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Old dog laying on bed

The essentials

  • If left untreated, arthritis can lead to limited mobility — Annual wellness visits to the vet can help catch arthritis in its early stages, leading to a better prognosis.
  • Multiple treatment options are available — Once your vet diagnoses your pet with arthritis, they’ll likely offer both medical and non-medical treatment management plans.
  • There are ways to make life more comfortable and safe for Fido — Consider installing ramps or steps at home, investing in an orthopedic bed, and adding joint supplements to their diet.

Although arthritis is associated with geriatric care, dogs can develop arthritis at any age as the joint cartilage in freely moving joints breaks down over time. Arthritis is a degenerative joint disease, but with early diagnosis and by following your vet’s recommendations, many dogs can live comfortably with a normal life expectancy.

What causes osteoarthritis in dogs?

When a dog is living with arthritis, their joint cartilage begins to thin, leading to fluid buildup and bony outgrowth formations around the joint. The deteriorating cartilage is coupled with inflammation and oftentimes pain, ultimately affecting how well the joints function.

This degeneration can be caused by abnormal development in the joints, early life joint trauma and repeated trauma, infections, immune system irregularities, or even genetic factors.

Many different things contribute to osteoarthritis (OA) and not all of them are preventable. Here are a few risk factors that can lead to OA:

  • Dog breed. Large-breed dogs experience arthritis more often than smaller breeds. Studies have shown that German shepherds, labrador retrievers, and English cream golden retrievers commonly experience joint problems like hip dysplasia, which can lead to arthritis if left untreated.
  • Weight. Obesity puts extra stress on your dog’s joints, which causes inflammation and arthritis over time.
  • Underlying medical conditions. Malformed joints or hip dysplasia can contribute to the formation of arthritis.
  • Injuries. Your dog’s history of orthopedic surgeries and injuries may partially account for arthritis.

Arthritis is often caused by more than one factor. While you might not be able to completely prevent arthritis, you can reduce your dog’s risk by making sure they stay at a healthy weight and visiting the vet at least once a year.

Symptoms of arthritis

Arthritis often develops slowly. It can be difficult to detect, but you should talk to your vet about treatment if you notice any of these common symptoms of dog arthritis:

  • Impaired activity (falling or tripping)
  • Yelping or whining
  • Lameness or limited range of motion in the legs
  • Disinterest in activities such as running, climbing, or jumping
  • Lethargy
  • Weight gain
  • Behavioral changes such as signs of discomfort or aggression
  • Joint swelling in elbows and knees
  • Thickening or scarring of the joint membrane
  • Wasting away of muscle

Some of these symptoms, such as disinterest in regular activities, may occur as a natural result of old age. However, severe mobility impairments, swelling, or muscle stiffness may also be a sign of arthritis, especially if your dog is still relatively young.

What does treatment management look like?

Your vet will examine your dog’s history and conduct a physical exam of the affected joints to assess for signs of arthritis, including joint swelling. Likely, they will also use imaging such as X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to better examine ligaments and bone structural changes.

Once your vet has concluded that arthritis is the culprit behind your dog’s medical problems, they’ll discuss treatment options with you. Treatment for arthritis is usually more management than anything else. Most vets suggest a combination of medications, natural remedies, exercises, and diet modifications to achieve a lifestyle that’s as healthy and full as possible.

  • Pain management medications. Pain control may involve the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as carprofen or ketoprofen. In some cases, adjunctive pain medications like amantadine or tramadol can be administered for dogs that can’t tolerate NSAIDs.
  • Weight management. Considered the most critical component of arthritis treatment, weight management may include making adjustments to diet and exercise and better understanding your dog’s ideal body weight—and how to get there.
  • Modified exercise. It’s important to limit high-impact activities as they are likely to cause inflammation and pain. Instead, try sticking to a low-impact, therapeutic exercise like slow leash walking to help promote joint stability.
  • Surgery. Sometimes, surgery is the best choice for your dog’s health. For example, a total hip replacement may be recommended for cases of severe arthritis in the hips. For arthritis affecting other parts of the body, your vet may suggest a procedure to aid a ligament rupture or to remove painful joint components.
  • Physical rehabilitation. In some cases, your vet may recommend specific animal rehabilitation such as aqua therapy, massage therapy, or even acupuncture. Physical therapy can help your dog regain or improve deteriorated joint function, increase muscle mass, and improve endurance.
  • Alternative treatments. CBD products offer a natural way to ease your dog’s pain while reducing the risk of side effects that might result from medication. Ask your vet if CBD oil or tablets might work for your pet.
  • High-quality diet. Choose food based on your dog’s age and breed and opt for a diet with appropriate levels of calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus, all of which need to remain balanced to ensure healthy joints and growth. If you would like to feed your dog a homemade diet, consult with your vet or a veterinary nutrition specialist first.
  • Supplements. Joint supplements with ingredients like glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate can help your dog deal with arthritis pain because they help stimulate cartilage production.
  • Immunotherapy. While NSAIDS and other anti-inflammatory drugs are typically prescribed for arthritis, ask your vet about Librela. This monthly injectable treatment uses immunotherapy. It is a newer treatment that Dr. Alleyne says is gaining ground in the veterinary community.

