Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
Arthritis is a common age-related condition in both people and dogs. Few older dogs will avoid it, especially as canine lifespans continue to increase. At a mild level, arthritis is a nuisance that may cause stiffness, discomfort and intolerance to exercise.
More severe cases can impact a dog's overall well being, leave them in constant pain and sometimes result in euthanasia. However, there are lots of things owners can do to manage arthritis and enable a pet to enjoy its twilight years.
What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis is a condition where the joints of the body become inflamed leading to stiffness and pain. In humans, there are two types of arthritis - osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is caused by wear and tear on the joints and typically affects older people or those who have suffered a severe injury to the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by the immune system attacking the body and can occur at any age.
Most dogs with arthritis will be suffering from osteoarthritis. Dogs do not suffer from Rheumatoid arthritis as humans do, but they can suffer from immune-mediated polyarthritis, which is similar and is caused by the immune system attacking the dog's own body. Often it is a result of infection or another underlying condition such as cancer and is, therefore, a symptom of something else, rather than an illness on its own. Dogs with immune-mediated polyarthritis will be lame and stiff, but may also be suffering from fever, lethargy, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Immune-mediated polyarthritis is rare but requires veterinary diagnosis and treatment as the condition has a different root cause to osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis will affect 1 in 5 dogs during their lifetime. It causes the affected joint to swell painfully. A healthy joint should have a smooth surface where the two bones meet. This enables the bones to move past one another easily. The protective surface that ensures a joint can move freely and without pain is called cartilage. This vital body structure is unfortunately very slow to regenerate, meaning that it can become worn away, leaving the bone ends to rub together. This causes the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis.
If nothing is done to help the joint, then over time the body attempts to compensate by growing new bone. This causes the bones of the joint to become thicker and stiff, excess bone may form 'spurs' that stick out from the joint and cause further pain. Ultimately, a dog may be unwilling to use the affected limb because it is too painful.
What Causes Arthritis?
While wear and tear can result in osteoarthritis, most dogs suffering from the condition have either had an accident during their lifetime that has damaged a bone, or suffer from an underlying joint problem that has left them vulnerable to the disease.
Accidents that result in a broken bone or damage to the joints will predispose a dog to arthritis, especially if surgery is required to fuse bones or repair joints. Dogs that have been in an accident should be placed on joint supplements before arthritis develops and kept slim and well-muscled to minimise the possibility of future complications.
Joint deformities that a dog has had all its life often result in arthritis. These include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, luxating patella (slipping kneecaps) and spinal problems, especially in dogs with long backs. Many dogs with mild forms of these conditions will show no sign of them until arthritis develops. Responsible breeders will have a vet test their dogs for these conditions and only breed from animals that are sound. Buying a puppy from health-tested parents will minimise the chances of that dog developing arthritis in later life.
Repetitive strain injuries can also result in arthritis. For instance, chasing after a ball repeatedly on a daily basis can cause wear and tear on a dog's wrists or neck, that might result in arthritis. Jumping up and down on hard surfaces, such as concrete, can also be a factor, as microscopic damage is done to the joints with each the impact of each landing. Over time this can develop into chronic arthritis.
One final risk factor for arthritis is controversial. The removal of a dog's front dewclaws may predispose that dog to develop arthritis in the wrists, particularly if the dog is involved in high energy activities, such as agility. Chris Zink, DVM, of John Hopkins University has written extensively on this topic and the reasons why the lack of front dewclaws could lead to future problems.
Can I Prevent My Dog Getting Arthritis?
Whether your dog will get arthritis or not is based on a number of factors, some of which may be out of your control.
If you are buying a puppy, then sourcing one from a breeder who has the sire and dam health tested (this will involve x-raying hips and elbows, and having a vet check their knees, along with DNA tests that are breed-specific) will reduce your odds of having a puppy with a joint issue that can cause arthritis in later life. Unfortunately, genetics are complicated and even with health-tested parents a puppy might have a joint problem, but the risks are far lower than if you buy from a breeder who does no health tests.
If you have adopted a rescue dog, then health-testing is not going to be an option and that is one variable that is out of your control. You can, however, have an adult dog x-rayed to determine the soundness of its hips, elbows and spine before participating in intense dog sports such as agility or flyball.
Avoiding over-exercising a puppy can also prevent early joint damage. This does not mean a puppy gets no exercise, but it should be appropriate. For instance:
- Do allow puppies to free play (explore, sniff, wander) on grass and other soft surfaces.
- Don't force them to walk on lead for miles on concrete paths.
- Do break their exercise into small mini-walks of 10-30 minutes depending on age (by 6 months you can consider increasing it).
- Don't throw balls or other toys, as dogs chasing after thrown objects can strain their joints.
- Don't allow puppies to run up and down stairs, or to jump down onto concrete or other hard surfaces.
