Osteoarthritis in Dogs: Symptoms & Management

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According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, osteoarthritis affects up to one quarter of dogs. Unlike arthritis in general, osteoarthritis in dogs refers specifically to the degeneration of cartilage in your pet's joints and is most common in mature and senior dogs. Read on to learn how you can be on the lookout for the signs of arthritis in dogs and how to help your pet if he develops this condition.

How Arthritis Develops

People, especially athletes, are also prone to osteoarthritis following injuries to a cruciate ligament (a structure located in your knees, neck, and fingers). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to half of adults older than 65 experience osteoarthritis. Canine bodies undergo similar changes when they age and their cartilage becomes worn out over time.

Cartilage serves as a shock absorber between bones. If cartilage becomes damaged, the protective cushion is lost and the joints are subjected to abnormal wear and tear. In an attempt to compensate for the weakened area, the body forms new bony projections called osteophytes (bone spurs). Unfortunately, the new bone is not a good substitute for cushioning cartilage and the joint becomes a chronic source of pain.

The hips, elbows and knees are the leading sites of osteoarthritis in dogs. The development of osteoarthritis is usually secondary to the common problem of cranial cruciate ligament disease, explains Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Deterioration of the ligament with age combined with factors like genetics and obesity contribute to its eventual breakdown.

Weimaraner dog sitting on wooden deck

The Causes of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Many variables can contribute to the development of arthritis in dogs. Aside from osteoarthritis, dogs can develop joint problems from infectious diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus and Lyme disease. The British Veterinary Association explains that genetic conditions like hip and elbow dysplasia can also put a dog at risk.

Other causes are more preventable. Obesity in pets places undue strain on the joints and often results in premature degenerative disease. Osteoarthritis is just one of the problems associated with overweight dogs, together with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Traumatic injuries can occur at any age, and present the risk of inducing lifelong osteoarthritis in dogs. Car accidents are the most common source of bone trauma that results in cartilage damage.

The Signs of Canine Arthritis

The signs of osteoarthritis in dogs are similar to those observed in cats. Since cats are avid climbers and jumpers, pet parents will often notice these behaviors diminishing as osteoarthritis progresses. For dogs, arthritis may present as "slowing down" or general stiffness. Take your dog to the veterinarian if he starts to show any of the following signs:

  • Lameness
  • Stiffness when getting up from resting
  • Reluctance to walk
  • Less willing to exercise and play
  • Difficulty climbing stairs
  • Difficulty jumping onto furniture or into the car
  • Abnormal, lopsided or limping gait
  • Yelping, snarling or moving away if an affected joint is touched

Prevention and Treatment

Since osteoarthritis in dogs cannot be completely cured, prevention and early intervention are paramount. Helping your dog maintain a healthy weight from the time he is a puppy is a critical deterrent of osteoarthritis. Another precautionary measure is to leash train your pup and keep him leashed or in a fenced-in yard to prevent traumatic encounters with cars. If you choose to buy a dog from a breeder, choose someone who evaluates both parent dogs for developmental orthopedic problems like hip dysplasia.

Despite a pet parent's best efforts, osteoarthritis in dogs is often unavoidable. Once your vet confirms the condition with an exam, radiographs, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or CT scan, they'll discuss your pup's range of treatment options.

Your vet may prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or other medication to relieve the pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis. They may also suggest a joint supplement like glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate, two of the components of cartilage. Omega-3 fatty acids are another supplement given to dogs with osteoarthritis due to their anti-inflammatory benefits.

Although supplements are often available over the counter, you should never give your dog anything without asking your vet first. All medications and supplements have the potential for side effects and must be given under the close supervision of a vet.

Other non-traditional yet potentially helpful treatments include acupuncture, massage, and cold laser therapy. Rehabilitation facilities that offer these services may also provide underwater treadmill exercise (or hydrotherapy), which can be a wonderful low-impact activity for dogs with joint degeneration.

Brown senior dog about to walk up a ramp into the back hatch of a car

Other Ways to Help Your Pup

Nutrition can play a role in managing osteoarthritis in dogs. Your vet may initially recommend a therapeutic weight loss food or one that is shown to help in preserving joint health. Some of these formulas contain supplements like glucosamine in a tastier and easier-to-administer form.

In more severe cases, surgery may be an available option. Total hip replacement has been very useful in restoring function to otherwise disabled dogs or dogs with developmental conditions.

Besides the options prescribed by your vet, pet parents can take measures at home to maximize their dog's comfort. Providing padded beds, ramps up to cars and steps and no-skid rugs on slippery floors will make a significant difference. You should also block off any stairs to prevent your pet slipping and falling and supervise him when he goes outside.

Although it is disheartening to see a beloved companion slowing down, there are many ways to ensure his happiness, quality of life and continued role in your family. Keeping an eye out for the signs of arthritis in dogs can help your pet stay in good health for as long as possible.

Contributor Bio

Mindy Cohan, VMD

Mindy Cohan is a veterinarian in the Philadelphia area and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She has a rescue dog named Jem. Mindy enjoys hiking with Jem while listening to podcasts about the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.

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