Arthritis In Dogs

LAST UPDATED December 2023

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Belinda Stancombe and last updated by Dr Maree Monaghan

Is your dog showing signs of slowing down? They still love going for walks but have lost the spring in their step? Maybe they can't jump up onto their favourite chair any more. Is lying down and getting back up a huge task now?

While we might think these changes are inevitable with old age, it's likely that there is more to the story. Arthritis is a common condition seen in pets of all ages which can negatively affect mobility and cause significant pain.

Don't let your dog suffer in silence. Find out what arthritis is, the common signs in dogs and the treatment options that really work to support your dog and improve their quality of life.


What is Arthritis?

Arthritis, scientifically referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a degenerative, progressive, and irreversible condition of the joints. While the 'itis' in the word 'arthr-itis' makes us think that it is an inflammatory condition, inflammation is actually only one component of the disease process. While some degree of inflammation does occur, arthritis in dogs is also characterised by a loss of the cartilage (the soft structural component that overlies and protects the bone) and the formation of 'osteophytes' which are new pieces of bone laid down in an effort to protect the joint surface. Low-grade inflammation occurs when destructive enzymes within the joint start to break down the cartilage.

Arthritis can be classified as either primary or secondary. Primary arthritis is due to an intrinsic problem in the cartilage and is associated with ageing - this type of arthritis typically occurs in older dogs as a result of years of wear and tear on the joints. Secondary arthritis occurs due to an external factor or force disrupting the normal cartilage in the joint and most commonly affects a single joint. We typically see secondary arthritis due to physical trauma or injury, such as a cruciate ligament rupture, hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Arthritis in dogs is most often due to a secondary disease.

Signs Of Arthritis In Dogs

Dogs are typically stoic animals and many will continue about their day normally even if they are suffering from arthritis. It is not uncommon for pets to continue eating and drinking normally and going for walks even when they are in significant pain meaning owners may be oblivious to the issue. Signs of arthritis can vary depending on the breed of dog and the severity of the illness.

Common Signs of Arthritis in Dogs

  • Lameness or limping which worsens after strenuous exercise
  • Appearing to have stiff joints, especially after rest
  • Slow to rise from sitting or lying
  • Reluctance to use stairs or jump into the car
  • Avoiding sitting or lying on hard surfaces

It's important to understand that many dogs won't vocalise when they are in pain, even with significant disease. If you notice any change in your dog's gait or behaviour or you are concerned they may be in pain, always seek veterinary advice. Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, paying close attention to the joints to assess for swelling, decreased range of motion, pain, instability and lameness.

Vets are taught to look for other important clues such as muscle wastage and stiffness to determine our patient's pain levels. Your vet may recommend further diagnostics such as radiographs, blood work and evaluation of the joint fluid to differentiate from other diseases before formulating an appropriate treatment plan.

Treatment of Arthritis in Dogs

In all cases of arthritis, there are important steps that you can take which will significantly improve your dog's quality of life. While it's nice to think that a single 'wonder arthritis medication' is effective at controlling pain long-term, in reality multiple techniques may need to be combined in an multimodal approach to be most effective.

1. Best Dog Food for Arthritis

Weight control is the single most important strategy in the management of arthritis in dogs. Extra weight results in increased stress on the joints and also makes dogs less likely to move around. Fat cells also release inflammatory mediators which can contribute to inflammation in the body.

Just like for humans, weight control relies on diet and exercise. There are numerous low-calorie diets available in both wet and dry varieties - and even special diets with joint care ingredients. Always keep in mind that a weight loss diet requires consistency and must be fed exclusively without tidbits or leftover table scraps.

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2. Best Arthritis Medications for Dogs

Your veterinarian will determine the most appropriate pain relief regime for your dog. In some cases, multiple medications may be recommended to achieve the best results. Some forms of pain relief aren't suitable for some dogs due to concurrent health issues, so every case is assessed on an individual basis. Some treatments available include:

Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): such as Meloxicam, Metacam and Carprofen. This is by far one of the most commonly prescribed medications for arthritis in dogs. While extremely effective in many cases, close attention needs to be paid to your dog's kidney and liver function before and during use, so regular check ups and blood tests are recommended.

