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Dog Arthritis: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Canine arthritis is a chronic condition with no cure. Fortunately, there are many ways to manage it so that your pup can continue living a full and happy life.

Written by Raquel Astacio. Published in September 2022.

One of the greatest joys that we, as pet parents, get to experience is the effortless comfort of day-to-day life with our dogs. For many of us, our pets are our greatest companions. They offer friendship, love, comfort, protection, and so much more. And the best part? They do so unconditionally without expecting anything in return.

As writer Josh Billings once said, “a dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself.”

But one day, inevitably, we will wake up to find that our blissful routine has been interrupted. Many of us have experienced this same troubling scene, though it will look different for everyone. Maybe you take your dog out for his morning stroll, and he falls to the ground after a few steps. Or perhaps you witness your dog take a tumble down the same stairs that he’s flown down in years past.

Seeing your pet in distress can be nerve-wracking, and while we’re realistic enough to acknowledge that dogs don’t live forever, some hopeful part of us plunges our senses into denial. We don’t want to watch our pets get older because we don’t want to face the reality that our days of endless bliss are coming to an end.

Fortunately, in this day and age of modern medicine, we can help our suffering pets by managing their pain. If your pet struggles to get up in the morning, stumbles when walking, or is hesitant to jump on the couch or in the car, he may suffer from an all-too-common condition known as arthritis.

What is Canine Arthritis?

A condition that affects everyday movement, canine arthritis will impact one in five dogs during their lifetime. Arthritis, also known as Degenerative Joint Disease, is a progressive condition characterized by joint inflammation. This type of inflammation is usually caused by deterioration of cartilage (the connective tissue that protects our joints and bones) and can affect any joint in the body. In a dog’s case, arthritis most commonly plagues the back and hind limbs.

According to the American Kennel Club, “in a healthy joint, cartilage acts as a cushion to allow the joint to move smoothly through its full range of motion. In cases of osteoarthritis, this cartilage cushion begins to break down because of factors such as age, injury, repetitive stress, or disease. The loss of this protective cushion results in pain, inflammation, decreased range of motion, and the development of bone spurs.”

Many people think of arthritis as an old dog’s disease. However, recent case studies tell us that genetics, activity levels, and injury can all play a significant role in the development of arthritis (even in young, healthy dogs). We know that arthritis is a painful condition, often accompanied by severe stiffness. And while there is no cure for this progressive disease, we can often manage a pet’s discomfort with medications, various forms of physical therapy, and more. This allows us to improve (and maybe even extend) our pet’s life, bringing our blissful routine back into focus.

Causes of Canine Arthritis

Arthritis is classically referred to as an age-related disease. Thought of by many as a consequence of getting old, 80% of dogs will show signs of arthritis by the age of eight. However, age is not the only cause of arthritis in dogs. Other common culprits include:

  • Obesity
  • Repetitive stress (often from athletic activities such as running, diving, agility, etc.)
  • Genetics
  • Lack of proper nutrition
  • Body conformation
  • Abnormal joint development
  • Injury
  • Metabolic diseases (such as Diabetes or Cushing’s Disease)
  • Infectious or viral disease (such as Lyme Disease)

While age is undoubtedly the predominant cause of arthritis, any and all of these factors can impact your pet’s joint health. In large (or extra large) dogs, signs of arthritis may appear at an even earlier age. This is because the bones and joints of a large-breed dog are subject to carrying significant weight, accelerating the wear and tear of the joint itself.

Some of the most common breeds that develop arthritis include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, Labrador Retrievers, and Great Danes. However, arthritis can affect any dog, regardless of breed or size.

Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs

There are many “tell-tale” signs of arthritis in dogs, though perhaps the most noticeable are changes in everyday behavior. If your own pup is hesitant to perform many of his normal activities, he may be experiencing arthritis-related pain. Other symptoms can include:

  • Overall stiffness (especially in the back or hind legs)
  • Difficulty getting up or down from a sitting or lying position
  • Lameness
  • Reluctance to use stairs
  • Reluctance to jump (into the car, onto the couch, etc.)
  • Loss of stamina
  • Swollen or sore joints
  • Reluctance to be pet in certain areas
  • Isolation from people or other animals
  • Sudden or unprovoked aggression
  • Excessive licking of the painful joint

Other signs may include loss of appetite, sudden incontinence, unusual weight gain, or excessive sleeping. The latter of these symptoms are caused by your pet’s sheer unwillingness to move. Arthritis pain, when left untreated, can be unbearably painful, and many dogs will make a choice to simply stop moving to prevent further pain.

Arthritis in Young Dogs

While arthritis often plagues the old or geriatric, it is entirely possible for young dogs to develop the same condition. Two of the most common causes of arthritis in young dogs are injury or trauma (such as a fracture or ligament tear) or a developmental abnormality (often genetic or breed-related). German Shepherds, for example, are prone to hip dysplasia and are, therefore, more likely to develop arthritis at a young age.

Experts believe that 20% of dogs will show signs of arthritis as early as one year of age. Fortunately, the earlier we discover the presence of the condition, the more options there are for treatment. If the arthritis is localized to one area (say the hip, for example), many owners will pursue surgical intervention for their young pet. However, there are also many affordable, less intensive ways to treat arthritis pain, many of which start at home.

Diagnosing Canine Arthritis

Your veterinarian may be able to diagnose your pet’s arthritis based solely on their symptoms. It is, after all, a condition that they likely witness day after day. In fact, many veterinarians are able to localize the most significant source of pain by palpating your pet’s various joints and monitoring for a response. If, for example, your vet applies pressure to your pet’s spine and they wince or yelp, you can surmise that that particular area is a source of pain. This can be greatly beneficial in choosing an appropriate course of treatment.

Additionally, your veterinarian may recommend performing a series of radiographs on your pet. If your dog does, in fact, have arthritis, your veterinarian will be able to diagnose it by scouring the radiographic images for narrowing bone space, spurs on the edge of the joint, and even deformity. This, too, can help localize the source of arthritic pain, serving as a guide for the best course of treatment.

Treating Canine Arthritis

While there is no cure for canine arthritis, there are a plethora of treatment options that will allow us to effectively manage our pet’s pain and discomfort. If we can successfully manage our pet’s arthritis pain, we can afford them the opportunity to live a full and happy life despite the presence of a chronic disease.

Medication for Canine Arthritis

As veterinary medicine continues to advance, more and more options have become available for managing a pet’s arthritic pain. If you feel that your pet may be suffering from arthritis, we recommend bringing him in for a visit with your family veterinarian. Using a combination of diagnostics and experience, your vet should be able to isolate the source of pain to a specific joint. This will be incredibly beneficial in deciding on an effective treatment plan.

Two of the most common prescription medications for treating arthritic pain are Galliprant and Rimadyl (Carprofen). These medications can be thought of as a form of doggy Ibuprofen, designed to reduce joint inflammation and pain. There are many benefits of these two popular medications; for starters, they are non-steroidal and have a very short list of side effects.

That being said, pet owners using an NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug) to manage chronic arthritis pain should be diligent in requesting routine bloodwork for their pet. The purpose of this is to ensure that your pet’s organs are functioning well and not being negatively affected by the use of an NSAID.

For pets with more sensitive tummies, an NSAID may cause gastrointestinal distress. If your pet begins vomiting or having diarrhea after taking one of these medications, stop administering it immediately and notify your veterinarian.

Physical Therapy for Canine Arthritis

For centuries, physical therapy has been used to effectively treat chronic pain. Today, there are many at-home therapy options for pet owners to pursue, many of which are proven to reduce pain and improve mobility. The simplest place to start? Walking your dog.

