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What is arthritis in dogs?

Arthritis in dogs is a long-lasting, inflammatory disease which affects the animal’s joint health. It is caused when the cartilage between joints becomes less smooth and damaged, causing the surface of the bone to rub together and your dog’s joints to stiffen, swell and become painful. 

These symptoms can restrict a dog’s mobility, as it becomes uncomfortable for them to get up and walk around. Although more prevalent in senior dogs, young pets can also suffer from arthritis if they become injured, such as tearing their cruciate ligament, or if they have weak muscles and muscle loss. 


Symptoms of arthritis in dogs

Although your pet may seem fine in themselves, eating normally and interesting in going out for walks; there are several symptoms of arthritis in dogs to be aware of. It’s important to take note of any changes, even if they don’t seem to be linked to having sore legs. 

  • Limping before and after walks. Your dog may limp if only one leg is affected, but if more than one joint is affected, your dog may not have an obvious limp. 
  • Tiredness and showing an unwillingness to get up or walk around. Your dog may seem a bit stiff in the morning, or they can’t get comfortable when lying down.
  • Licking or chewing painful areas
  • Signs of pain when standing, walking, or sitting up or down
  • Behavioural changes. Your dog’s behaviour may change and seem a bit grumpy if being cuddled or touched too much.
  • Slowing down. Your dog may seem to have “got old suddenly” and tired quickly.

If you notice your dog is suffering from any of the above symptoms, visit your nearest vet right away who will be able to provide an expert and informed diagnosis:


How can my dog develop arthritis?

There are many reasons that a dog can get arthritis, including external factors like the quality of their diet, how much exercise they’re getting, breed, injury, and their age.

  • Joint injuries. If a joint gets injured by a torn ligament or an infected wound, for example, then damage can occur inside the joint. This sets off a vicious circle of inflammation which can result in arthritis in an otherwise healthy joint. 
  • Being overweight. If your dog has been overweight, their joints have to cope with the extra load, which, over time, can cause increased wear and tear on the joints.
  • Old age. As arthritis may be caused by wear and tear, older dogs may get arthritis even if they have always been slim, fit and healthy. Whilst this may be seen as a normal part of ageing, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat it to prevent it from getting worse over time.

Dog breeds prone to arthritis

There are also certain breeds which are more prone to developing arthritis as they can suffer from predisposed bone conditions such as hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. These breeds include working dogs such as Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Springer Spaniels, and Rottweilers.

Elbow dysplasia and also any “wonkiness” in the legs is seen most often in the short-nosed breeds like Shih Tzus and British Bulldogs. If the joint isn’t formed properly, the weight of the dog can cause pressure in the wrong places of the joint and cause damage. 


How is arthritis in dogs diagnosed? 

There is no specific test that tells us that your dog has arthritis. Often the diagnosis is made following a detailed discussion and physical examination by your veterinary surgeon, who can tell if there is any pain or stiffness in your dog’s joint.

In some cases, the veterinary may recommend further tests such as a blood sample or x-rays (which are usually done under sedation or anaesthetic) to check for other conditions that may be causing joint problems. 

X-rays can show whether the arthritis is advanced, but the early stages don’t show up on an x-ray, however even if it can’t be seen it should still be treated, helping to reduce the damage in the long term.

If there is something else wrong with your dog, this will need to be treated (if possible) as well as the arthritic change in the joint for the best prognosis. 


Is dog arthritis curable?

Sadly, there is no cure for this common condition as it is progressive and can worsen over time, affecting your pet’s quality of life. However, there are several treatment options available and holistic ways to help manage your dog’s arthritis at home. 


How to treat your pet with arthritis

There are several treatments and techniques for arthritis which you can adopt and provide your pet to help manage the condition. A common misconception about caring for a dog with arthritis is that they shouldn’t be walked as much, however, this is untrue. While it may not be suitable for your dog to run extensively, dogs who suffer from joint pain can be taken on shorter walks, sometimes twice a day to help them stay active without exerting extensive pressure on their joints.


