Bernadette Burton has seen her fair share of arthritis in dogs. Over the years, she has cared for many dogs with arthritis, both her own dogs and those she fosters through Russell Rescue, Inc., a national rescue organization that specializes in finding homes for Jack Russell Terriers.
Caring for a dog with arthritis can be a challenge. Burton, who is Russell Rescue’s senior state representative for the Carolinas Region, said that taking care of a dog with arthritis takes lots of patience.
“You have to juggle so many parts of your day,” she says. “It’s a routine—the pills and feedings, and the moments of accidents when they cannot make it outside. You have to devise new strategy for where they sleep or how close they are to exit doors to continue to enable to them to have some freedom, not compromising quality of life.”
What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis in dogs is a degenerative condition of the joints that causes stiffness, pain, and difficulty standing, jumping and walking. Arthritis is common in older dogs, but middle-aged dogs and sometimes even young dogs can also develop arthritis. Arthritis can be caused by a number of things:
- Joint injuries 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 osteochondrosis 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 served as a survival mechanism when dogs lived in the wild and any sign of weakness could make them a target for predators. For these reasons, we must look for the sometimes-subtle signs of arthritis.
“Owners will note problems with gait (limping or stiffness), or problems rising from sitting or lying down,” says Neal Sivula, DVM, Ph.D., president-elect of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and owner of Dancing Paws Animal Wellness Center in Richfield, Ohio. “We also have owners who will report that their pet will hesitate to lay down. Some pets will exhibit behavior changes like hiding, or in rare cases, extreme reluctance to be touched by people or other animals.”
Dog arthritis symptoms can develop slowly over time or seem to develop suddenly. Not all dogs with arthritis will exhibit all these symptoms, but some signs of arthritis in dogs include:
- Difficulty standing up
- Difficulty lying down
- Reluctance to go up flights of stairs
- Reluctance to jump up on the couch or bed
- Reduced interest in playing
- Not wanting to be touched
- Grouchy or irritable mood
- Has potty accidents inside
- Seems tired or lethargic (sleeping more)
Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs
If you suspect that your dog might have arthritis, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a physical exam. During the exam, your vet will “palpate” (feel) your dog’s limbs to check for swelling and joint instability, and to assess if your dog seems to be in pain.
“Additionally, we can feel restriction in the range of motion in affected joints in chronic cases,” Dr. Sivula says. “Physical examination findings are usually confirmed with a radiograph (X-ray).”
Arthritis in Dogs: Treatment
Arthritis is painful and affects mobility, so finding the right treatment for your dog is crucial. However, one of the most important treatments for arthritis in dogs is not a medication.
“The number one thing that needs to be addressed is weight management,” says Lisa P. Weeth, BS, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, owner of Weeth Nutrition Services based in Los Angeles, California. “Dogs that are overweight or obese who lose even 10 percent of their weight actually have improved mobility without any other interventions.”
Excess weight puts even more stress on already compromised joints. Simply lightening that load can do wonders to improve 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 routine tailored to what your dog can handle.
In addition to weight loss, medical management of arthritis in dogs may include certain drugs to control pain, as well as other therapies.
“We use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, as well as other pain-relieving medications, such as tramadol, gabapentin, amantadine, etc.,” Dr. Sivula says. “Rehabilitation therapy can be very helpful, and includes rehabilitation exercises, the application of heat and cold to affected joints, range of motion exercises, hydrotherapy, magnetic therapy and massage, to name a few. Surgery is also used in some cases.”
Many holistic therapies are also used to treat arthritis and manage pain.
“Arthritis can be treated with physical modalities, such as acupuncture or chiropractic,” Dr. Sivula says. “We also use nutritional supplements, both Western and Chinese herbal medicines, as well as homeopathic remedies for pain relief.”
Many owners wonder if there are any good home remedies for arthritis in dogs. The good news is certain nutritional supplements may contribute to reducing arthritis symptoms. Fish oil, for instance, is one dog arthritis natural remedy. According to Dr. Weeth, therapeutic levels of fish oil have been shown in studies to decrease inflammation, which can improve dog arthritis symptoms. Glucosamine and chondroitin—found in Dr. Lyon’s Hip and Joint Support supplement for dogs, for example—are also touted for supporting and promoting regeneration of joint tissue. Green-lipped mussel contains fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin. Dr. Weeth says supplements that contain green-lipped mussel are generally considered safe and have few side effects when used properly.
Always work with your veterinarian when using dog arthritis supplements. He or she will know if a supplement if safe for your dog and whether it might help.
“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 potentially helpful, then let’s try it.”
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.
“Therapeutic diets designed for joint disease—the ones that require a veterinarian’s prescription—have good efficacy studies where they’ve demonstrated that higher levels of omega-3s, when omega-6 levels are controlled, increases the amount of omega-3 that gets incorporated into every cell in the body, and there is a statistically significant improvement in mobility,” Dr. Weeth says.
Common Questions About Arthritis in Dogs
What can I give my dog for arthritis pain?
A: It’s best to work with your veterinarian to determine what to give your dog with arthritis, but many dog arthritis pain relief options are available, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain-relieving medications. Additionally, nutritional supplements (including fish oil, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and green-lipped mussel), therapeutic joint diets, Western and Chinese herbal medicines, and homeopathic remedies might all help dogs with arthritis.
How can I help a dog with arthritis at home?
“Watching a dog having a hard time standing, or getting tired more easily, or creating areas for them to stay while you are away is heartbreaking,” says Burton who started coming home on her lunch hour to help her dogs with arthritis get outside for potty breaks.
In addition to giving arthritic dogs more frequent bathroom breaks, dog ramps and stairs can help them get up on the couch or your bed when jumping becomes too difficult. Consider extra plush, supportive beds, like the Frisco tufted lounger bed, to soothe aching joints. Bernadette likes big beds with high sides so the dog doesn’t roll off, like Frisco’s Orthopedic Bolster Sofa Dog Bed.
How long can a dog live with arthritis?
A: 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.
Can a dog die from arthritis?
A: Probably not, says Dr. Sivula. However, a dog’s can quality of life can decline so much so that the owner might consider euthanasia.
When is it time to consider euthanasia?
A: Many owners worry that they may not know when to euthanize a dog with arthritis. Dr. Sivula counsels pet parents to consider euthanasia when a dog is under the care of a veterinarian but his pain cannot be managed, or when his quality of life has diminished significantly.