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canine health problems
Wet black lab running by a pool

📷 by Helena Lopes

The essentials

  • Canine osteoarthritis (OA) is actually a young pup’s disease — Older dogs are most affected, but it typically develops at a young age.
  • It’s a common condition that affects many dogs — Large and giant breeds are most severely affected, but it can occur in all dogs.
  • As a degenerative joint condition, your dog’s osteoarthritis will continue to worsen over time — Fortunately, there are many ways to keep your dog comfortable.
  • Managing osteoarthritis in your dog is possible — Joint supplements, a lean body condition, low-impact exercise, a proper diet, and regular veterinary exams can help prevent joint disease for as long as possible.

How do healthy joints function in dogs?

Joints are composed of various structures that perform different functions. The most important components of your dog’s joints include the following:

  • Capsule. The capsule is a membrane that covers the joint, creating a hollow space where the two bones meet and membranes and cartilage attach.
  • Ligaments. Ligaments join bone-to-bone, acting as flexible rods to hold bones in place as the joint flexes and extends.
  • Synovial membrane. This membrane is located in the hollow space left by the capsule. It forms a “bubble” that cushions the ends of the bones, reducing friction.
  • Cartilage. Cartilage prevents the bones from rubbing up against each other, which would cause damage to the bones’ surfaces.

In a healthy joint, all the components work together to allow the joint to move smoothly through its full range of motion.

What is canine osteoarthritis?

Vets use the terms arthritis, osteoarthritis, and degenerative joint disease (DJD) interchangeably when talking about arthritis in dogs. The best term to use is osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis refers to the degeneration and inflammation that occurs in joints over time. It progresses with age and is irreversible. When dogs have osteoarthritis, they lose cartilage between the joints and have excess bone growth. As cartilage deteriorates, the surface of the bones become rough and irregular and grind against each other. Osteoarthritis is capable of affecting any joint, but it most commonly appears in the stifles (knees), hips, spine, elbows, carpal joints (wrists), and tarsal joints (ankles).

Osteoarthritis is very painful and causes dogs to have reduced range of motion in their joints. Dogs with osteoarthritis are slow to get up from a lying-down position. Because their joints ache, they’re less likely than they once were to jump, run, play, or easily go up and down stairs.

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis affects many dogs, even from a young age. Veterinarians estimate that signs of osteoarthritis are present in 20% of dogs over the age of 1. Based on radiographic and clinical data, up to 80% of dogs over the age of 8 have evidence of osteoarthritis. With such a high percentage of the canine population suffering from osteoarthritis, there’s a good chance your pooch could develop OA.

What causes osteoarthritis in dogs?

Unlike in humans, osteoarthritis tends to start at a young age in pups. Many people think of osteoarthritis as an old dog’s disease. However, it’s often caused by developmental issues present from birth that trigger a cascade of worsening joint problems. Sone of the most common causes of canine osteoarthritis include:

Hip dysplasia. In a normal dog, the ball-and-socket joint (or the head of the femur and the acetabulum) fit together neatly. In a dog with hip dysplasia, the head of the femur may be flattened, or the acetabulum shallow. These characteristics cause joint laxity, pain, cartilage loss, scar tissue, bone spurs, and osteoarthritis. Genetics appear to be the single biggest risk factor for the development of hip dysplasia. Large-breed dogs are most commonly affected. Some dogs can also be born with hip or elbow dysplasia.

Elbow dysplasia. The elbow joint is made of three bones: the radius, the ulna, and the humerus. If these bones do not fit together perfectly because of developmental abnormalities, osteoarthritis can develop. Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition that is most commonly seen in large- and giant-breed dogs, such as:

  • Bernese mountain dogs
  • German shepherds
  • Golden retrievers
  • Labrador retrievers

In general, elbow dysplasia affects both elbows in up to 80% of pups.

Cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) rupture. The cranial cruciate ligament is one of the most important stabilizers inside the knee joint. Called the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in people, the CCL can rupture in dogs, just like it can in human athletes. Cranial cruciate ligament disease is one of the most common reasons for hind limb lameness and stifle osteoarthritis. Cranial cruciate ligament rupture can be caused by ligament degeneration, obesity, genetics, body conformation, and breed. A common misconception is that the ligament suddenly ruptures because of acute trauma. However, ligament rupture is typically the result of slow degeneration that takes place over months or years. Partial tearing of the ligament is common, which then progresses to a full rupture over time. In addition, up to 60% of dogs who have CCL issues in one knee will develop a similar problem in the other knee. Breeds most commonly affected include:

  • Rottweiler
  • Newfoundland
  • Staffordshire terrier
  • Mastiff
  • Akita
  • Saint Bernard
  • Chesapeake Bay retriever
  • Labrador retriever

Osteochondrosis. Osteochondrosis refers to the abnormal development of the cartilage on the end of a bone in the joints of large, rapidly growing dogs. It commonly affects the shoulder, elbow, stifle, and hock joints. Excessive nutrition, rapid growth, trauma, and genetics are contributing factors. Cartilage cracks, fissures, and cartilage flap formation (osteochondritis dissecans) can occur because of normal pressure on the joint. Canines with osteochondrosis display lameness, joint swelling, and reduced range of motion. If you’re feeding your giant-breed pup too much calcium, they may develop osteochondrosis. Signs typically appear between 6 and 9 months of age.

Luxating patella. The patella or kneecap is a small bone that normally sits in a groove within the femur. The patellar tendon and the quadriceps muscle keep the kneecap in place, but dislocation can occur. As the knee flexes, the patella can pop outside of the femoral groove, causing lameness. You may also see a skipping gait until the dog is able to pop the patella back in place. Patellar luxation is one of the most common orthopedic conditions in dogs, and 7% of puppies have it. Though small dogs are usually affected, large breeds can also develop this disease. Boston terriers, Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and miniature poodles are prime suspects for a luxating patella — or two.

Trauma. Trauma is the most common form of acquired degenerative joint disease in dogs. Whether a pup is struck by a car when it’s young or gets into a fight with another dog, injuries to bones, joints, and cartilage can lead to osteoarthritis. The trauma associated with excessive exercise when a puppy is still growing can also damage cartilage.

What risk factors predispose dogs to osteoarthritis?

Many factors can make your pup more likely to develop arthritis, but you can manage some of these to slow or prevent disease. Check out some of the most common risk factors for osteoarthritis development in dogs below.

Body weight and size. Body weight is a key factor for osteoarthritis predisposition. Higher body weight increases the load on weight-bearing joints, which can occur in both larger breeds and overweight pups. Overweight dogs are significantly more likely to develop cranial cruciate ligament issues. As one study shows, obesity almost quadruples their risk. And, having a higher body weight related to size or body condition also increases the risk of elbow arthrosis. No matter what breed of dog you have, make sure they maintain a lean and healthy body weight, as doing so can greatly reduce their risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Type of exercise. Dogs who participate in strenuous exercise can damage their joints. If your pooch is still growing, intense exercise can lead to orthopedic issues caused by overuse of their developing joints. Fetch, agility, running, and rough-housing with other dogs should be done in moderation. Talk to your family vet about how much exercise is safe for your dog.

Diet. Diets that are high in fat and calories are associated with hip and elbow disease, both of which can lead to osteoarthritis. Free-choice feeding as a puppy grows has also been identified as a risk factor for hip dysplasia and OA. Additionally, leptin, a type of protein found in fat cells, has been associated with osteoarthritis. Keeping your dog lean is a risk factor you can control, so check with your vet to make sure you’re feeding your pup the appropriate amount.

Age. Although osteoarthritis can develop in dogs of any age, older dogs are more likely to exhibit symptoms. Over time, as normal wear and tear causes joint degradation, senior dogs are more likely to show pain. Pay close attention to limping and head to the vet if you notice decreases in your dog’s activity levels, like less running, jumping, and playing.

