Arthritis in dogs is a degenerative joint disease that — depending on the type of arthritis and certain lifestyle factors — can affect our pets at any age. But, it's most common in older dogs.
Our pets often "slow down" as they get older. While this is part of the aging process, it shouldn't be written off as normal. When our dogs become less mobile or less interested in their favorite daily activities, it's often a sign of an underlying health problem.
Decreased mobility is one of the most common signs of arthritis, but it can also be a sign of other health conditions, like a hormone imbalance or a heart problem. So, it's important to have a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) diagnose your dog.
If you suspect your dog has arthritis, here's what you can expect from the disease and how you can help your pet:
How Arthritis Works
Arthritis causes the cartilage that protects our dog's joints to slowly break down. Without that protective barrier, the bones and ligaments rub against each other, which leads to inflammation and joint pain. It's a progressive disease that gets worse over time.
Arthritis typically starts with joint effusion, or excess fluid around your dog's joints. Then, it progresses to joint degeneration, or a breakdown of the affected joints. The disease progresses in this way regardless of the type of arthritis your dog has.
Types of Arthritis in Dogs
There are several types of arthritis, and the type will affect the risk factors and treatment options.
- Osteoarthritis: The most common type of arthritis, osteoarthritis primarily affects senior dogs, but genetics and lifestyle factors also play a role in its development.
- Immune-mediated arthritis: Significantly less common, this type is caused by an autoimmune disorder, like rheumatoid arthritis, in which your dog's immune system mistakenly attacks its own joints.
- Neoplastic arthritis: This extremely rare form of the disease is caused by a cancerous tumor that affects the joints. Synovial cell sarcoma is the most common type of cancer to cause neoplastic arthritis.
- Septic arthritis: Brought on by an infection, like a strep or staph infection, septic arthritis is often associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever from tick bites. In some cases, it can also be caused by an infection after surgery.
Risk Factors for Arthritis in Dogs
Veterinary researchers haven't identified a cause of osteoarthritis, but they have found several factors that can put your dog at risk of developing the disease. Here are the most common risk factors:
- Age: Dogs are more likely to develop arthritis in their senior years.
- Obesity: Dogs with a higher body weight put more pressure on their joints throughout their life, which increases their risk of developing arthritis.
- Size: Large breed dogs are more likely to get arthritis than small breed dogs. Even when large breed dogs maintain a healthy weight, their increased body mass still puts more pressure on their joints.
- Breed: Beyond their size, some breeds are more prone to developing joint issues. For osteoarthritis, these breeds include German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Rottweilers, and dachshunds. Certain breeds can also have a higher risk of developing immune-mediated arthritis, with poodles, Shetland sheep dogs, and greyhounds being the most susceptible.
- Developmental issues: If your dog's joints don't develop properly during puppyhood, it can lead to arthritis as they age. Common developmental issues include hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Large-breed dogs need to eat specially formulated, large-breed food to protect their joints as they develop.
- Past trauma: Previous injuries or orthopedic surgeries can contribute to arthritis as dogs age. The arthritis may not develop until years after the traumatic event, but will often affect the same joint where the trauma occurred.
Although these risk factors make it more likely that your dog will develop arthritis, the disease can affect any dog. Meanwhile, some dogs with one or more risk factors never develop arthritis. Your dog's symptoms and behavior will be the clearest indicator of whether or not they need to get checked for this disease.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs
These are the most common symptoms of arthritis. If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, or if your dog appears to be in pain, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
- Painful joints
- Decreased range of motion
- Difficulty getting up and down
- Difficulty climbing stairs
- Decreased energy levels
- Decreased activity levels
- Decreased interest in exercise or other daily activities
Those are the primary symptoms of arthritis — the arthritis causes the symptom — but there are also secondary symptoms. Secondary symptoms are caused by the primary symptoms, rather than by the disease itself. An arthritic dog's decreased activity levels can lead to weight gain and loss of muscle mass.
Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs
If your dog is showing signs of arthritis, make an appointment with a DVM. Your pet will need an official diagnosis before they can access some of the treatment options.
When your vet checks your dog for arthritis, they'll start by performing a physical exam. They will likely feel and may move your dog's joints. Some arthritic dogs become aggressive when their joints are touched. Warn your vet if your dog has shown any signs of aggression.
If your vet suspects arthritis based on your dog's symptoms and physical exam, the next step is to take X-rays of the affected joints. Your dog will need to undergo anesthesia for this scan(s).
Treatment Options for Arthritis in Dogs
Your dog will need an arthritis diagnosis before they can access veterinary treatment options, but there are also several holistic options that you can use at home anytime.
From prescription medications to physical therapy, these are the treatments that are available through a vet's office. Not every veterinarian can provide all of these options. Hydrotherapy, for example, requires specialized equipment that's not available in all vet clinics. However, your vet should be able to recommend a practitioner even if they don't offer a therapy themselves.
- NSAIDs: Short for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs are the same class of drugs as our over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol and Advil. However, you should never give your dog a human pain relief medication. Your vet can give you a prescription for a dog-safe medication instead.
- Physical therapy: This approach uses gentle exercises to strengthen the muscles around your dog's joints, which can protect them from long-term damage and improve your dog's range of motion over time.
- Hydrotherapy: This approach takes place in a pool or a tank built for dogs. It offers similar results to physical therapy with the added benefit of buoyancy — water exercises are low impact and take pressure off your dog's joints.
Holistic treatment options have few if any side effects. Aside from helping dogs that already have arthritis, they may also help prevent or delay the onset of arthritis in dogs that are at risk of developing the disease. Here are some of the best holistic remedies for dogs with arthritis:
- Weight management: Helping your best friend maintain a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to protect your dog's health and joints. Obesity is a major risk factor for arthritis. So if you have an overweight dog, work with a DVM or a veterinary nutritionist to develop a weight loss plan.
- Low-impact exercise: Even though your dog may be less mobile than before, they still need to remain active. Low-impact exercise won't put a lot of strain on your dog's joints, but it will help them maintain their range of motion. And while it may increase their arthritis pain in the short-term, it can help lower their pain in the long term.
- Fish oil: Fish oil made from wild-caught salmon or pollock is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which studies show is the most effective food-based remedy for reducing arthritis pain in dogs, cats, and horses.
- Joint supplements: Most joint supplements are made with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. However, the science on these compounds is inconclusive. Pet owners may be better off choosing our Relief chew, which uses scientifically-proven natural ingredients to help manage joint pain.
- Turmeric: This spice is a natural anti-inflammatory. Studies have shown it to be more effective than acetaminophen or ibuprofen for treating joint pain. You can feed turmeric to dogs by making it into a paste and adding it to their food.
Keep Moving Forward
If your dog is at risk of developing arthritis, there's a lot you can do to keep them moving. Take your dog to the vet as soon as you notice any stiffness or decreased mobility. They'll need an official diagnosis to get access to veterinary treatment options.
For dogs with multiple risk factors — including a larger size, advanced age, at-risk breed, or past injury — starting with holistic therapies before the first signs of arthritis emerge can protect their long-term joint health. Monitor your dog's food intake to keep them at a healthy weight, incorporate low-impact exercise into your daily routine, and add all-natural remedies, like Omega Oil, Relief Chews, and turmeric for dogs.For more ideas on naturally supporting your pet's health, check out the Native Pet blog.