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Arthritis In Dogs: What Are The Signs? And How Is It Treated?

Margarita Boyd
Written by: Dr. Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS
If your dog can't reach his favorite chair, tires quickly, or shows difficulties getting up, arthritis may be the wrongdoer. Check the ultimate guide on dogs' arthritis and help your canine today.

Arthritis means joint inflammation and is a very common condition in older dogs. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in dogs and it is thought to affect 1 in 5 dogs!

Common symptoms include pain, stiffness, and lameness. This condition often requires veterinary treatment to control your dog’s pain and keep your dog happy and mobile.

Is your dog slowing down? Or struggling to get up and downstairs? Maybe you are wondering if your dog has arthritis, and how you can help him.

The good news is this article will give you lots of information about this complex condition, including what the signs are, how it is diagnosed and what the treatment options are.

We will also look at how you can help prevent arthritis in future generations of pups too.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in dogs. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease.

The protective cartilage that lines the bones inside the joint slowly deteriorates over time, causing the joint to become thickened and painful.

It is a progressive disease meaning it continues to get worse with time. The changes can’t be reversed, but the condition can often be managed with medical treatment and lifestyle changes such as controlled exercise and weight loss.

It can affect any moving joint in the dog’s body but most commonly affects the hips, elbows and stifles (knee) in dogs.

What Are The Other Types Of Arthritis In Dogs?

As mentioned before there are actually a few different types of arthritis in dogs. Arthritis is a general term that means inflammation of the joints.

Each of the following types of arthritis will ultimately lead to osteoarthritis if the dog does not receive treatment or management of his condition.

Let’s take a look at some other types of arthritis which can affect dogs:

1. Rheumatoidarthritis

In rheumatoid arthritis, the dog’s own immune system attacks the major joints of the body.

It causes a very destructive form of arthritis, causing severe erosion of the protective cartilage and bony changes to the joints.

The actual cause of this condition is not fully understood. Dogs often show pain and lameness but other signs may include fever, generalized stiffness, decreased appetite, and lethargy.

Dogs with rheumatoid arthritis may require life long treatment with immunosuppressant drugs.

2. Immune Mediated

Immune-mediated arthritis is similar to rheumatoid arthritis, as the dog’s immune system targets and causes damage to the joints. However, the changes in the joints are “non-erosive”, meaning the cartilage lining of the joints is not destroyed.

Dogs often present with stiffness, lameness, a fever, and swollen joints.

Cases of immune-mediated arthritis often have an underlying cause which if identified and treated, the dog’s condition will improve. There are different types of immune-mediated arthritis:

  • type 2 is due to an infection (e.g. urinary tract infection, pneumonia, tooth infection)
  • type 3 is due to gastrointestinal disease
  • type 4 is due to cancer (e.g. skin cancer, breast cancer)

3. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

The systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a very rare autoimmune disease in dogs. The dog’s immune system attacks the joints (to cause arthritis) but also targets other parts of the body too, such as the skin, kidneys, and nerves.

German Shepherds and other medium and large breed dogs are most commonly affected, and the average age of diagnosis is around 5 years old.

4. Septic Arthritis

Septic arthritis is caused by an infection within the joint. Commonly bacteria are the cause of the infection, but fungal organisms can also be to blame.

Common signs of septic arthritis include a suddenly swollen, painful joint that is hot to touch. Normally only one joint is affected.

Usually, the infection will have been caused by a penetrating injury to the joint, following joint surgery, or spread from another infection elsewhere on the body.

As osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis to affect dogs, that is the condition we will focus on in this article. Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose which type of arthritis your dog has.

What Happens To The Joints During Osteoarthritis?

Cartilage is the protective, smooth padding that lines the ends of the dog’s bones. This thin layer of cartilage acts as a lubricant, allowing the ends of the bones to glide over each other and the joints to move easily.

If a dog has osteoarthritis then the protective cartilage starts to wear down over time, causing the bones to rub together roughly.

The loss of cartilage causes friction and the fibrous capsule which surrounds the joint to become thicker in an attempt to stabilize the joint.

New bone starts to form around the joint too, causing pain and stiffness. The new irregular bone formed in and around the joint is known as osteophytes or bone spurs.

The painful joint becomes less flexible and swollen, which causes a release of pro-inflammatory cells. These cause more breakdown of the cartilage, which creates a cycle of joint destruction!

Signs Of Osteoarthritis In Dogs

The signs of osteoarthritis will vary depending on the number of joints affected and how severe the joint changes are.

This is a progressive disease, meaning the signs will continue to get worse if the dog’s condition and pain are not managed through appropriate treatment.