Many pet owners will hesitate to walk their arthritic dog, and we totally understand why! After all, the last thing you want to do is cause your already-ailing pet more pain than he is already experiencing. However, studies show that short, consistent activity (such as a leisurely walk) helps to improve mobility and maintain strength.

If your pet is allowed to remain inactive, his muscles will begin to waste, allowing arthritis to spread more quickly. This can result in a dangerous snowball of pain and discomfort. We, as pet parents, can combat this spread by consistently exercising our dogs, allowing them to maintain muscle mass and fight off the spread of arthritis.

In addition to regular exercise, some of the most popular therapy options for pets include:

  • Massaging the ailing joints
  • Cryotherapy (icing the painful area)
  • Thermotherapy (applying heat to the painful area)
  • Hydrotherapy (controlled swimming)
  • Laser therapy

Natural Home Remedies

Some of the most effective options for managing your pet’s arthritic pain have nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with lifestyle. Ensuring that your own pet is living a healthy, active lifestyle (even in old age) will be way more beneficial for pain management than medicine could ever hope to be.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

The science is simple: the more weight your pet’s joints are carrying, the quicker they will deteriorate. Weight gain is a common symptom reported by owners with arthritic pets and is often due to their reluctance to exercise. The trick to fixing this problem? Reduce your pet’s food in relation to their activity. This means that, if Fido refuses to get up for his daily walk, you cut back his food. Consult with your veterinarian to determine an appropriate amount of food to give, and remember: Weight management plays a HUGE role in maintaining the health of your pet’s joints.

Make Your Home Arthritis-Friendly

As a pup ages, many owners are forced to rethink the layout of their homes and to reinvent their pet’s routine. This will look different for everyone, but it may include replacing Fido’s bed with a softer, more padded option. In addition, you may need to move his food and water bowls closer to the bed so that they are easy to reach without too much effort. Eliminate access to stairs or ramps, and do not allow your pet to jump without assistance. By creating a safe space at home for your aging pet, you can better control his pain and prevent detrimental injury.

Sharing is Caring - Unless It’s Processed

Sharing table scraps is easy to do - what’s difficult is resisting those puppy dog eyes that are begging for it! While sharing food can be a great bonding experience between you and your pet, be careful not to allow processed foods into his diet. Processed food has been linked to causing inflammation - something your arthritis-stricken pup does NOT need more of. If sharing is caring in your book, consider, instead, offering your pup a dog-safe vegetable such as carrots or broccoli. Veggies are rich in antioxidants which help to naturally fight inflammation. As a bonus? Your pup will love you forever for sharing a tasty snack.

Natural Supplements

There are a variety of natural supplements that will decrease inflammation and reduce your pet’s arthritic pain. Some of the most popular include:

  • Turmeric (loaded with inflammation’s arch-nemesis: antioxidants)
  • Comfrey (known to reduce inflammation AND provide natural pain relief)
  • Yucca (a root-based substance that will decrease inflammation and promote a healthy GI tract)

Joint Supplements

A popular over-the-counter arthritis remedy, Glucosamine and Chondroitin are two of the most popular joint supplements that your veterinarian may recommend. These naturally-occurring supplements help to reduce joint pain and inflammation by speeding up the body’s process of repairing damaged cartilage. Often used for preventative purposes, Glucosamine and Chondroitin are beneficial for dogs of all ages and can safely be used long-term.

There are several ways to administer Glucosamine and Chondroitin. In its natural form, these supplements can be found in a variety of foods including:

  • Green-Lipped Mussels
  • Shellfish Shells
  • Ox or Pig Tails
  • Chicken Feet
  • Beef, Goat, or Lamb Trachea

Additionally, these two arthritic-fighting substances can be found in our Glucosamine for Dogs supplement.

CBD for Canine Arthritis

While CBD may be a somewhat alternative solution for some, recent studies into the efficacy of CBD for arthritic pain have been overwhelmingly positive. A non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, CBD (short for cannabidiol) is an exciting compound praised for its therapeutic effects on the body.

