or negatively affect your dog’s ability to move safely and independently.
These adaptation options can improve your dog’s quality of life:
- Cover slippery floors: Secure mats and rugs to the floor with non-slip tape to stop them from moving and minimise slipping.
- Adapt your stairs: You can do this by using a sling or a harness or by adding ramps.
- Find a suitable bed: Dogs that struggle to step into their beds may find it easier if the edge is sloped. Shorter legs need lower beds.
- Furniture access:
- Make sure any ramp or step has a non-slip surface.
- Give your dog a mat or carpet to stand on for feeding and drinking.
- Raised bowls can sometimes be very helpful.
Modifying exercises routines for your arthritic dog
Regular and controlled walks are very important, as this can also provide a natural pain relief effect if done correctly.
A sudden increase in exercise can make your dog more stiff and painful.
But how many minutes and how much time per day should you exercise your dog?
Each dog is different, so keep the walks at a comfortable length and frequency for your pet.
Watch your dog on your walk and observe:
- Are they getting slow?
- Are they dragging behind?
- Have they become a bit wobbly?
- Are they beginning to stumble or scuff their feet?
If you see changes that indicate they are tired or starting to struggle, turn around and head home.
Make an exercise plan
This can prevent pain afterwards and will still provide happy walks. Things to think about before going out:
- The landscape. Avoid hard, irregular landscapes and soft sand beaches. Choose flat, short grass instead.
- Avoid tricky obstacles
- Adapt your routine
- Stop high-intensity exercises and games (you can still make it fun with more mentally stimulating games instead)
- Conserve energy to get home
- Take a break during the walk
Heat pads for dogs with arthritis
Heat increases blood flow to an area, reducing muscle spasms and providing a soothing sensation.
For most dogs, applying a heat pack to the stiff areas for 10 minutes before exercise can be helpful. Seek professional advice from a vet.
What to expect if your dog has arthritis?
How long will a dog with arthritis live?
Your dog’s arthritis will continue to progress over time.
Although there’s no cure for arthritis, by working closely with your vet, there are lots of ways you can control the symptoms and keep your dog comfortable without shortening their life.
Cost of treating a dog with arthritis
Treatment for arthritis can become expensive.
It is important that you insure your dog as soon as you get them, before any signs of illness start, so you have all the support you need to look after them.
Try to speak openly to your vet about any treatment cost concerns, along with what you think is right for your dog.
Often, there are multiple treatment options, so if one doesn’t work for you and your pet, then your vet may be able to offer an alternative.
When to put a dog down with arthritis?
When making this very emotional and hard decision, there are some tools that can help you find the right moment to say goodbye by looking for consistent deterioration and poor quality of life.
If you need help coping with grief and loss, you can contact us at Joii.
Can arthritis in dogs be prevented?
When the likely cause of arthritis is early identified, it is possible to prevent and delay the clinical signs of arthritis.
Practical ways to reduce your dog’s chances of developing arthritis later in life:
Speak to a vet or nurse
They can help with early diagnosis and track any changes.
This will allow for more treatment options and more time for you to influence the course of the disease.
As they reach middle and senior age, this becomes increasingly important.
Giving your dog the correct food and quantity for their age and stage of development is vital.
Exercise with caution
Staying fit and exercising regularly will help your dog’s muscles stay strong and reduce joint stress.
Never exercise to the point of fatigue.
High impact, sharp starts or stops, twisting, and repetitive movements such as ball throwing can be too intense for the joints.
If you plan to neuter your dog, do so with guidance regarding the most appropriate age for their breed.
Early neutering can increase the risk of arthritis.
Dogs with developmental joint diseases leading to severe arthritis should not be used for breeding.
When to worry
When to worry if your dog has Arthritis?
Call your local vet if your dog shows any of these signs:
- Continued or worsening symptoms despite treatment
- Sudden and dramatic worsening of stiffness or limping
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting or diarrhoea, especially if taking medications
- Increased drinking or urination
Waiting until your dog yelps or their legs fail to confirm your suspicions of pain will mean they are in excruciating pain. Click here for help with identifying subtle signs of pain.
Speak to us at Joii if you need help:
- identifying pain in your dog
- preventing arthritis in your dog
- when your dog starts to develop any stiffness
- coping with grief and loss