Weight is a factor in arthritis care that an owner can manage. Overweight dogs are more prone to arthritis, and those who already have arthritis will suffer more if they have excess weight to carry. Keeping a dog slim will help enormously to avoid putting extra strain on joints.
Maintaining fitness can also help. This means your dog having a good all-around muscular condition, with a toned core (tummy) and well-defined muscles on the hind legs. If your dog is lacking muscle tone, a canine physiotherapist will be able to assist you in developing their fitness.
Even with our best efforts, sometimes dogs will develop arthritis and then we must manage the problem and aim to keep them as happy and comfortable as possible.
How Do I Know if My Dog Has Arthritis?
The first sign most owners have of their dog suffering from arthritis is when they look stiff after exercise or when rising from sleep. This may be overlooked as simply a sign of old age.
As the problem progresses, a dog may develop lameness, and become slower on their daily walk, perhaps refusing to go out at all.
In dogs with arthritis in their hips (a common location for arthritis) there may be a noticeable narrowing of the hip and hind leg area. This is due to muscle loss caused by the dog avoiding putting too much weight on their hind limbs. Conversely, the dog may appear to be more muscular on their front quarters, as they are attempting to carry their weight mostly on their forelimbs.
A dog may seem grumpy, growling when touched or moved, especially when sleeping. They may seem to lack energy and just want to lay around all day.
Dogs may lick the area around the sore joint. Chronic licking can cause hotspots (sore patches of skin that easily become infected) or red staining of the fur in light-coated dogs.
A dog may show reluctance to jump up onto furniture or to climb stairs. If they have been doing an athletic sport such as field trials, they may display reluctance to perform activities they used to do with ease.
In some cases, you may be able to feel or see that a joint is swollen or hot to the touch.
How Is Arthritis Treated?
There is no cure for arthritis and, unfortunately, it is a condition that will worsen with time. However, there are things an owner can do to slow the progression of the disease and keep their dog moving.
There is a huge range of joint supplements out there for dogs, and the choice can be somewhat overwhelming. A good joint supplement can help ease inflammation and improve mobility. It can even assist in the repair or maintenance of cartilage, though be aware that an arthritic joint can never be fully restored to normal. The three key ingredients a joint supplement should have are:
- Glucosamine hydrochloride. Helps to alleviate arthritic pain by reducing inflammation.
- Chondroitin Sulfate. Can prevent cartilage from being broken down and stimulate it to regrow and repair itself.
- Methylsulfonylmethane. An anti-inflammatory that also helps protect cartilage and reduces joint pain.
Veterinary Pain Relief
In cases of severe arthritis, a prescription painkiller and anti-inflammatory may be necessary to enable your dog to move about freely. These need to be supplied by a vet and can have side-effects which need to be taken into account. Human painkillers such as aspirin and paracetamol, should not be given to dogs without consulting your vet. Ibuprofen should never be given to a dog as it is toxic to them.
If a pet is overweight, then those extra pounds are putting a strain on already sore joints. By reducing their weight, that pressure is reduced and will enable them to cope with their arthritis better.
This spice has been used in ancient medicine but is only slowly being recognised by modern science as having anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce the pain of arthritis. It can be bought as a commercial preparation for dogs, or prepared at home using this recipe.
Physiotherapy and Massage
Veterinary physiotherapists are trained to identify when a dog is not moving correctly and how to build up muscles appropriately to assist the dog's joints. Since every dog is different, and as an exercise that can be beneficial to one may be detrimental to another, it is important to find a fully qualified physio and have a bespoke exercise programme developed for your pet.
Physios usually offer massage as well, but you can also find canine massage specialists. While massage cannot alleviate joint pain, it can loosen muscles that have become stiff due to the dog using them incorrectly because of their arthritis. In the UK the Canine Massage Guild not only offers workshops to owners wanting to learn massage but has a full list of guild members so you can find one in your area.
Swimming is a great way for a dog to build muscle while taking pressure off sore joints. Hydrotherapy centres offer specialists who ensure your dog is swimming correctly to get the most out of the water. Your vet will usually be able to recommend a centre.
Casual swimming is also good for your dog, but will not provide the bespoke exercise of a hydrotherapy pool. Also, in cooler weather, swimming in cold water can worsen your dog's joint pain. If your dog goes for a swim in the winter, make sure to dry them off afterwards and provide them with a drying coat and somewhere warm to rest, to prevent stiffness and pain.
Dogs with arthritis should still receive daily exercise, as this will help to maintain muscle tone and their overall physical condition. It also keeps them mentally stimulated. However, exercise will need to be tailored to them. Perhaps instead of a two-hour hike, you take them for an hour-long saunter twice a day? Or even switch to three half-hour walks? Judge by your dog what they are able to do. If they are stiff after exercise, you may have done too much.
My Go-To Joint Supplement
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 20, 2020:
Your article covers all aspects of what to do if a pet dog seems to suffer from arthritis, or how to hopefully avoid it. I would never have thought that throwing a ball to a dog could potentially cause a problem.