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Dog Arthritis Symptoms and Treatment Options

Arthritis is a very common condition in older dogs, although it occasionally affects younger pups, too. It causes pain and interferes with a dog’s daily activities like playtime, long walks, or simply getting around the home. When severe, arthritis can even be a factor in choosing euthanasia, due to the disease’s adverse effects on quality of life.

The good news is, dog owners have many treatment options to prevent and manage arthritis in dogs and keep their furry friend strong and happy for potentially many years. 

Catching and treating the condition early is best, so it helps to know what to look for. Here is some important information about arthritis symptoms in dogs and what to do if you notice them…

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Can Dogs Get Arthritis?

Yes, dogs can get arthritis. This condition can cause pain in the joints and limit a dog’s mobility. Arthritis is a common consequence of aging, or a result of certain health conditions or lifestyle factors. 

Eventually, arthritis can negatively impact a dog’s quality of life—in advanced cases, even leading to euthanasia. Fortunately, there are many things a pet parent can do nowadays, in conjunction with their veterinarian, to alleviate their furkid’s discomfort.

What Is Canine Arthritis?

Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a health condition in which the structures inside one or more joints wear down. 

Normally, a layer of cartilage is found on the ends of each bone where they meet inside the joint capsule. This cartilage helps to protect and cushion the bones. Along with synovial fluid (fluid inside the joint), cartilage enables the ends of the bones to glide smoothly when a dog moves. Once these structures thin out or become damaged, the bones may rub against one another inside of a joint. This causes inflammation and further damage—and of course, pain.

Although any body joint can be affected by osteoarthritis, common locations include the hips, back, knees, elbows, and shoulders.

SEE ALSO: Why is My Dog Not Eating or Drinking?

When Do Dogs Typically Begin to Show Signs of Arthritis?

Although young dogs may be affected, osteoarthritis in dogs is more common with age. It’s frequently diagnosed in dogs over 7-8 years of age.

However, there are a number of factors that can contribute to the age of onset or make a dog more or less likely to develop arthritis, including…

  • Breed. Since large breeds tend to have shorter lifespans than small breeds—and since their body weight can take more of a toll on their joints—they might develop arthritis sooner. 

  • Anything that interferes with the normal position or conformation of a joint can lead to osteoarthritis. Common examples include previous orthopedic injuries, hip dysplasia (abnormal laxity in the hip joints, more common in large breed dogs), luxating patellas (kneecaps that move in and out of place, more common in small dogs), or ligament injuries such as a cranial cruciate ligament tear. Surgery for some of these conditions can also put the joint at risk for developing arthritis—but if surgery is recommended, it is typically better than allowing the abnormal condition to persist and will improve a dog’s outcome.

  • Immune mediated or inflammatory joint diseases.

  • Certain infections that affect the joints.

  • Inappropriate nutrition, especially for large breed puppies.

  • Very athletic dogs, especially those in athletic competitions, who might experience arthritis later in life due to the impact on their joints.

  • Being overweight or obese, since this places more pressure on the joints.

Common Dog Arthritis Symptoms?

Arthritis symptoms a dog owner might notice include…

  • Difficulty getting up after sleeping or lying down.

  • A general “slowing down,” lagging behind on walks, or less interest in physical activities they once enjoyed like walking, running, or playing.

  • Difficulty jumping (onto furniture, into the car, etc.) or climbing stairs.

  • A stiff-legged gait.

  • Limping or lameness in one or more legs.

  • Sliding or losing their footing on tile or wood floors.

  • Behavior changes like grumpiness, irritability, yelping when touched, or even aggression.

  • Incontinence (a painful pooch might have difficulty making it outside to potty).

  • Muscle loss or weakness.

  • Frequently licking or chewing at one or more spots on their legs or hips.

  • Legs giving out on them or a complete inability to stand up or walk.

Dog arthritis symptoms might be very subtle initially, then progress to more obvious signs as the condition gets worse.

Many dogs have an instinct to hide their pain. So even if symptoms seem mild or subtle, your buddy might still be experiencing pain.

A veterinary consultation can help shine some light on the symptoms you’re noticing and decide the best next step for your furkid.

How Is Arthritis in Dogs Diagnosed?

It’s easy to confuse subtle arthritis symptoms for a dog “just getting old.” But it’s important to talk to your vet and have them check for arthritis. Doing so can not only lead to treatments to alleviate pain, but also potentially slow down the progression of arthritis.