How to help prevent arthritis in your dog

Since arthritis is a progressive disease, there isn’t a cure, but there are things you can do to slow it down. In the same way, you might not be able to completely prevent your dog from developing arthritis, but here are some things you can do to reduce their risk:

Make safety-related home modifications — Covering slippery floors with non-slip rugs, gating off stairs, and installing pet ramps makes your home more accessible for canines with arthritis.

Get a supportive pet bed — A comfortable bed not only helps your dog sleep better, but it also helps cushion your dog’s body and provides relief from arthritis as well as other joint issues. Consider a memory foam or orthopedic bed that contains special interlocking fill materials for extra support.

Raise food bowls off the floor — Modifying your dog’s feeding station so that their water and food bowls are raised off the floor to about shoulder height can help with joint pain. Eating from a raised platform allows a neutral spine and the chance to shift their weight back on the pelvic limbs, which is a great exercise for dogs with pelvic limb arthritis.

Maintain your dog’s nails — To reduce added strain on the joints and help increase traction, keep your dog’s nails nice and short. Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips are also great for preventing your senior dog from slipping on smooth surfaces.

Help your dog stay at a healthy weight — To prevent arthritis in your dog or manage the condition, ask your vet about your dog’s ideal weight for their breed and age. Give them a healthy diet and avoid free feeding as it increases your dog’s risk of obesity, which can set them up for arthritis and other health conditions. Instead, set up a meal schedule and try to stick to it.

Consult your vet about the best time to spay or neuterStudies show that spaying or neutering too early increases your pet’s risk of developing hip dysplasia, which often leads to arthritis.

Add omega-3s into your dog’s diet — Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential nutrients for dogs. Properly using omega-3s in the form of a salmon oil joint supplement can help decrease inflammation and improve your dog’s comfort and mobility.

Visit the vet — Dog owners might not catch subtle changes in their pet’s behavior since they see them every day, but their vet will be quick to notice irregularities. Regular wellness visits can catch arthritis in its early stages before it progresses into immobility.

While osteoarthritis mostly affects older dogs, it can be diagnosed at any age. Creating a healthy lifestyle while your dog is still young through things like a balanced diet and regular exercise can help prevent arthritis from developing at any point.

If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, developing a treatment plan, such as continuing to monitor their weight and keeping up with any prescription medications from your vet, helps them continue with their regular activities and decreases their risk of mobility impairment.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best treatment for arthritis in dogs?

Considered the most critical component of arthritis treatment, weight management may include making adjustments to diet and exercise and better understanding your dog’s ideal body weight and how to get there. However, it’s important to consult your veterinarian before beginning any diet. Your vet will also be able to offer the ideal treatment plan for your dog’s age, breed, and health condition.

What is the best thing for a dog with arthritis?

Talk to your vet about cultivating a healthy lifestyle for your dog, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and home modifications to suit your dog’s accessibility level. While an active lifestyle is a vital component, you’ll want to make sure that the activities don’t include things that could cause further joint injuries or discomfort, like jumping over hurdles. Swimming is an excellent idea because it takes the pressure off their joints and provides natural pain relief.

What are signs of arthritis in dogs?

Decrease in activity, joint stiffness, lameness, and lethargy are all common indicators of arthritis. Visiting your vet at least once a year or when you notice changes in your dog’s behavior is the best way to catch medical problems like osteoarthritis early.

How long can a dog live comfortably with arthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that isn’t curable. However, with treatment, dogs of any age can experience relief from chronic pain and live happy lives.

What medications are used for arthritis in dogs?

NSAIDS such as carprofen or ketoprofen are frequently prescribed to treat canine arthritis. If you prefer alternative medicine, ask your vet if CBD might help your pup.