And to answer a commonly asked question: No, CBD will not make your dog high.

Available in various forms, CBD is known to significantly reduce pain and discomfort for both dogs and people with arthritis. There is also evidence to suggest that CBD reduces inflammation in the body, though the jury is still out on that particular claim. While CBD may not be an end–all–be–all solution for pain management, its use, accompanied with regular exercise and a healthy diet, has been revolutionary in the ongoing attempt to rid the body of chronic pain.

Best Dog Food for Canine Arthritis

Therapeutic diets are increasing in popularity for chronic arthritis patients. And while there are several great joint-friendly dog foods on the market, much of that food’s effect on the body has more to do with the ingredients than with the food itself.

If you would prefer not to change your dog’s food, consider, instead, adding in one of these joint-friendly superfoods:

  • Sweet Potato
  • Ginger
  • Papaya
  • Blueberry
  • Celery
  • Coconut Oil
  • Fish Oil
  • Turmeric
  • Alfalfa

Alternatively, if you would prefer to start your pet on a food designed for joint health, consider one of these great options:

  • Hills Science Diet: J/D
  • Hills Science Diet: Healthy Mobility
  • Royal Canin: Maxi Aging Care (Senior)
  • Merrick Real: Texas Beef and Sweet Potato Recipe
  • Blue Buffalo: Mobility Support

Aspirin and Ibuprofen

Aspirin and other such human-grade NSAIDs are highly toxic to dogs. Ingestion of human NSAIDs has been linked to liver and kidney failure and can result in extreme illness and even death. This can happen regardless of dose or frequency - and, yes, even Baby Aspirin can cause serious illness. To be on the safe side, NEVER administer any over-the-counter drug without thorough research from a trusted source. When in doubt, call your family veterinarian and allow them to guide you through the do’s and don'ts of at-home pain management.

End Stage Arthritis in Dogs

The development and progression of canine arthritis is often measured in stages.

Stage 1: The first stage of canine arthritis is the preventative stage. Most veterinarians will consider a pet to be Stage 1 if they are predisposed to a certain condition that is likely to cause the development of arthritis. These include size (large or extra large dog breeds), genetic risk factors (such as luxating patellas), and conformation abnormalities. Pet parents of Stage 1 dogs are encouraged to pursue preventative treatments such as preemptive joint radiographs, joint supplements, and glucosamine.

Stage 2: In the second stage, arthritis is present but not painful. Dogs experiencing stage two arthritis will not show any pain, discomfort, or lameness, though they may develop slight changes in mobility during times of strenuous exercise. If your own pet, for instance, develops a slight limp after a game of fetch, he may be experiencing stage two arthritis.

Stage 3: The third stage of canine arthritis is when your pet begins to actively show signs or symptoms. If you’re taking your pup to the vet because he’s sleeping more often, hesitant to go for his walk, or seems stiffer in the mornings, he is likely in Stage 3. At this stage, the primary goal is to implement whatever changes are necessary to maximize your pet’s comfort and mobility.

Stage 4: The final stage of canine arthritis is undoubtedly the most obvious. During end-stage arthritis, your pet will be unable to move much (if at all) and will be continuously suffering from severe joint pain. Dogs in this stage will often develop incontinence, and many will develop sudden, seemingly unprovoked aggression. Stage 4 arthritis is a cry for help.

While there are many great options for treating your pup’s arthritis pain, the hard truth is that, at some point, it may not be enough. If your aging pup’s pain is greater than their overall quality of life, it may be time to say goodbye.

Living with Chronic Arthritis

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for canine arthritis. However, by implementing one or more changes in your pup’s diet, lifestyle, and routine, your pet can continue to live a full and happy life by your side. While arthritis may be chronic, it can be kept at bay to ensure that your dog continues to enjoy the simple bliss of day-to-day life with his favorite human - you!

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