Osteoarthritis, resulting from degenerative joint disease (DJD), is one of the most common conditions in dogs. One in five dogs will develop arthritis at some point in their lives.
While arthritis is most common in older dogs, don’t ignore the signs if your dog is young. Developmental problems, such as hip dysplasia, can cause arthritis at a young age. Do not, however, automatically jump to conclusions—other conditions can look similar.
Symptoms of arthritis in dogs can worsen with exercise and weather changes and include:
- decreased activity level
- difficulty rising
- reluctance to jump
- changes in behavior
- licking of the affected joint(s)
As the word suggests, arthritis is joint inflammation. Arthritis in dogs can have various causes, including:
- wear and tear
- structural abnormalities
- repetitive overuse
- joint overloading due to obesity
- autoimmune conditions
- metabolic disorders
- hormonal imbalances
Osteoarthritis is chronic joint inflammation caused by progressive deterioration of joint cartilage. As the cartilage erodes, it leads to damage to the underlying bone, bone erosion, and bone spurs. These changes further contribute to more inflammation.
Primary arthritis is associated with aging, due to years of wear and tear on the joints. Secondary arthritis is the result of an external event or force. That includes trauma, poor joint alignment that once damaged the joint cartilage.Dr. Becky Lundgren, DVM
While any joint can suffer from osteoarthritis, it affects mostly load-bearing joints such as:
- lower back
- wrists and hocks
Dr. Andy Roark’s ultimate summary of dog arthritis
Regardless of other variables, obesity is the main contributing factor. Further, it makes the resulting pain worse. Whether you’re trying to prevent or treat arthritis in your dog, weight management is a key strategy.
What you might not know is that excessive fat does more than simply adds passive load to the joints. In excess, fat becomes a bioweapon with a pro-inflammatory effect. If you pictured the mechanic impact of obesity, think about it as if your dog was carrying an elephant. To illustrate the biochemical impact, imagine your dog carrying an elephant through a forest fire.
The vicious cycle
The heavier your dog gets, the more pain they’ll suffer. Pain makes them progressively more reluctant to exercise and move. That, in turn, leads to further weight gain, causing more pain, and so on.
Keeping your dog at optimal body condition is the best thing you can do for them. Before you dismiss the notion your dog might be overweight, remember this. Half of American dogs are obese and many owners don’t even realize that.
Further information: Breaching the Subject of Canine Obesity: No TV Tonight!
Orthopedic conditions and injuries
The most common injuries and conditions that lead to arthritis include hip and elbow dysplasia, luxating patella, and CCL injuries. When a joint becomes unstable for any reason, arthritis inevitably follows.
The primary cause of hip dysplasia is genetic but other factors play a role as well.
Further information: Hip Dysplasia in Puppies: Top 10 Prevention and Management Recommendations
Hip elbow dysplasia sound like they ought to be the same thing. Are they? Yes and know because the two joints are vastly different.
Further information: Canine Hip And Elbow Dysplasia: Are They The Same Thing?
Knee ligament injuries in dogs are one of the most common causes of hind leg lameness and arthritis.
Further information: Talk To Me About Dog ACL/CCL Injuries: My Dog Ruptured Their Cruciate Ligament
How is arthritis diagnosed?
There are fancy ways of diagnosing arthritis and ruling out other conditions. The standard tools, however, are physical examination and x-rays.
My dog has arthritis; what do I do?
Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, and it doesn’t have a cure. However, you can take steps to slow it down and manage it. Yet, too often, it goes untreated. Arthritis is a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean your dog has to suffer from pain and the inability to be active.
The steps you need to take should reflect the severity of the problem. There isn’t much point to shooting a fly with a cannon. On the other hand, going after a bear with a slingshot isn’t the best plan either.
The treatment options are broad and continually evolving. Learn about all of them before making a decision. Here are some of the options; many of them work best when combined into a multi-prong approach.
The cornerstone of a successful approach includes pain management, reducing inflammation, and improving strength and function. Remember, the longer you wait to get your dog’s diagnosis, the more aggressively you need to treat.
The foundation for managing arthritis in your dog
Believe it or not, weight management is the most effective strategy. It helps greatly to reduce pain and inflammation. Get your dog slim and you’ll be surprised how much difference that will make.
You might think that the best thing a dog with arthritis can do is rest. Well, not exactly. Regular low impact exercise, like leash walks or swimming, will help to keep the weight down, muscles strong, and joints lubricated.
