Arthritis in Dogs: Signs, Treatment and Everything Else You Need to Know

By: Laura WillardUpdated:

arthritis in dogs: dog lying on ground inside home
iStock.com/Marsell Gorska Gautier

Arthritis in Dogs: Signs, Treatment and Everything Else You Need to Know

Did you know that dogs can get arthritis, too? In fact, it’s fairly common, particularly in older dogs.

While arthritis can lead to significant discomfort and a decline in your dog’s quality of life, there’s no need for them to suffer needlessly. Treatment options, including natural remedies, prescription medications, therapy and more can help alleviate the pain.

We spoke to a vet expert to learn exactly what arthritis is, the signs of arthritis in dogs and more.

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis in dogs is a degenerative joint condition that causes stiffness, pain and difficulty standing, jumping and walking. While prevalent in older dogs, arthritis can also affect middle-aged and even young dogs.

The most common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease. The deterioration of cartilage causes worsening inflammation in the joints.

Arthritis in dogs has a number of causes:

  • Injuries to the dog’s joints or infections
  • Ligament damage, such as a torn cranial cruciate ligament in the knee
  • Genetic conditions such as those that cause joint instability (like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and luxating patella) or osteochondritis dissecans (which causes a thickening of joint cartilage)
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Thinning of the joint cartilage due to old age

Dog Arthritis Symptoms

Dogs can’t tell us if they are feeling pain, and in fact, they are hard-wired to hide signs of injury or illness. This instinct was crucial for their survival when they lived in the wild, as any sign of weakness could make them a target for predators. For these reasons, we must look for the sometimes-subtle signs of arthritis in our pups.

Dog arthritis symptoms can develop slowly over time or seem to develop suddenly. Not all dogs with arthritis will exhibit all of these symptoms, but some signs of arthritis in dogs include:

  • Limping
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty standing up
  • Difficulty lying down
  • Reluctance to climb stairs
  • Reluctance to jump onto the couch or bed
  • Decreased interest in playing
  • Avoidance of being touched
  • Irritable or moody behavior
  • Indoor potty accidents
  • Appearing tired or lethargic (sleeping more)

Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs

If you suspect that your dog may be suffering from arthritis, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a physical exam.

During the exam, your vet will “palpate” (or manually feel) your dog’s limbs to check for swelling, joint instability, or signs of discomfort or pain.

“Additionally, we can feel restriction in the range of motion in affected joints in chronic cases,” says Dr. Neal Sivula, DVM, Ph.D., owner of Dancing Paws Animal Wellness Center in Richfield, Ohio.

Findings from the physical examination are usually confirmed with radiographs (X-rays).

Treating Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis is painful and impacts mobility, so finding the right treatment for your dog is crucial. Consider the following treatment options.

Weight Management

“The No. 1 thing that needs to be addressed is weight management,” says Dr. Lisa P. Weeth, BS, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, owner of Weeth Nutrition Services based in Los Angeles, California.

“Dogs who are overweight or obese who lose even 10 percent of their weight actually have improved mobility without any other interventions,” Dr. Weeth adds.

Excess weight puts even more stress on already compromised joints. Simply lightening that load can work wonders in decreasing joint pain and improving your dog’s arthritis symptoms.

Your veterinarian can work with you to develop the right weight-loss plan for your dog, including an appropriate diet and an exercise regimen tailored to your dog’s capabilities.

Medication

In addition to weight loss, medical management of arthritis in dogs may include certain medications to reduce inflammation and control pain, such as:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Tramadol
  • Gabapentin
  • Amantadine

Rehabilitation Therapy

According to Dr. Sivula, rehabilitation therapy can be helpful for arthritic dogs. Options include:

  • Rehabilitation exercises
  • Application of heat and cold to affected joints
  • Range of motion exercises
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Magnetic therapy
  • Massage
  • Surgery, in certain cases

Nutritional Supplements

For pet parents interested in home remedies for arthritis in dogs, certain nutritional supplements may help reduce arthritis symptoms such as joint pain. They include:

  • Fish oil: Studies have shown that therapeutic levels of fish oil decrease inflammation, which can improve dog arthritis symptoms, Dr. Weeth says.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin: These supplements are touted for supporting and promoting regeneration of joint tissue.
  • Green-lipped mussel: This supplement is an all-in-one, containing fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin. Supplements with green-lipped mussel are generally considered safe and have few side effects when used properly, Dr. Weeth says.

“I always target weight loss first, maintaining a lean body weight, and then supplements are a way to enhance the response once the animal has lost the weight,” Dr. Weeth says. “When I look at supplements, if it isn’t harmful and [is] potentially helpful, then let’s try it.”

