arthritis in dogs

Arthritis in Dogs: What Every Pet Parent Should Know

Katelyn Son
By Katelyn Son
Medically reviewed by Jamie Freyer
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What is Arthritis in Dogs?

what is arthritis in dogs

Arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation at the joints. The disease is chronic, meaning it is long-term and therefore almost impossible to reverse. 

Arthritis affects different dogs in different ways. In some dogs, the disease is mild and may not even affect the daily activity or cause noticeable signs and symptoms. In other dogs, it can be extremely painful, causing a serious change in the quality of life and, in some cases, euthanization. 

Normally, arthritis will start out mildly but will worsen over time. The rate at which the disease progresses depends on the quality of management and the dog‘s conformation (elbow and hip dysplasia speed up the arthritis progression). 

Dog owners need to be aware that arthritis can affect any joints, but the limbs are the most commonly affected. 

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Types of Canine Arthritis

There are different forms of arthritis in dogs. Although the concept is the same, each arthritis type is unique. Here are the most common forms of canine arthritis. 

Osteoarthritis in Dogs. Osteoarthritis, also known as a degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a type of arthritis caused by wear to the cartilage at a dog’s joints. This is the most common type of arthritis in dogs, and it mostly affects older. Also, it is more strikingly apparent in dogs with a few extra pounds.  

Septic Arthritis in Dogs. This type of arthritis is caused by bacteria or another microbe like a virus or fungus. The infection of the joint space causes inflammation which can progress into arthritis. It can be caused by joint surgery, physical injury, osteoarthritis, systemic infections (Lyme disease), etc. Septic arthritis is statistically more common in large breed male dogs. 

Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis in Dogs. The immune system can sometimes wrongfully attack healthy body cells resulting in diseases. Such responses can be triggered by meds, genetics, and certain diseases. Immune-mediated polyarthritis usually affects all the joints and is called polyarthritis. 

What are the First Signs of Arthritis in Dogs?

The first sign of arthritis in dogs is a change in behavior, particularly around activities that involve movement. Getting up from a sitting or lying position is usually the most difficult task for dogs with arthritis. 

You will notice your dog become reluctant to perform regular activities like running, walking, or playing. This is because of the increasing discomfort in the joints as the disease progresses. 

Unfortunately, arthritis in the early stages rarely causes any obvious signs or symptoms. In most cases, the disease becomes apparent at a very late stage. This is why regular checkups by a licensed vet are encouraged. 

Visit your vet as soon as you notice a sustained change in your dog’s behavior.

What are the Most Common Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs?

The main symptom of arthritis in dogs is joint pain. However, dogs are good at hiding pain. That is why dog owners should be aware of the following symptoms: 

  • Stiffness at the joints. The changes within the joint affect normal function, making the joints less mobile and stiffer. 
  • Reduced willingness to exercise. The overall changes on a joint level and accompanying pain prevent the dog from leading an active life. 
  • Lameness or limping. As the pain in the joints increases, your dog’s gait will change to put less pressure on the affected joint giving an appearance of a limp. 
  • Painful joints. You may notice your dog flinch or whine if you touch or lightly press on her joints. Another indicator of pain is constant licking which sometimes results in red spots at the joints. 
  • Change in behavior and temperament. Living with constant pain may make your dog more aggressive or, the opposite, more lethargic. 
  • Weight gain. Due to a reduced interest in moving and participating in physical exercise, your dog may put on weight. 
  • Loss of muscle mass around the limbs. Muscle mass grows if it works. Since arthritic dogs move less, they may start to lose muscle on and around the limbs. 

What Causes Arthritis in Dogs?

what causes arthritis in big dogs

The most common causes of arthritis in dogs are:

  • Excess pressure on the joints
  • Developmental anomalies
  • Microbial infections
  • Auto-immune responses
  • Natural wear to the joint cartilage. 

Usually, the cause of arthritis in a dog will be a combination of two or more of these factors. Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of the occurrence of these causes, therefore, increasing the chances of your dog getting arthritis. 

Risk Factors for Arthritis in Dogs

There are many factors that can increase the dog’s risk of developing arthritis. Here is a review of the most important risk factors for arthritis in dogs. 

  • Age. Older dogs are more prone to arthritis than younger dogs. This is because older dogs generally have more wear to their joints simply from the fact that they have lived longer. Senior dogs are also generally more prone to disease as general dog health declines with age. 
  • Obesity. Very heavy dogs add carry more weight than their joints are meant to carry. This extra weight applies more pressure to the joints increasing the risk for inflammation. 
  • Breed. Large and giant breeds like German Shepherds, Great Danes, and Golden Retrievers are more prone to arthritis. This is because of their weight and tendency for other joint issues that are precursors to arthritis (eg. hip dysplasia). 
  • Level of physical activity. Very active dogs are more prone to joint problems including arthritis. Very inactive dogs are also prone to common issues because of their weaker bones.
  • Nutrition. Like any organ of the body, bones need optimal nutrition, and if a dog doesn’t feed adequately to support their health, they become prone to illness. A good dog diet should include bone-protective nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D to ensure optimal skeletal health.
  • Genetics. A dog whose parents had arthritis is more likely to develop the disease as well. This is because both arthritis and its precursor conditions like hip and elbow dysplasia can be inherited. 
  • Injuries. Joint-related injuries like tendon or ligament tears predispose the dog to degenerative changes within the joint structures.  
  • Past joint conditions. Other joint conditions like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or conformation issues, trigger changes in the joint and increase the risk of arthritis.

What Dog Breeds are Prone to Arthritis?

Giant and large breeds are the most prone to arthritis due to their relatively high body mass. A heavier bodyweight applies more pressure to the joints which accelerates the rate of degeneration at the joints. The breeds most prone to arthritis are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Rottweilers
  • Springer Spaniels
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Great Danes

How is Arthritis in Dogs Diagnosed?

There is no single test for arthritis in dogs. The process of diagnosing arthritis involves multiple steps which usually start with a physical examination. 

During the physical exam, the vet will start by touching and lightly pressing the joints to check for your dog’s reaction. She may also test the range of motion by moving the legs in different directions. 

After the physical exam, the vet will likely recommend an x-ray (radiograph). Other tests like blood tests, urine tests, and fecal tests may be performed to rule out other inflammatory diseases. 

Using the results from all the tests, your vet will then make a conclusion about whether your dog has arthritis or not. 

How do You Treat Arthritis in Dogs?

how do you treat arthritis in dogs

Treatment options for a dog’s arthritis include pain management, anti-inflammatory meds, joint supplements, good nutrition, and maintaining a healthy weight. 

The goal of arthritis in dogs treatment is to make living with the condition as bearable as possible. One of the key steps towards that goal is joint pain management. After diagnosis, your vet will likely recommend prescription medications for pain like NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). They should be used cautiously as side effects are possible.  

Consult your vet on the use of alternative pain management methods like acupuncture, hydrotherapy,  supplements, and physical therapy. Joint supplements like chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine, and omega-3 fatty acids can help in the long run. 

In addition to treatments, you should also make your dog’s living space as comfortable as possible. For example, you can provide a dog bed with an orthopedic mattress to ensure joint support and a ramp to help with access to high surfaces.  

What is the Life Expectancy of a Dog With Arthritis?

A dog can live a full happy life with arthritis. With careful management, your dog can live normally and comfortably as if there was no problem with her joints. 

It is however important to remember that arthritis is a progressive disease and it will more than likely get worse with age. 

The key to a high quality of life for arthritic dogs is early diagnosis and good management – supporting joint health and preventing joint pain.