Arthritis in Dogs: How to Help Soothe Your Dog’s Pain

Arthritis in dogs is, unfortunately, a common condition, just as it is with humans. Although our four-legged friends can’t tell us that they’re suffering, it is usually easy to spot a dog experiencing the pain and stiffness that typically signal arthritis. But what actually is arthritis, what causes it, and how can we treat it?

Read on to find out all about this painful condition and how it affects our canine companions.

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A Dog in Pain: What is Arthritis in Dogs?

 

Arthritis simply means “inflammation of the joints”. There are a number of different kinds of arthritis, which have different causes.

In healthy joints, the area where the bones meet is covered in a thin layer of smooth cartilage that is lubricated by joint fluid, known as synovial fluid. This combination allows the bones to glide together smoothly and without friction. Think of it like a well-oiled piece of machinery.

However, in joints affected by arthritis, the cartilage breaks down, becoming thin or damaged. As a result, the bones begin to rub together, both causing discomfort and exacerbating the break-down of the cartilage. This is like a piece of machinery that is rusty and needs oiling, so the different parts rub together with a screech.

Dog Hip Pain and General Dog Joint Pain

Arthritis is a very painful condition, and can significantly reduce your dog’s quality of life, especially if it is left unmanaged. It causes mild to severe joint pain, as well as inflammation and reduced movement.

dog lateral view with red highlight in hip and knee joint pain areas

What does Severe Arthritis look like?

In more severe cases of arthritis, new bone can begin to form around the joint, inhibiting movement and adding further pain. In some very severe cases, dogs can even lose the ability to walk. Severe arthritis in dogs is usually treated with joint surgery, when possible.

The Main Areas Where Dogs Get Arthritis

The most common areas for dogs to get arthritis are the hips and elbows. Some dogs will also get it in their ankle joints.

The Importance of Joint Health for Dogs

Although older dogs are more likely to suffer from arthritis, and some breeds are more prone to it than others, it’s never too early to start promoting good joint health for your dog.

A healthy and balanced diet, maintaining an ideal weight, and frequent, breed-appropriate exercise all help to keep your dog’s joints healthy. Some owners also opt to feed their dogs joint-health supplements—more on them below.

 

Joint Health for dogs with Arthritis

The Process of Aging: Causes of Dog Arthritis

As in humans, arthritis is most common in older dogs, and is just a result of growing older. However, it can also be seen in younger dogs, usually in connection with another condition or an injury. Ligament damage, for example, can alter the way a dog moves that joint, resulting in abnormal joint movement and eventually arthritis.

For this reason, it is important to consult your veterinarian if you think your pet has been injured, or if you notice it walking, running, or standing differently from normal.

Osteoarthritis in Dogs

The most well-known type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD). “Osteo” means related to bones, and osteoarthritis is a progressive, long-term deterioration of the bone cartilage, resulting in pain and inflammation.

In many cases, the causes of osteoarthritis are unknown; this is called primary degenerative joint disease. In some cases, there can be known contributing factors, in which case it is known as secondary degenerative joint disease.

These factors can include trauma, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, abnormal development of the joints, genetic conditions, obesity, prolonged steroid use, and diabetes. 

Septic Arthritis in Dogs

Septic arthritis in dogs is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection of the joint fluid. In most cases, septic arthritis will only affect one of the dog’s joints, though the infection can spread to other joints. This type of arthritis is most common in middle-aged dogs of 4 to 7 years and is especially seen in Labradors, Dobermans, and German Shepherds.

Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis in Dogs

Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis (IMPA) occurs when the body’s own immune system begins to attack the body, and specifically the joints. There are two kinds of immune-mediated polyarthritis: erosive and non-erosive.

Erosive Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis in Dogs

Erosive immune-mediated polyarthritis means there is a break-down of the joint’s bone and cartilage. This kind of polyarthritis is relatively rare, though it is more commonly seen in young Greyhounds.

Non-Erosive Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis in Dogs

With non-erosive immune-mediated polyarthritis, there is no break-down of bone and cartilage. This is the less serious type, and luckily the more common of the two.

Rheumatoid arthritis in dogs

Rheumatoid arthritis is another name for erosive immune-mediated arthritis.

The Old Dog Arthritis

As dogs get older, they are more likely to develop arthritis, due to wear and tear on the body and the body’s diminishing ability to repair itself. Studies have shown that some 90% of older dogs (over eight years) will develop osteoarthritis in at least one joint.

Old dog Golden Retriever with Arthritis

BE AWARE OF THE SYMPTOMS

The symptoms of arthritis in dogs will differ slightly depending on what sort of arthritis they have, though there are certain common symptoms. Look out for stiffness, especially after exercise or during cold weather. Joints might be swollen, or noticeably deformed. Your pet might be walking differently, or be limping.

In cases of septic arthritis or immune-mediated polyarthritis, you may also notice secondary symptoms of illness, including lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

How to Treat Arthritis in Dogs

The treatment of arthritis depends on which sort of arthritis your pet has. For this reason, a definitive diagnosis is first critical to beginning the right course of treatment. With septic arthritis, it is a case of treating the underlying infection, typically with a course of antibiotics. Sometimes surgery is required to clean and flush the joint.

With osteoarthritis and immune-mediated polyarthritis, however, it is more a case of prevention, managing the symptoms, and reducing the progress, rather than treating the condition. There are a number of diet and lifestyle changes that can help with all of these things, in addition to medications and pain relief.

In cases of severe arthritis in dogs, sometimes veterinarians will recommend surgery to remove build-ups of bone growth, or even replace the joint.

Over the counter anti-inflammatory for dogs

The most common types of anti-inflammatory medications that vets recommend for canine arthritis are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as steroids can exacerbate the condition. However, the majority of these are only available with a prescription.

The exception is aspirin, which some vets will recommend for short-term use. You should only give your dog aspirin if told to do so by your vet, however.

Dog Joint Supplements

In addition to prescription medication, many owners of arthritic dogs swear by lifestyle and diet changes, as well as holistic medicine and supplements. These can also be combined with NSAIDs to treat the various symptoms of arthritis. Read on to learn all about the various kinds of supplements that could help manage arthritis in dogs.