Over-the-counter supplements you may want to consider include:

Super Snouts Joint Power 100% Green Lipped Mussels Dog & Cat Supplement
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Nutramax Cosequin with Glucosamine & Chondroitin DS Joint Supplement for Dogs
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However, always work with your veterinarian when using dog arthritis supplements. They will know if a supplement is safe for your dog and whether it might help.

Therapeutic Diets

If giving a lot of supplements sounds daunting, therapeutic joint diets take some of the guesswork out of it.

Available only with a prescription from your veterinarian, these diets contain properly balanced, therapeutic levels of supplements known to contribute to improving dog arthritis symptoms.

If you’re interested in learning whether a therapeutic diet is a good option for your dog, make an appointment with your vet to discuss it.

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cell therapy involves utilizing the animal’s own stem cells to repair damaged tissues and reduce inflammation. The stem cells are extracted, processed and then injected back into the dog’s body, specifically targeting areas affected by arthritis, explains Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinarian at Animal Hospital of West Monroe in West Monroe, Louisiana, and the co-founder of How To Pets.

The purpose of stem cell therapy is twofold: to alleviate a dog’s arthritis symptoms and address the root cause of the problem, ideally reducing or stopping further joint damage.

While stem cell therapy is what Dr. Ochoa describes as a “promising solution to canine arthritis,” more-involved studies are needed to better understand whether stem cell therapy is effective and safe. There are potential side effects, like discomfort and infection, and the cost of treatment can be high.

Pet parents should talk to their vet if interested in learning more.

Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy involves a combination of exercises and treatments designed to manage pain, promote healing and improve strength and mobility, says Dr. Ochoa.

Physiotherapy is non-invasive and a great supplement to other treatment options such as medication, dietary changes and, in extreme cases, surgery. One of the big advantages is that it offers targeted relief, Dr. Ochoa says. The exercises can markedly alleviate pain from arthritis in dogs.

One type of physiotherapy is hydrotherapy, where dogs take the weight off their painful joints in a body of water, allowing them to exercise with less pain. “Over time, this helps rebuild strength in those muscles and improve overall mobility,” Dr. Ochoa says.

Other Treatment Options

Other treatment options, per Dr. Sivula, include:

  • Holistic therapies
  • Physical modalities such as acupuncture or chiropractic
  • Western and Chinese herbal medicines
  • Homeopathic remedies for pain relief

FAQs About Arthritis in Dogs

Q:

When do dogs usually develop arthritis?

A: Breed aside, older dogs are more likely to develop arthritis than younger ones.

“The process of aging contributes to the wearing down of cartilage in their joints, thus leading to arthritis over time,” Dr. Ochoa says.

Q:

How can I prevent my dog from developing arthritis?

A:

Dr. Ochoa recommends the following, which can help manage or even prevent the onset of arthritis in any breed:

  • Regular health checkups
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Regular exercise
  • Making sure your dog has a comfortable and supportive sleeping environment
  • Incorporating joint supplements or diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Q:

Are some breeds more prone to developing arthritis?

A:

Certain breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers, are statistically more prone to developing arthritis, according to Dr. Ochoa.

“These types of dogs are often larger and put more weight onto their joints, leading to faster wear and tear,” Dr. Ochoa says.

Small breeds prone to obesity, like Dachshunds, can also be at high risk.

Q:

How can I help a dog with arthritis at home?

A:

In addition to giving arthritic dogs more frequent bathroom breaks, dog ramps and stairs can help them get up on a couch or bed when jumping becomes too difficult.

Consider purchasing an extra plush, supportive dog bed, like the Frisco Tufted Square Pillow dog bed, to soothe aching joints. Another good option is a big bed with high sides so the dog doesn’t roll off such as Frisco’s Orthopedic Bolster Sofa Dog Bed.

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Q:

How long can a dog live with arthritis?

A:

With proper management and pain control, and depending on other medical issues, dogs with arthritis can live a very long time, Dr. Sivula says. The key is keeping the dog at an ideal weight and working closely with your veterinarian to keep your pet comfortable.

Q:

Can a dog die from arthritis?

A:

Probably not, says Dr. Sivula. However, a dog’s quality of life can decline so much that the pet parent might consider euthanasia.

Q:

When is it time to consider euthanasia?

A:

Many pet parents worry that they may not know when it’s time to help their dog with arthritis cross the rainbow bridge. Consider euthanasia when a dog is under the care of a veterinarian but their pain cannot be managed, or when their quality of life has diminished significantly, Dr. Sivula says.

While arthritis in dogs is fairly common, especially in senior dogs, you can do a lot to help alleviate your pooch’s symptoms of arthritis and improve their quality of life. Learn more about keeping your senior dog happy and healthy.
Additional reporting by Jackie Brown.

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By: Laura WillardUpdated:

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