Disease modifying arthritis drugs (Pentosan polysulfate - "Cartrophen"): Your vet may also prescribe a course of arthritis 'injections' called pentosan polysulfate - 'Cartrophen' or 'Zydax'. The active ingredient is of plant origin and acts within the joint to preserve joint health and provide pain relief. These are a series of injections, one injection per week for 4-6 weeks, followed by a booster injection at a time frame specified by your vet.

Monoclonal Antibodies - "Beransa": The most recent breakthrough in arthritis treatment is monoclonal antibody therapy. This biological therapy acts in the same way as the naturally occurring antibodies in your dog's immune system and targets proteins that cause pain in dogs with arthritis. One monthly injection provides long acting pain relief and increased mobility and is safe for administration with other arthritis medications and routine therapies such as vaccinations.

Opioids: including Tramadol and Fentanyl may be prescribed for animals with pre-existing kidney or liver disease, or those that need a little extra pain management.

Gabapentin: Particularly beneficial for neurologic or spinal pain, and may have some anti-anxiety effects.

WARNING! Ibuprofen is toxic to dogs and can cause serious and irreversible organ damage. NEVER give your dog human pain relief unless advised by your veterinarian!

3. Natural Joint Supplements for Dogs with Arthritis

There are a number of natural extracts and herbal products with proven anti-inflammatory properties. Some are antioxidants, which slow the actual progression of arthritis, while others intercept the inflammatory cascade to limit pain and inflammation.

Green Lipped Mussel (Perna canaliculus): GLM contains key omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, glycosaminoglycans (a source of chondroitin), vitamins and minerals which have been shown to have beneficial anti-inflammatory effects in dogs with arthritis. Similar to other joint supplements, it may take several weeks to notice visible effects, however it has been shown to play a role in reducing inflammation and pain in the joints.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin: Glucosamine and Chondroitin are the building blocks of normal healthy cartilage. Despite a lack of strong evidence in the veterinary literature, some veterinarians and owners have found supplementation to be helpful. With minimal side effects compared to some of the common pain relief medications, they are a good option for mild cases and to use alongside other therapies. See our range of glucosamine supplements for dogs.

Omega Fatty Acids: Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have been demonstrated to have anti inflammatory properties, and as far as supplements for arthritis go, they are backed by the most convincing evidence. Omega 3's can be obtained from lots of difference sources including fish oil, green lipped mussel powder, flaxseeds and nuts. Marine sources of omega fatty acids (such as fish, fish oil and green lipped mussel) are the most effective for dogs.

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4. Natural Remedies for Dogs with Arthritis

When it comes to exercise, balance is key. It is important to not overdo it and lead to discomfort and accelerated cartilage destruction. Low impact exercise options such as swimming or hydrotherapy can be great for dogs that suffer from arthritis.

Many arthritic dogs respond well to muscle massage and acupuncture. Why not apply a warm compress over sore joints and perform gentle massage yourself at home? Always take care to avoid injury from excess heat when using warm compresses.

Play is a great way to get your dog moving and provides them with important environmental and emotional enrichment. There is a range of interactive and puzzle toys available to encourage activity and keep your dog entertained.

5. Best Beds for Dogs with Arthritis

For an arthritic dog, the physical strain of getting out of bed can be quite challenging. When looking for a bed, try to find a well-padded bed that is elevated slightly. Rising from ground level can be difficult with stiff joints and an elevated bed requires less movement to get up. Avoid beds with a large lip as this can be hard to step over and ideally find a sturdy bed with memory foam such as the Petket Deep Sleep Mattress. The solid structure will provide better support whereas soft, fluffy beds can make getting up a more difficult task. Cold weather can cause stiff joints, so a heated bed or mat can help soothe sore joints and improve mobility.

Carpeted or non-slip flooring is advised around bedding and if possible, in all areas of the house your dog travels. If your dog has trouble getting up onto the couch or in the car, then stairs or a ramp can make this easier and safer for your pet, and much better on your back!

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Arthritis is a very common condition and while it's hard to watch our pets get older and everything that entails, take some comfort from knowing that there are small actions you can take that can make a big difference to the life of your best friend.

Further Reading

Tick, Flea and Worming Guide For Dogs

How To Calm an Anxious Pet

Dental Care For Dogs

The Real Cost of Supermarket Food

Obesity Pet Facts

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