A proper diagnosis allows for proper treatment and management. This usually begins with a thorough history (share with your veterinary team everything you’ve noticed at home, even if it seems small) and a complete physical exam on your pet.

If you have an older dog or have noticed possible arthritis symptoms, your veterinarian will probably pay special attention to your furkid’s joints during the examination. This can help to localize any pain and certain joint abnormalities. However, additional diagnostics (x-rays, blood work, etc.) may be required to definitively diagnose osteoarthritis and determine how severe it is. 

Even if your vet suspects arthritis, they might recommend these diagnostic tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as Lyme disease, bone cancer, or even cognitive dysfunction (which can also cause potty accidents and behavior changes).

SEE ALSO: 9 Tips for Protecting Your Dog’s Paws in the Winter

Potential Treatment Options for Dog Arthritis

It’s important to know that osteoarthritis can’t be cured. Management is typically lifelong after it is diagnosed. Fortunately, there are many treatment and management strategies that can help a dog feel much better and continue to enjoy some of their favorite activities.

The earlier the diagnosis, the better the chance of successfully managing arthritis for the long term. So, be sure to set up a veterinary consultation if you are noticing symptoms, especially if your pup is getting older.

Management plans typically involve a combination of two or more of the following strategies—aka a “multimodal management” approach—for best results…

  • Diet and nutrition. Your veterinarian might talk to you about switching to a senior dog or arthritis-friendly food, if appropriate. Nutrition benefits also begin at a young age—especially for growing, large breed puppies that have very specific nutritional requirements.

  • Weight management. Staying at a healthy weight can lessen the burden on a dog’s joints, not to mention improve their overall health and possibly increase their lifespan. If your furry friend needs to lose weight, your veterinary team can guide you on a safe, effective plan for them to do so.

  • Dietary supplements. Nutraceuticals, which are nutritional supplements that help with certain health conditions, may be recommended. The most common joint supplements for arthritis are probably glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids. Although the risk of side effects with nutraceuticals is generally low, they’re not appropriate for all dogs, so ask your vet first.

  • Prescription pain medications and joint medications. Some of these medications relieve pain. Others, such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), help with both pain and inflammation. There are also injections (polysulfated glycosaminoglycans or PSGAGs) that can improve joint health. Your veterinarian may recommend more than one type of medication, depending on what your dog needs. Never give your dog any type of medicine without checking with your veterinarian first. Many human medicines are toxic to dogs!

  • Alternative medicine treatments. Many pet owners swear by acupuncture or cold laser therapy. Another great resource is veterinarians who offer physical therapy, rehabilitative medicine, or special exercises such as an underwater treadmill (a low impact exercise for pups). Stem cell therapy is also becoming more common in veterinary medicine.

  • Surgery. Certain orthopedic surgeries—such as a total hip replacement or FHO (femoral head and neck ostectomy, which removes part of a damaged hip joint)—might be appropriate for some dogs. However, surgery can come with its own complications. This option is typically a last resort, reserved for the most severely affected patients.

Tips for Managing Dog Arthritis at Home

There are many things you can do to support your buddy at home and help their mobility, including…

  • Add ramps or a pet staircase to help them get onto furniture or into the car.

  • Give them a comfortable dog bed. Orthopedic beds are popular, but some larger dogs might prefer a raised, cot-style bed that helps keep them cool.

  • Make it easy for your pup to use the bathroom. For example, if they must go downstairs to potty but are struggling with stairs, consider adding artificial turf or a puppy pad indoors.

  • Promote gentle daily exercise, such as short walks. Talk to your vet about how much is too much. But as a general rule, start small and only increase in small increments as your furkid builds up their strength and endurance.

  • Keep their nails trimmed. Overgrown nails (which are common if your dog is less active) can make it harder to walk.

  • Use caution when picking up your small dog. Support their entire back rather than just lifting them by the shoulders. 

  • For larger dogs, a dog vest with handles can help you support them when needed (just be careful of your own back!).

  • Get to know what causes your dog’s arthritis symptoms to flare up, and ask your vet about extra support or medications during these times. One example is colder weather. Another is grooming, when a dog might be tense and strain their joints.

Prognosis for Dogs with Arthritis

Each dog is unique. Their osteoarthritis may advance quickly or slowly compared to other dogs. However, with appropriate management, you give them their best chance to stay happy and pain-free for as long as possible.

Many dogs can go on living comfortably and enjoying their favorite activities for years to come!

It’s never too early to start asking questions and developing a plan to prevent and manage arthritis. Schedule a telehealth or in-person veterinary visit today to get started and address all your questions and concerns.

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