Reproductive status. Spayed or neutered pets appear to be much more likely to develop joint disease, which may be due to weight gain caused by sterilization. In addition, pets that aren’t neutered or spayed may have extra hormonal help to promote strong, healthy bones and joints. Early spaying or neutering can interfere with a puppy’s growth and may make them more likely to develop joint issues.

Breed and genetics. Body and leg size, along with joint angles required by breed standards, can predispose certain breeds to osteoarthritis. As such, genetics is one of the most significant risk factors to developing osteoarthritis. Many genes occur either more or less frequently than they should in affected joints. Often, these genes are related to growth and development. Breeds that are most at risk include:

  • Rottweilers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Golden retrievers
  • Mastiffs
  • Boxers
  • Cane corsos
  • German shepherds
  • Bernese mountain dogs

Early life factors. A curious link between a puppy’s birth month and osteoarthritis development has been noted. Puppies born in warm months are more likely to develop joint disease, likely because their owners engage in more outdoor exercise. The overuse of developing joints can take a serious toll on a puppy’s joint health, and mild activity should be the main form of exercise when a dog is young or growing.

Signs of osteoarthritis in dogs

Osteoarthritis signs in dogs can be subtle until the disease has advanced. Common signs that may indicate your pup has degenerative joint disease include:

  • Lameness. Your pooch may limp on one or more legs.
  • Decreased activity. Your typically hyperactive pup may become less active as their joints start to ache.
  • Stiffness. Joint damage can cause your dog to be stiff and uncomfortable when they first get up after resting.
  • Reluctance to play. A painful dog has little interest in rough-and-tumble play.
  • Refusal to jump or climb. Although your pup may appear to walk normally, the extra pressure put on joints by jumping or going up and down stairs can be too painful to handle.
  • Changes in behavior. A painful pooch is likely to be irritable and grumpy, and may even shun your attention. They can also become aggressive when touched.
  • Muscle atrophy. Your dog probably won’t be as active, so they’ll lose muscle—particularly in their hind end—with inactivity. When your dog’s muscles atrophy, they’ll also develop hind limb weakness.
  • Difficulty posturing to urinate and defecate. Painful joints and decreased muscle mass make it difficult for your dog to squat or lift their leg.
  • Pain when touched. Rubbing or petting your dog on a sore joint can elicit a yelp, warning growl, or even a nip.

Head to the vet for an osteoarthritis diagnosis

The key to successful management of canine osteoarthritis is getting an accurate diagnosis ASAP. The sooner you know your pup is suffering, the sooner you can get them the help they need to prevent further damage.

If your veterinarian suspects osteoarthritis, they’ll confirm the diagnosis with several tests.

  • Orthopedic exam. During an orthopedic exam, your vet will watch your dog move to evaluate their gait and range of motion. They’ll also check for signs of OA pain.
  • X-rays. While X-rays can’t detect cartilage degeneration, they can show bone changes, swelling, and joint effusion. Osteoarthritis can cause thickened bones and bone spurs.
  • Arthroscopy. Inserting a small camera into your dog’s joint can impart a great deal of information about their cartilage health. Arthroscopy is an invasive procedure that requires general anesthesia.
  • Joint tap. If your dog has significant joint swelling, your vet may recommend a joint tap to check for infection or autoimmune disease.
  • Advanced imaging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide information about soft tissue structures (e.g., ligaments, menisci). Computed tomography (CT) is good for assessing bone structural changes in joints. These procedures require general anesthesia and a referral to a specialty hospital.

How is canine osteoarthritis treated?

