Doesn’t it always seem like our dogs have some superhuman ability to be in the best mood all the time? Either they are truly loving creatures, or they collectively went to a happiness seminar and are now masters of positive thinking. All joking aside, dogs are equal parts of our families because of the joy they bring. And it’s only in times of trouble when they’re sick or injured, do we realize their capacity for other emotions besides excitement and complete joy.
Unfortunately, with the highs come the lows. And witnessing your dog suffer from chronic arthritis and joint pain is definitely the lowest of lows. It’s hard not to flinch when we see dogs struggle to their feet with a bad hip or limp toward us for some petting despite the pain in their knees. Of all the ailments, arthritis in dogs is truly a heartbreaker.
To understand what your dog is going through, and to catch the signs and symptoms early, here’s everything you need to know about dog arthritis.
First Things First: What is Arthritis?
The basic definition of arthritis is inflammation of the joints. But that could mean several different things, and it could have several different causes. So, how about we get more specific about what these “things” and “causes” are.
The bones inside a dog’s joint are layered with cartilage and lubricated by joint fluid. This dampens the impact when walking, running, and jumping, and allows the bones to freely glide back and forth against each other without causing friction. From here, it’s easy to see what can go wrong within these joints.
- Loss of lubricating fluid – Typically as a result of old age, the mechanism that keeps the joints lubricated will stop working. This will increase friction and slowly wear away at the cartilage. Once the cartilage is gone, the bones will be in direct contact, which will cause extreme discomfort and inflammation.
- Abnormal cartilage development – Because the cartilage is what absorbs the impact between bones, having any abnormalities of cartilage development will cause your dog to lose the cushioning effect.
- Bone damage – If the bone is fractured or broken near a joint, it could regrow with an irregular shape. When this happens, the friction between bones can increase and wear down the cartilage.
Common Types of Arthritis in Dogs
Although the way arthritis occurs is generally the same—some deterioration of the joint—the different types of arthritis come with their own set of complications. The following are the five most common types of arthritis in dogs.
- Osteoarthritis – Otherwise known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthritis is when a damaged bone regrows around the joint, making it stiffer. This limits the movement of a joint and causes it to slowly degenerate. This continues until the joint is unable to function properly.
- Hip Dysplasia – The most common arthritis development occurs in the hips. The hips play such an important role in a dog’s life, and they can easily be overdeveloped or underdeveloped as the puppy ages. Dogs’ hips can also be overworked if they exercise too much at too young of an age. Luckily, arthritis in dogs hips is also the most treatable kind and has both medical and surgical interventions available. The earlier this disorder is discovered, the better chance your dog has of correcting the problem.
- Elbow Dysplasia – This development disorder occurs on the front legs and can arise in as young as six-month to nine-month old dogs. It is possible to have surgery for elbow dysplasia to relieve symptoms, although arthritis will likely worsen as time goes on. Most dogs affected are large breeds, those who grow rapidly during their first year of development.
- Knee Dysplasia – Also known as patellar luxation: the “patella” being another name for knee cap. Similar to hip and elbow dysplasia, this occurs when the knees can move up and down in its socket. This type of arthritis is common among small, toy, and teacup dog breeds.
- Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) – OCD is when the joint cartilage thickens beyond its normal viscosity. In doing so, the cartilage is then able to be torn, leaving the affected joint lame and unable to be used. Certain large breed dogs are more prone to this disease, and it can be exacerbated by being overweight.
Causes of Arthritis in Dogs
The next question to answer is how these types of arthritis occur. Unfortunately, sometimes the degradation builds up over time until, one day, the condition seems to arise spontaneously. Other times, they can be linked to a specific underlying cause.
- Physical trauma – Because of how sensitive all the different components of the joint are, any physical trauma applied directly to a joint can be enough to throw the workings into disarray. Bone fractures and joint sprains can cause a deformity within the joint itself. From there, increased friction and time is all that’s needed to inflame the joint and cause arthritis.
- Autoimmune disease – Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system codifies a healthy cell as a pathogen. The white blood cells then attack the healthy cells, damaging whatever organ, muscle, or bone they were apart of. If the autoimmune disease targets the joint—the cartilage or the lubricating fluid—this could result in a nasty form of arthritis.
- Old age – Both humans and dogs experience health complications as we age. Body parts become less flexible, metabolisms slow down, and exercising outdoors seems to lose its luster. This contributes to why the older population (again, in both humans and dogs) have an increased rate of arthritis.
- Genetic predisposition – Not all dog genes are created equal. And some dogs are prone to diseases like hip dysplasia at a disproportionate amount. Larger breeds—golden retrievers, German shepherds, and Labrador retrievers—are more susceptible than smaller breeds (although smaller breeds aren’t immune).
- Joint infection – An infection at the joint can cause significant damage and lead to arthritis, especially if it’s left untreated. Infections can be cured typically with broad-spectrum antibiotics administered via your local veterinarian.
- Malnutrition at a young age – As your puppy grows up, they rapidly develop all of their muscular and skeletal structure in a span of 6-24 months. If at any point along this timeframe the puppy doesn’t receive the nutrients they need, it could cause irregular growths. For example, without enough calcium, the hip joints don’t fully form. If they don’t fully develop, it becomes easier for the hip bone to pop in and out of place. This provides a direct link to hip dysplasia.
