Arthritis in Dogs: Identifying, Treating, Preventing

Like humans, arthritis is a common, painful, degenerative disease that generally presents in older dogs. It is estimated that around 20% of dogs over the age of 1, and 80% of dogs over the age of 8, are affected by arthritis.  While arthritis can occur in any joint, it tends to be prevalent in the elbows, hips, and spine.

It can be caused by many things such as genetic factors, environmental factors, obesity, joint injury, joint abnormalities, aging, immune disorders, and even infections.  Arthritis is a degenerative condition (meaning it is constantly getting worse overtime).  It is the result of less cartilage and other lubrication factors on the ends of bones, creating friction in the joint. This leads to serious pain, and if those affected joints are continually worked, the rate of degeneration will increase.

It can be tough to recognize because if the patient was a person, they would be able to verbalize what activities create the pain – dogs unfortunately cannot. As the Thameswood Veterinary Clinic puts it, “Dogs especially are very stoic and most breeds rarely show their pain until it’s too much to bear, so it is up to us as pet guardians to ensure that we are keeping a close eye on them”.

Any change in behavior exhibited can be the first indication of pain from arthritis.  It can be as subtle as just a hesitation when you call them to come, or if they are following you up the stairs, but they pause. These could be the first clues that they are in pain. 

            If you miss these early cues, the warning signs of worsening arthritis might be: 

  • The licking or preening of joints or paws
  • Slowing down or needing rest stops while on walks
  • Reluctance to play
  • Limping or lameness on any joints, often intermittent
  • Lethargic and less enthusiastic about exercise
  • Depression and low mood
  • Feeling the cold more than usual
  • Grumpiness and sensitivity, especially when being touched or stroked on affected joints

Any of these signs indicate significant pain.  If you see them, get to your vet immediately!

There are some breeds afflicted more often with arthritis: Labs, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Springer Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.  While any breed can get arthritis, in general, the larger the breed, the higher the likelihood that they will develop arthritis earlier in their lives. 

The treatment for arthritis in dogs may include medication, diet changes, supplements, light physical therapy, and surgery.  Common options include:

  • NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs):  NSAIDs reduce the inflammation in joints and thus provide some pain relief.  However, they do not decrease the degeneration of the joint, and they can have side effects that upset the stomach and can damage the liver.  (NEVER give human NSAIDs to your dogs!)
  • Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin can reduce inflammation as well.  Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have shown to be beneficial.  Check product label carefully to ensure high quality of these products before purchasing.
  • Weight management helps as well.  Canine obesity is a risk factor for arthritis.  Losing excess weight can help reduce the strain their joints are feeling. Your veterinarian can recommend a diet plan that is appropriate for your dog’s needs.
  • Light Physical Therapy, such as swimming, can help improve joint strength, mobility, and reduce pain.  Light is the key word here.  There is NO gain with pain.  Increased pain indicates increase degeneration of the joint.
  • If severe cases, surgery may be required to repair or replace joints damaged by arthritis.  Surgery is not a cure for arthritis as arthritis is degenerative.  It can however mitigate some of the pain from arthritis.  Arthritis surgery is very expensive and can be difficult for your pup to fully recover from.  In many cases, dog parents will have to continue arthritis pain strategies after arthritis surgery.  It is wise to do everything you can to avoid this option!

While arthritis cannot always be prevented, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of your dog developing arthritis.

  • Maintain a healthy weight and proper nutrition: provide with a well-balanced diet.
  • Regular exercise:  Exercise helps keep joints limber and strong, but it is important to know when is enough.  Stop throwing the frisbee before they refuse to chase it anymore.  It is important to not over-exercise your dog, especially if they are showing any signs of arthritis.  Also, use non-slip rugs on slippery floors, and ramps over staircases and into vehicles reduce the amount of additional damage to already inflamed joints.
  • Regular checkups:  Taking your dog to the vet often can help catch arthritis early, when it is easier to manage.  Do not be afraid to ask your vet, “Is my dog showing signs of pain?”  They can spot pain better than most dog parents.  By the way, do not assume that they will tell you your pup is in pain without asking. (Voice of experience here.)

Our furry friends getting older can be hard, especially when dealing with mobility issues. The basic act of walking up and down the stairs just to get outside and do their business can become incredibly painful.  Arthritis has no cure and only gets more painful over time.  It’s up to dog parents to care in such a way as to make their fur babies lives as free from the pain of arthritis as possible.

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