Since canine osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition, there is no cure, but there are many ways to manage your pup’s pain and slow the disease’s progression. For best results, your vet will likely recommend a multimodal treatment plan that focuses on both the damaged cartilage and surrounding structures. As your dog’s osteoarthritis progresses, regular follow-ups with your vet can help. For optimal comfort, you’ll need to adjust their treatment plan as needed. Osteoarthritis treatment may include any combination of the following options:

Weight management. Keeping your dog at a lean body weight is critical to reduce pressure on diseased joints. Learn how much your dog needs to eat each day to maintain their ideal body weight, and choose healthy options for treats. Pet food calculators can guide you toward the correct number of calories your dog needs, while your vet can show you how to evaluate your dog’s body condition score.

Appropriate physical activity. Low-impact exercises are the best options for dogs with OA. Swimming, leashed walks, and gentle games of fetch can be great ways to keep your pooch moving. Avoid intense exercises that require running and jumping, like agility, dock diving, and flyball. If you’re a runner, stick to slow strolls around the block with your dog, then get your personal exercise in separately.

Pain medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are typically the first line of defense against OA pain and inflammation. While there are human over-the-counter NSAIDs, doggie versions are safer for your pup. However, they’re not without side effects. Daily use of NSAIDs can occasionally cause liver damage, so annual blood work will be needed to monitor your pup’s liver function.

Other pain medications work in different ways inside your dog’s body. Tramadol is an opioid that is not always effective and works best when used as part of a multimodal treatment plan. Gabapentin works to reduce nerve and chronic pain, which can occur with severe OA. Amantadine lessons pain by antagonizing receptors in the central nervous system. Like tramadol and gabapentin, it is most effective when paired with NSAIDs.

🚨 Never give your dog medications without your vet’s approval. Human pain medications can cause gastrointestinal ulcers, perforation, and toxicity.

Joint supplements and nutraceuticals. Joint supplements are fantastic, non-medicinal ways to support your dog’s joint health. Without the side effects associated with pain medication, joint supplements can help slow cartilage degeneration, reduce inflammation, and increase mobility. It’s important to start your dog on a joint supplement early in life. Don’t wait until your dog is diagnosed with osteoarthritis to begin!

👉 Looking for the best doggie joint supplements for your stiff pup? Here are our top picks!

Joint injections. Although joint injections sound painful, they’re performed under sedation or anesthesia. For a day or two after a joint injection, your dog may be stiff and sore, but you should then notice some improvement. Platelet-rich plasma and stem cells are two types of therapies used for joint injections, as these products help repair damaged cartilage.

Adequan injections. Adequan is a supplement that helps to repair damaged cartilage and provide more cushion between the joints. It’s given as an intramuscular injection, so it doesn’t require sedation or anesthesia.

Alternative treatment options. Many alternative or holistic therapies work well to ease joint pain and promote mobility, without the side effects of medication. Physical rehabilitation, massage, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care, and cold laser therapy are potential treatment options.

Surgery. In some cases, surgery can help improve mobility and decrease your dog’s pain. Surgical repair of a torn cranial cruciate ligament or fractured bone can help your pup feel more comfortable. In severe OA cases, your dog’s vet may recommend a hip replacement.

Ways to manage your dog’s osteoarthritis pain at home

Keeping your pooch with osteoarthritis comfortable should be a two-pronged attack. Work with your vet to provide optimal pain relief, and modify your home to help your pup get around. Try the following tips to improve your dog’s mobility:

Install ramps in your home — If your pup’s favorite spot in the house is next to you on the sofa, install a ramp so they don’t have to jump.

👉 Check out the best doggie ramps here

Cover slippery surfaces — Tile, hardwood, and vinyl flooring can be too slick for your arthritic pooch to get a grip, so provide traction with carpet runners or yoga mats.

Trim your pup’s paws — If your pooch has paws that have that “grinch look,” trimming the extra fur on the underside of their feet will help. Removing the fur from around the paw pads will grant better purchase on slick floors.

Use mobility aids — Products like Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips can help your dog keep their footing on slick floors, while the Help ‘Em Up Harness allows you to lift your pup up onto their paws.