  • Provide a healthy, balanced diet and exercise
    Providing your pet with a healthy, balanced diet is key to preventing strain on their joints, particularly if they are carrying a little extra weight. It can be very difficult to get a dog to lose weight when they aren’t able to exercise well. Therefore, exercise is vital in keeping your pet active and to prevent pet obesity to encourage healthy weight management, to maintain healthy joints and your pet’s wellbeing.

    Exercise is also crucial to keeping up muscle strength. If a dog doesn’t exercise enough, the muscles become weaker and provide less support to the joint. The joint then has to do more of the work in supporting the weight of the dog, which causes more pressure and more damage to the weak joint. Clinical studies have shown that doing at least 30 mins of lead exercise twice a day is critical to protecting the joints. If your dog has had an injury or is not able (at the moment) to do this amount of exercise, your veterinary surgeon will be able to discuss a suitable plan to help gradually and safely increase the amount of exercise your pet can cope with.
  • Feed your dog a suitable arthritis diet
    It is also best to feed your pet a specialist diet to ensure they are getting the right minerals and nutrients for their bones, such as providing sweet potato to provide phytonutrients (to prevent disease and improve immunity) and antioxidants (which help to defend cells from damage).
  • Medication and supplements
    There is a range of medication and supplements available for dogs suffering from painful joints. We would always recommend discussing these options with your vet first to ensure you are providing your pet with the correct treatment for them.

    Effective pain management prescriptions, such as anti-inflammatory aids, can help alleviate the pain in your dog’s joints, in addition to taking supplements to help manage your dog’s pain and concentrate their source of nutrients.

    There are several different types of anti-inflammatories available, and how they all work is similar. It is recommended that you give them to your dog for at least three months at the full dose. Do not use human anti-inflammatory drugs for your pet, even in an emergency, as some can be poisonous to dogs. Always use ones that have been prescribed by your vet.

Omega-3 supplements
Feeding your pet fish oils like omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and regulate the immune system, and glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate can help build cartilage to lubricate joints. They work very well with anti-inflammatory drugs because they work in different ways to have the same effect.

Fish oil is the best-known source of omega-3 oils, but the amount that a dog with arthritis needs is much higher than what a human requires. For example; a 30kg Labrador would need up to 20 capsules a day of a standard brand name human supplement, so check with your veterinary surgeon that you are giving the right amount. As this amount of oil can add quite a few calories, it is important to account for it if your dog is being weight controlled. It can also cause diarrhoea if introduced too quickly.

Whilst flax oil is very rich in omega-3 oils, it mainly contains a type that dogs can’t use in the body very well, so it’s not really suitable for arthritis treatment. See here for What human foods can dogs eat?

Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements 

These supplements are well known for both people and dogs. The glucosamine and chondroitin are the building blocks that the body needs to repair cartilage inside the joints, so the theory is that these supplements have both a protective and healing benefit.


Cartophen is a medication that is administered by injection. It contains glycosaminoglycans, which is a different form of glucosamine. Glucosamine is part of the building block of glycosaminoglycan and is a smaller molecule that can be absorbed orally, and then used by the body to manufacture glycosaminoglycans. 

Glycosaminoglycans are large molecules that are broken down in the gut so can only be given by injection. They are used to repair cartilage in the body and can, therefore, help with arthritis damage in the joints. Giving it by injection ensures that it isn’t broken down by the action of the digestive system. Again, it can promote healing of damaged cartilage. 

Both types of treatment work to varying degrees however, it will depend on the dog. Some respond very well and need no other treatment, while others show little if any change. There is no way to predict whether the treatments will work or not, but they have very few side-effects and can reduce the need for stronger medications.

Responding to treatment

It is important to remember that not all dogs respond equally to every treatment. It may be that your dog doesn’t respond well to the first treatment, but does very well with the second or third, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see an immediate improvement. Some treatments also take longer than others to show an effect. 

Many of the treatments used also work in different ways to stop the vicious circle of inflammation, so your veterinary surgeon may recommend using several treatments together to get the best effect for your dog’s specific problem.

In some cases, there may be a reason why a treatment can’t be used in your dog. The list of treatments below is to give you some information about what they are and how they work. We advise discussing with your veterinary surgeon which are the right treatments to use for your dog.