Tailor the amount and type of exercise to their individual condition.
If you ever searched, you found that it seems that there are more supplements than dogs. At least that’s the way it feels. These products are in high demand, and everybody wants to get in on the action. How do you navigate such a crowded field?
I am not telling you which products to pick. I am going to go over some of the substances they might contain and what they do.
Glucosamine and chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are primary building blocks found in cartilage—responsible for its elasticity. They absorb readily and quickly make their way to the cartilage.
Further, glucosamine sulfate seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect as well. It helps cartilage regeneration and prevents its breakdown.
Glucosamine hydrochloride, often used in supplements, is considered equally effective but more available for absorption. That means that it can do the same job in lower doses.
Chondroitin sulfate doesn’t have as many studies behind it, but the available evidence indicates that it helps reduce inflammation and pain. It might also slow cartilage breakdown and stimulate cartilage growth.
Some natural sources include green-lipped mussel (chondroitin) and crab shell (glucosamine). You can, of course, supplement green-lipped mussle directly too.
Adequan is an injectable medication from the class of Disease-Modifying Osteoarthritis Drugs (DMOAD). Foundationally, it is a supplement except that it delivered via injection.
The active compound in Adequan is mostly chondroitin sulfate extracted from bovine trachea.
It facilitates cartilage repair, reduces inflammation,n and helps slow down damage to the cartilage.
Further reading: Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycan (Adequan)
Manganese is an interesting nutrient. There is little to no reporting about manganese playing role in prevention or treatment arthritis. You might find it added to joint supplements, though. Is there more rationale than making the product sound fancier? Maybe.
On the other hand, low manganese levels in dogs are common, and it is tricky to supplement. Nutritionally, manganese is a substance necessary for the structural matrix of cartilage.
Hyaluronic acid binds with water to create a gel-like substance naturally found in joints. This gel performs multiple functions. It lubricates and acts as a shock absorber. It protect the cartilage, promotes regeneration and reduces inflammation and pain.
With age, the amount of hyaluronic acid in the body reduces dramatically which would support the argument for supplementation. It would seem hyaluronic acid is a vital part of care for an arthritic dog.
Hyaluronic acid comes in injectable form or as part of oral supplements. It seems that it absorbs well and doesn’t get dismantled by the digestive process.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation as well as they inhibit the activity of enzymes that destroy cartilage.
For dogs, the optimal source of these beneficial fats is cold-water fish or phytoplankton.
Avocado/soybean unsaponifiables are fats/oils present in avocado and soybeans that cannot be turned into soap. What does that have to do with arthritis? Apparently, these fats too have anti-inflammatory properties and help prevent cartilage breakdown.
MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) is a natural source of sulfur found in most plant and animal tissues—it is a building block of living tissues. Sulfur helps with the absorption of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals and detoxification.
Gut bacteria convert sulfur in an amino acid, which helps reduce inflammation and promotes the formation of cartilage.
MicroLactin is a protein derived from milk of hyper-immunized cows. It is used for its anti-inflammatory effect and immunomodulation.
Deer velvet antler
Immature antlers are cartilaginous structures covered in velvet-like hair, hence the name. Because of its nature, it contains everything you can think of to support the cartilage in your dog’s joint, including:
- glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate
- hyaluronic acid
- immune-modulating factors
Curcumin is the bright orange-yellow pigment that gives turmeric its color. It is a natural antioxidant and a potent anti-inflammatory compound.
Adequate pain management is essential. Not only to improve your dog’s quality of life but also to facilitate weight loss and exercise. That alone will help reduce pain, and you might be able to reduce medications or treatments needed.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications are the cornerstone of pain management in the arthritic dog. As their description implies, they reduce pain by reducing inflammation helping both the joints and the dog.
While I am not a fan of drugs, there is certainly time and place for them. Ideally, you’ll only need to use them at beginning. By including other measures, you might be able to wean your dog off them and use them only when necessary.
Beware of potential side effects and don’t start your dog on NSAIDs without initial blood work.
Some of the common NSAIDs include:
When giving these meds, monitor your dog for any changes such as:
- loss of appetite
- any other changes
If you feel that your dog might be suffering from side-effects, stop the treatment and contact your veterinarian.
Galliprant is a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs. Unlike standard NSAIDs, which block enzymes involved in inflammation, Galiprant relieves pain by blocking inflammatory pain receptors.
As such, this medication should not have a negative effect on either the kidneys, GI tract or blood clotting.