Switch to orthopedic bedding — Fluffy beds provide little cushion from the hard floor, so opt for a firm, orthopedic bed instead to protect achy joints.

Block access to dangerous areas — Stairs and other hazardous spots should be blocked off from dogs with limited mobility.

👉 Check out this list of the best indoor doggie gates to help keep your pup safe. 

Place resources on the main floor — If your home has multiple floors, keep all your dog’s resources (e.g., food, water, bed, toy box) on the main floor.

Elevate your dog’s food and water bowls — Prevent your pooch from having to bend down on arthritic elbows to reach their food and water by purchasing an elevated stand or bed.

How to slow osteoarthritis progression in your dog

The methods used to slow canine osteoarthritis are similar to those used to treat it, with the exception of pain medication and surgery. The key to reducing OA in your dog is to start protecting their joints from an early age with the following tips:

  • Appropriate exercise. To give their joints time to develop, avoid strenuous exercise when your pup is still growing. Stick to low-impact activities, like swimming and walking, until your vet gives you the green light for more vigorous play.
  • Appropriate age for spay or neuter. A growing number of studies suggest that dogs, especially large and giant breeds, should be older than previously thought before being spayed or neutered. Discuss the best age for your pup’s surgery with your vet.
  • Weight management. Keeping your dog lean from puppyhood on will help them live longer and reduce their risk of OA and hip dysplasia.
  • Joint supplements beginning in adulthood. To protect their joints before damage occurs, your dog can start taking a joint supplement as soon as they enter adulthood. Our vets like MOVOFLEX Soft Chews and Natural Dog Company Hip & Joint Chews, but speak to your family veterinarian to see which product they recommend for your pup’s specific needs.
  • Proper diet. Pick a high quality diet that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, and antioxidants to protect against joint disease. A diet that has a high protein-to-calorie ratio will also help promote lean muscle mass. Ask your vet what they recommend for your pup.
  • Regular veterinary exams. Regular physical exams help your vet monitor your dog’s weight, joints, and overall health. Catching OA at the first sign of disease will allow you to tackle the problem immediately, instead of waiting until it’s advanced enough to cause your pup significant pain.

Our go-to supplement for joint health

MOVOFLEX Soft Chews is our favorite joint health supplement for dogs of all sizes and ages. They’re packed with 5 key ingredients designed to support healthy bones and joint flexibility. Hyaluronic acid, boswellia serrata, antioxidants, vitamin D3, and eggshell membrane work together to soothe aching joints. These chews are also suitable for dogs with dietary restrictions.

As one reviewer noted, dogs also love the taste: “These have made such a difference in the mobility of our fur baby! She is much more energetic and loves the flavor as well! She thinks they are treats!”

Frequently asked questions

How long do dogs with osteoarthritis live?

Osteoarthritis is not a “lethal” disease, but it can severely impact your pooch’s quality of life. Fortunately, proper management can keep your pup comfortable for many years, and keep inflammation and pain at bay. If your dog’s pain is kept under control, osteoarthritis won’t shorten their lifespan.

Should I walk my dog with osteoarthritis?

Gentle walks—no running or jumping!—can help your pooch maintain muscle mass and mobility. Daily low-impact exercise encourages joint lubrication and can help minimize discomfort.

What can I do to help my dog with osteoarthritis?

Five techniques can help your dog remain comfortable, despite their osteoarthritis.

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Engage in daily low-impact exercise
  • Provide joint supplements
  • Feed a proper diet
  • Schedule regular veterinary exams

Is osteoarthritis in dogs painful?

As the joint cartilage deteriorates, the cushion between bones wears away. When your dog moves, the bones rub against each other, causing extreme pain.

At what age does osteoarthritis start in dogs?

Osteoarthritis can appear in dogs as young as 1 year of age. Joint pain causes young pups to adapt their posture to continue their daily activities. They often learn to compensate for their joint disease, so spotting the signs can be difficult.