How to prevent arthritis in dogs

While you’re unable to prevent the condition developing in dogs who have age arthritis (degenerative joint disease – DJD), it can be prevented in young dogs by restricting them from jumping up on the sofa and running up the stairs while they’re still growing and their joints are developing. Young dogs can be taken on shorter walks and on routes with a limited incline to reduce pressure on their hip and knee joints. 


How to help dog arthritis

If your dog is suffering in pain from sore joints, there are several ways to help them feel more comfortable:


  • Keep your dog cool and dry. Ensure that your dog doesn’t feel too hot or cold, as the weather can affect the severity of pain in their joints, and in cold weather, can cause them to stiffen. Dogs with sore joints often like something cool to lie on, but hard floors (often draughty) can stiffen their joints. Encourage them to lie somewhere warmer, but if they like a cool surface consider using a cooling mat. 
  • Provide a comfortable bed. Specialist memory foam beds for dogs have been developed to reduce the pressure on their joints so they can sleep and rest more comfortably.
  • Keep your dog’s nails trim. Regularly cutting your dog’s nails can reduce pressure exerting on their paws as they walk and stand. A dog’s nails will naturally file down as they walk on the pavement, however, if you require help with cutting your pet’s nails, your local vet will be able to assist. 
  • Walk them using a harness. A supportive harness can aid your pet’s walk more steadily by providing support and stability to their back legs and knees.
  • Raise their food and water bowl. To prevent your dog from lowering their head down and pulling on their joints, invest in a suitable feeding and drinking stand which can be adjusted according to your pet’s height to help them during mealtime.
  • Use a ramp. To help your pet access hard to reach areas, provide a ramp so they can enter spaces more easily, such as the car boot (if they are too heavy to carry)
  • Prevent them from slipping. Dogs that live in homes which have laminate or polished wooden flooring are more prone to sliding and slipping on the floor, which can cause strain on their joints. Place carpet tiles or a rug so your pet can walk more easily on a non-slippery surface
  • Encourage your pet to go out. Pets suffering from arthritis tend to feel less inclined to get up and sometimes this can include holding off from going to the toilet. By making your pet’s environment more accessible by placing ramps and soft surfaces to walk on can encourage them to get up and move around to prevent toilet accidents from happening. 
  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture can be helpful for dogs who experience chronic pain. Legally, it can only be administered by a veterinary surgeon and usually requires a course of 4-6 treatments for a full effect. A referral from your vet is required for this treatment.


Hydrotherapy for dogs with arthritis

Rehabilitative treatments for dogs with arthritis such as hydrotherapy can help support with weight loss, and encourage your pet to get active while taking the pressure off their joints. 

Hydrotherapy works by placing your dog on an underwater treadmill, which sits within a four-sided glass chamber. Like humans, dogs are weightless underwater and the boyancy enables them to walk without carrying their full body weight. The hydrostatic pressure of the warm water also helps to reduce swelling and gently helps to build muscle as your pet exercises in the chamber.


What happens in the long term? 

Arthritis is a degenerative disease, which means once it has started, it will progressively worsen. Most of the treatments are aimed at not only treating the pain and discomfort but also acting to slow down how quickly arthritis develops.

As the course of the arthritis changes, the most appropriate treatments for your dog may change. We recommend regular check-ups with your veterinary surgeon, usually every six months. This allows us to monitor the dog’s condition and tailor treatments according to the progress.

With some medications, there may be additional need for monitoring, e.g; for blood tests to check on the health of the liver and kidneys. Your veterinary surgeon will discuss these with you when deciding on which treatments to use. 

The most important point is to communicate – both with your dog and with your veterinary surgeon. If your dog’s behaviour changes it may be due to something other than just old age, and your veterinary surgeon can help make sure your dog gets the right treatment to allow him or her to age gracefully. 
If you suspect your pet is in pain and could be suffering from arthritis, please get in touch with your local Animal Trust surgery. Appointments are free, so you can visit the vet knowing you will receive expert care without being charged for veterinary advice, however many times you visit.

Further Reading


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