Common symptoms of arthritis include:

  • Reluctance to exercise
  • General slowing down
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty getting up or lying down
  • Difficulty going up or downstairs
  • Reluctance to jump
  • Lameness
  • Swollen joints
  • Loss of muscle
  • “Bunny hopping” gait
  • Pain when touched in certain areas of the body
  • Licking certain joints
  • Changes in behavior such as aggression or anxiety

Unfortunately, the signs of arthritis in dogs can be vague. These signs are not specific to arthritis and may be a symptom of another disease or condition too.

For example, heart disease can also cause a dog to slow down and be reluctant to exercise, or a ligament injury can cause a dog to have lameness with a swollen joint.

That’s why it’s important to seek help from your veterinarian who will be able to diagnose if your dog has arthritis or not.

What Causes Osteoarthritis In Dogs?

Most people think that osteoarthritis is just something that develops as the dog gets older. However, it is more complicated than that, and there are a few different factors that cause OA to develop.

Osteoarthritis has a strong genetic influence, meaning if your dog’s parents had OA then the chances of your dog having it are high. However, it is also influenced by your dog’s lifestyle, including diet and exercise.

The majority of OA in dogs develops secondary to other joint problems such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, patella (knee cap) dislocation or a ligament rupture in the knee (cruciate ligament).

These conditions create a joint abnormality, which can quickly cause the dog’s cartilage to become damaged and OA to start.

What Factors Increase A Dog’s Risk Of OA?

There are many factors involved in the development of osteoarthritis in dogs, including:

Are Some Breeds At Higher Risk Than Others?

Research has shown that medium and large breeds are at higher risk of developing OA than smaller breeds. One study in the UK found that the following eleven breeds were at higher risk: (1)

  • Border Collie
  • Bull Mastiff
  • Dogue de Bordeaux
  • German Pointer
  • German
  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Old English Sheepdog
  • Rottweiler
  • Scottish Collie
  • Springer Spaniel

How Is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed In Dogs?

The diagnosis of OA is usually based on a combination of history, physical exam, and x-rays.

1. Clinical history

Your veterinarian will take a clinical history by asking you questions about your dog’s current problem as well as about his lifestyle, diet, activity and previous medical history.

2. Physical Exam

A full physical examination will be carried out, with a focus on the affected joints or limbs. The vet will carefully palpate and move the joints and limbs, checking for pain, swelling, bone thickening or muscle atrophy (wasting).

3. Radiographs/X-ray

X-rays are the most common way to take images of the dog’s bones and joints. The vet will assess the x-rays to look for changes to the bones, joints and soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, and tendons).

Joints with osteoarthritis will often appear irregular with abnormal bone growth called osteophytes (or bone spurs) present.

However, the changes on the x-rays are not always consistent with the level of pain and clinical signs of the dog.

For example, some dogs with lots of changes on x-rays may only have mild pain, while other dogs with minimal changes on x-rays may show significant pain and lameness.

4. MRI/CT

Other diagnostic tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) may be used to get more detailed views of the joints.

5. Synovial Fluid Sample

A small sample of synovial fluid from inside the joint may be extracted in a procedure called a synoviocentesis.

This sample is submitted to a laboratory for analysis and can be checked for signs of osteoarthritis, immune-mediated arthritis, infection, inflammation or even cancer cells.

6. Blood Tests

Your dog may need blood tests to check his overall health status, or to rule out other underlying conditions.

What Are The Treatment Options For OA?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis in dogs. However, the condition can usually be well managed with medical (and sometimes surgical) treatment, as well as lifestyle changes.

The treatment options for OA vary depending on the severity of arthritis and the dog’s clinical signs.

Some dogs may have a great improvement in their signs just with weight loss, while others may need daily pain relief to make them more comfortable.

Let’s take a look at the treatment options in more detail:

1. Weight Loss

Most dogs with OA are overweight, which makes weight loss a critical aspect of successfully managing this disease. If a dog is obese it puts extra force on the bones and joints and wears down the protective cartilage faster.

You can use this handy body condition score chart from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) to check if your dog is overweight.

Your vet can help you get your dog back to within his normal weight range for his breed using diet changes and controlled exercise.

2. Pain Relief

Arthritis is a painful condition, so it makes sense that your dog should have some pain relief medication.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are the most commonly used medication for OA, and common examples include meloxicam, carprofen, firocoxib or deracoxib.

There is a risk of some mild side effects such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, but these can be reduced by giving the medication with food.

3. Controlled Low-impact Exercise

If your vet says its ok, then you should try to continue giving your dog regular, low impact exercise to keep his joints mobile and help build the muscles around the joints.

It can also help him lose weight if needs to! Examples of low impact exercise includeleash walks or hydrotherapy.

