Arthritis in Dogs

About Arthritis

Arthritis is a painful inflammatory condition in one or more joints. It is characterized by loss of cartilage, damage to underlying bone, inflammation of the joint surface, formation of bone spurs (which look like coral) and significant change to the joint fluid. It leads to painful swollen joints and an unhappy dog.

It is estimated that over 20% of dogs suffer from arthritis. It is the most common source of chronic pain that veterinarians treat. Joint disease can affect dogs to different degrees. Some dogs may experience only minor annoyances while others may be affected to the point of being unable to walk or do any type of physical activity. Though any dog can potentially have joint issues in their hips, knees and elbows, some breeds are more prone to getting joint problems than others.


Arthritis can occur in dogs of all ages. Although it tends to appear in the second half of their lives, and can affect dogs of any breed or size, large and heavy dogs are more likely to suffer from arthritis as their bodies grow quickly and they participate in more intense physical activities.

Breeds Likely to get Arthritis

The following breeds are known to be likely candidates for arthritis:

  1. German Shepherds
  2. Golden Retrievers
  3. Labrador Retrievers
  4. Dachshunds
  5. Newfoundlands
  6. Bernards
  7. Rottweilers
  8. Mastiffs
  9. Great Danes
  10. Old English Sheep Dogs

While large breeds of dogs are known to be prone to joint issues, some dogs that are smaller have more joint issues than the average breed. Dogs such as dachshunds, bulldogs and basset hounds who have skeletal problems caused by genetic disorders that affect the development of cartilage, are predisposed to joint and cartilage disease.

Arthritis comes in many forms, but all have similar effects on dogs:

  • Osteoarthritis is the most common form
  • Septic arthritis is due to an infection in the joint, resulting in damage to the joint surface
  • Immune mediated, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus (both uncommon in dogs)

Common Causes of Arthritis

  • Hip dysplasia is most commonly seen in large breed dogs. It is an inherited condition that results in poorly developed hips that may dislocate, but most certainly cause severe pain and joint damage even from a young age
  • Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition seen in rapidly growing large breed dogs. It causes moderate to severe pain and arthritis in one or both elbows from 9 months of age onwards


  • Dislocating patellas (kneecaps) is very common in small breed dogs, resulting in chronic pain and lameness
  • Degenerative spinal joint disease such as intervertebral disc disease
  • Metabolic disease and hormonal disorders
  • Obesity is a major contributing factor to arthritis in dogs. The excessive weight causes severe trauma and wear on the joints
  • Trauma, dislocations and fractures in joint will all result in some degree of arthritis
  • Anterior cruciate ligament rupture in the stifle (knee) leads to a very unstable joint, which if not repaired will lead to severe arthritis

Identifying Arthritis in Dogs

A dog owner is well placed to identify the early signs of arthritis. In many cases, the signs may be subtle, but you may recognize changes to their activity or their personality. The common signs of arthritis include:

  • Reduction in the amount of exercise they are willing to do
  • Limping on one or more legs
  • Very stiff in the joints in the morning or after a sleep
  • Difficulty in getting up after resting
  • Reluctance to climb stair or jump into the car
  • Licking or biting joints
  • A change in personality, the dog is less playful, or has become aggressive or irritable
  • Occasional whimpering or yelping


Management of Arthritis

Medical management is indicated for both young dogs with clinical signs and for older dogs with chronic arthritis. Due to the high cost of surgery, medical management is many times the only realistic option for pet owners. For the best results, several of the following modalities should be instituted to control the pain and inflammation associated with degenerative joint disease:

  • Weight management – All surgical and medical procedures will be more beneficial if the animal is not overweight. Helping a dog lose weight until they reach the recommended weight, and keeping it there, may be the most important thing an owner can do for their pet
  • Exercise – Exercise that provides for good range of motion and muscle building and limits the wear and tear on the joints is the best. Leash walking, swimming, walking on treadmills, slow jogging and going up and down stairs are excellent low-impact exercises. In general, too little exercise can be more detrimental than too much. However, the wrong type of exercise could cause harm


  • Warmth – Keeping your pet warm, as the arthritis symptoms tend to worsen in cold damp weather, may help the dog be more comfortable. A pet sweater will help keep joints warmer


  • Sleeping conditions – Providing a firm orthopedic foam bed helps many dogs with arthritis, by distributing weight evenly and reducing pressure on joints
  • Massage and physical therapy – The veterinary staff can show how to perform physical therapy and massage to help relax stiff muscles and promote a good range of motion in the joints. Moist heat is also beneficial

Treatments for Arthritis

There is no cure for arthritis, only the symptoms can be managed or treated. As with many diseases, taking preventative actions including nutritional supplements can be very beneficial. Treatment options include:

  • Nutritional supplements – Glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM are frequently used. However, there is conflicting data surrounding their use. Hyaluronic acid, which is the most important component of joint fluid, may improve the quality and viscosity of the joint fluid and assist in preventing the advancement of degenerative joint disease
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, many are advocating their use in dogs with arthritis
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs – Prescription NSAID’s including Ketoprofen, Meloxicam, Carprofen and Etodolac are strong and effecting anti-inflammatories and pain killing drugs. Because of potential side effects, careful adherence to dosing quantity and frequency must be followed
  • Corticosteroids – Corticosteroids act as potent anti-inflammatories, but unfortunately, have many undesirable short and long-term side effects. Corticosteroids are prescription products available as tablets and injections
  • Acupuncture – Acupuncture is being commonly used by homeopathic veterinarians. It is often used in conjunction with NSAID’s, diet and exercise
  • Hyaluronic acid injections – A series of injections into the affected joints to improve the joint fluid are given over weeks, very often having favorable results. The cost and inconvenience of multiple injections are a deterrent to many owners. Clinical studies in humans and horses support the use of hyaluronic acid
  • Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycans – Administered as a series of weekly injections may help prevent the breakdown of cartilage, and also help with the synthesis of new cartilage. The cost and inconvenience are a deterrent to owners