Dog Arthritis Symptoms
As you can imagine, these different types of arthritis come with chronic, lifetime pain. And it becomes noticeable rather quickly. Some dog arthritis symptoms include:
- Swollen joints
- Muscle degeneration around the joint
- Popping or cracking when changing positions
- Weight loss or weight gain*
- Depression or irritation
*Yes, this contradiction exists. Much like with humans, when injured, your dog can become very depressed. Depending on their temperament, they might have a complete lack of appetite. Or they could become unwilling to exercise, thus gaining weight.
Signs of Arthritis in Dogs
While the symptoms are specific, the signs of arthritis are typically easy to spot. These include:
- Slow to rise from a resting position
- Limping while walking or running
- Refusal to eat
- Unwilling to climb stairs or jump for a treat
- Urinating or defecating inside the house*
- Whining or whimpering
- Acute changes in mood.
*Note: Many dogs will have accidents in the house when dealing with chronic pain, despite knowing they’ll get in trouble. If your dog is suffering from acute arthritis, try providing them with potty pads around the house, and retrain them to expel indoors. Doing so will be a stress reliever for both you and your dog. That goes double on cold, rainy days.
Diagnosing Dog Arthritis
If you suspect that your dog has joint issues, your veterinarian will be able to perform a full examination. This includes testing your dog for joint flexion and extension, as well as taking x-rays of suspicious joints. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, it’s necessary to know the underlying condition. As stated earlier, there are six common causes of arthritis, and each will have a different prognosis.
Sample fluid might be taken from the affected joint, and bloodwork may be required to rule out certain medical conditions. Once diagnosed, the next step is treatment.
Treating Dog Arthritis
There are three different treatments available to dogs with arthritis. Determining which course of action for your dog should be a conversation between you and your local veterinarian. However, it can be helpful to know ahead of time what those treatment options are.
- Holistic care – The most basic treatment for dogs is providing them with a weight management plan and light exercises. This will relieve any excess pressure on their joints and develop the maximum range of movement. Strengthening the muscles around the joint can also be beneficial to protecting what’s left of the joint. Holistic care is all about providing the dog’s body with the best chance it has at fighting back against the development of arthritis. However, before you start taking your dog to reiki sessions and yoga classes, know that the underlying cause is the most important factor. Holistic care will do little against something like an autoimmune disease, where, regardless of the weight and health of the dog, the immune system will still be fighting its own body.
- Medical intervention – Certain medications are available to treat canine arthritis. Some medications focus on pain management, while others protect against cartilage damage and promote the repair of joint structures. These are typically combined with anti-inflammatories, to ease the swelling around the joint.
- Surgical intervention – As a last resort, surgery is available for dogs in chronic pain. The surgeon will aim to remove any cartilage debris between joints, repair any bone deformities, and fuse any detached joints. While surgery is considered only temporary relief, it may be enough to switch to a non-invasive medical intervention.
When it comes to most diseases and chronic pain, the best prevention comes from a holistic approach. Dogs need the same things humans do—nutritious food, exercise, rest, and emotional bonding. Breaking it down into these categories makes it seem simple, but as many of you know, life has a way of interrupting our pursuit of healthiness. Still, the best practices are the simplest ones:
- Daily exercise – Exercise has been known to have long-term benefits for joint health. However, that’s not all. Exercise also regulates mood, digestion, prevents diabetes and heart disease, and keeps your dog’s mental health in balance. A simple 30-minute walk around the block is enough to stimulate your dog and keep them happy and healthy.
- Nutrition – Doggy development, especially during the puppy stage, is a crucial determining factor for arthritis later in life. Puppies that are too heavy will experience increased pressure on their joints while they’re still forming. Too few nutrients may cause the sockets to be underdeveloped, allowing the bones to freely pop in and out and cause the cartilage to degrade.
- Dietary supplements – If you’re concerned about not getting enough nutrients, talk to your vet about a dietary supplement for your dog. Many dog foods don’t have the bioavailable nutrients needed for your dog to absorb 100% of their daily vitamins and minerals. This is where supplements can help.
- Regular checkups – Knowing whether your dog breed is prone to arthritis can allow you to take preventative measures with the help of your vet. Talk to them about your dog’s developmental health as they age and go in for regular checkups.
Knowing the Warning Signs and Treating Early
Signs of arthritis in dogs are typically obvious. Limping, not wanting to play, remaining on the couch when you come home, these are all strange behaviors that directly indicate something is wrong. Catching these warning signs and starting preventative treatments might allow your dog to have a happy, pain-free life.
Talk to your vet about any medical interventions available. Arthritis in dogs legs can be a detrimental disease, negatively affecting every aspect of a dog’s daily routine and personality. But if caught early, it doesn’t have to.
Banfield Pet Hospital. What Causes Arthritis in Dogs? https://www.banfield.com/pet-healthcare/additional-resources/article-library/conditions-illnesses/arthritis-in-dogs
Pet Health Network. Arthritis in Dogs. http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/dog-health/dog-diseases-conditions-a-z/arthritis-dogs
American Kennel Club. Managing Canine Arthritis. http://www.akcchf.org/canine-health/your-dogs-health/caring-for-your-dog/managing-canine-arthritis.html
Vet Street. Your Dog: Why Exercise is Important. http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/your-dog-why-exercise-is-important
Dr. Melinda J. Mayfield-Davis, DVM, WCHP-AH, brings over 20 years of experience in veterinary medicine. She is the Technical Services Veterinarian with Innovacyn, Inc., parent company of Vetericyn Animal Wellness. She received her DVM from Oklahoma State University and now resides in Southeast Kansas with her husband, two children, four dogs, and six horses. Prior to working with Innovacyn, Dr. Mayfield owned and operated the Animal Care Center in Columbus, KS.