High impact exercise such as fast running, jumping or agility should be reduced or stopped completely, depending on your dog’s signs. High impact activities might wear the joints down faster and cause joint inflammation.

4. Rehabilitation

Physiotherapy such as massage and range of motion exercises can help keep your dog’s joints and muscles mobile, especially if he is feeling too sore and stiff to walk very far.

Hydrotherapy such as underwater treadmill walking or swimming can also be a good low impact option for some dogs.

These can all help to improve joint mobility and build muscle mass to strengthen the joints.

5. Joint Supplements

There are lots of different supplements on the market forosteoarthritis, but not all of them are safe or work!Talk to your vet before deciding which supplement is best for your dog.

Joint supplements that are commonly recommended include:

  • glucosamine hydrochloride
  • chondroitin sulphate
  • hyaluronic acid
  • Avocado soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs)
  • msm and omega-3 fatty acids

One study showed that dogs given a glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulphate supplement for osteoarthritis showed significant improvements in pain and weight-bearing by day 70. (2)

Another study which gave dogs with OA dietary fish oil omega-3 fatty acids resulted in an improvement in weight-bearing in affected dogs. (3)

6. Surgery

Surgical management may be indicated in some cases of osteoarthritis.

Examples include a cranial cruciate ligament repair if your dog has damaged this ligament in his knee joint, or surgery to remove the damaged joint or bone, such as a femoral head and neck excision(FHNE) or a total joint replacement.

Are There Other Ways To Make Your Dog More Comfortable?

You want to try to make your dog with OA as comfortable as possible. There are some simple things you can do to make your dog more comfortable and pain-free in his everyday routine including:

  • Provide a soft dog bed to sleep
  • Raise food and water dishes (to elbow height)
  • Fit non slip floor surfaces
  • Offer a ramp for getting in and out of the car
  • Help your dog up and downstairs

What Is The Prognosis For Dogs With Osteoarthritis?

Many dogs with OA can continue to live comfortably and with a normal life expectancy if their condition is managed with long term medication or surgery and lifestyle changes.

If surgery is performed then the majority of dogs will have a good recovery, but may still need some long term management.

Unfortunately, OA is a progressive disease meaning it will continue to get worse with time.

There are ways to slow down the progression of the disease such as keeping your dog’s weight within the normal range, feeding a good quality diet, using vet recommended medication and joint supplements and keeping your dog active with controlled exercise.

Most dogs will require pain relief medication to keep them comfortable and pain-free. The disease will progress faster if a dog doesn’t receive any treatment at all.

Can Osteoarthritis Be Prevented?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to prevent osteoarthritis as growth abnormalities or injuries can’t be predicted.

However, there are some things you can do to help reduce your dog’s chance of developing OA. This is especially important if your dog is one of the breeds at a higher risk of developing this condition!

1. Diet

Nutrition plays a big role in the development of abnormal joints in growing puppies. Large breed or giant breed puppies are at higher risk of joint problems.

It’s important to feed your puppy or dog an appropriate balanced and complete diet.

Research has shown that feeding your pup too much food (excessive energy consumption), and excess levels of calcium and vitamin D, increases your dog’s risk of hip and elbow dysplasia. (4)

Another study in Labrador retrievers showed that a restricted-calorie diet delayed or prevented the development of hip joint osteoarthritis. (5)

2. Prevent Obesity

There is good evidence to suggest that obesity increases a dog’s risk of osteoarthritis.

Studies have also shown that weight loss can be an effective treatment option for obese dogs suffering from arthritis. (6) So it’s important not to let your dog get fat!

3. Exercise

One Norwegian study showed that puppies using stairs daily from birth to 3 months of age had an increased risk of developing hip dysplasia. (7)

The same study showed that pups under 3 months of age that had exercised on outdoor exercise on the soft ground had a decreased risk of developing joint problems.

4. Don’t Breed Dogs With Hip And Elbow Dysplasia

The best way to prevent some types of osteoarthritis is to not breed from dogs with these conditions.

There are some screening programs, which can help to check for certain joint problems such as hip or elbow dysplasia in dogs before they are used for breeding.

By using these screening tests, you can help reduce the number of pups born with these painful conditions, which can develop into OA as the dog gets older.

Conclusion

Osteoarthritis is a painful and progressive condition, which affects one in five dogs. Dogs can continue to live good quality lives if their symptoms are managed with appropriate treatment.

Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose this condition and come up with a treatment plan that works for you and your dog.

The joint damage can’t be reversed, but with the right management, the progression of the disease can be slowed down.

Keeping your dog active, maintaining a healthy weight, giving your dog pain relief medication or joint supplements and feeding him a good quality diet are all important ways to keep him happy and pain-free. Last but not least, if your dog has OA, he needs an extra comfy dog bed!

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