Further information: Grapiprant (Galliprant)
Your dog might get a Gabapentin prescription to manage their chronic pain. Many veterinarians believe that you get the best results by combining NSAIDs with medication that modulates pain perception. Gabapentin is such a drug.
It’s a slow-acting medication; it takes a while to see a difference. To minimize side effects, it is best to introduce and wean off gradually.
Further information: Gabapentin (Neurontin)
Veterinarians prescribe Tramadol as a fast-acting pain reliever. It seems tha it helps some dogs. However, I have never seen it make any difference for my dog. It has become a source of controversy and recent studies have not shown much benefit when it is used alone. It may or may not provide benefit combined with other medications.
Further information: Tramadol
Acupuncture continues to gain popularity as an affordable, minimally invasive treatment not just for pain but other conditions.
Often people turn to acupuncture when they find out that their dog cannot tolerate NSAIDs. Why not consider it first? It is one of my top go-to treatment options, and the results might amaze you. An important variable with such treatment is the individual practitioner. Drugs work pretty much the same regardless of who prescribed them. With acupuncture, efficacy depends on where they stick the needles.
Note: those needles are small and don’t go deep. Many dogs seem to look forward to their acupuncture sessions, but if this is not the case, acupressure may be the way to go.
Further reading: Acupuncture for Dogs: Acupuncture Is Not Voodoo
We employ laser therapy all the time. It is one of the safest treatment options.
Laser therapy can help both the joints, and soft tissues. Benefits include:
- increased healing
- decreased pain
- reduced inflammation
Further reading: Laser Therapy for Dogs: Can Photon Power Help Your Dog?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a new kid on the block but it is becoming increasing popular for all sorts of problems. There is some evidence showing that CBD can offer benefits that include:
- pain relief
- reduced inflammation
I have never used it myself but our PT used it for her dog with amazing results.
Further information: What to Know If You Want to Give Your Dog CBD
Laser therapy has many applications as it promotes healing and reduces inflammation and pain.
Further reading: Laser Therapy for Dogs: Can Photon Power Help Your Dog?
Targeted pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (TPEFM) is a non-invasive treatment option that you might include in combination with other strategies to help your arthritic dog.
Regenerative therapy for degenerative disease. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I believe that these therapies are the future of veterinary medicine.
You might be familiar with platelets as the cells in the blood involved with clotting. That function is essential to stop bleeding when a blood vessel is damaged.
As it turns out, platelets can do more than that. Platelets also contain a variety of factors that promote healing.
Platelet-rich plasma can be used in the treatment of wounds, tendon and ligament injuries, and arthritis.
Further reading: Platelet Therapy for Dogs: Regenerative Veterinary Medicine
If you need really big guns to address your dog’s arthritis, stem cell therapy is it.
Your dog’s own concentrated stem cells tissue can treat all sorts of traumatic and degenerative issues, including:
- ligament and tendon injuries
- other conditions
Presently, veterinarians use either stem cells extracted from bone marrow or fat tissue. I am partial to the use of fat-derrived stem cells.
Further reading: What Is Stem Cell Therapy
However old, prolotherapy is mostly obscure therapy. You’re most likely to encounter it with a holistic veterinarian. Prolotherapy involves injection of substances in the affected joint to stimulate healing which makes it fall under regenerative therapies.
I described it as a forerunner to stem cell therapy. That is because it aims to accomplish the same result, only in a roundabout way. The injection induces local inflammation to recruit stem cells and other healing factors to promote healing. It is rather obscure but more affordable and simpler to implement.
The formulations vary and can include things such as:
- vitamin B12
Different veterinarians prefer different cocktails. I haven not used it but I am open to considering it.
Further reading: Prolotherapy for Dogs: Forerunner To Stem Cell Regenerative Therapy?
Regardless of what other measures you decide to take, physical therapy should be part of your plan. Physical therapy is essential to maintaining mobility, flexibility, and strength. It is an indispensable tool to help your dog with their arthritis, as well as any underlying conditions.
I recommend starting with a physical therapist because there is a lot of wonderful stuff you cannot do yourself.
They can, however, teach you things you can do at home in the interim. We did a combination of PT visits and at-home exercises and techniques with all our dogs.
Further reading: DIY Physical Therapy for Dogs: What Can You Do at Home?
Hydrotherapy is a form of physical therapy that takes advantage of properties of water to fast track rehabilitation. Water offers:
- buoyancy to take pressure of painful joints
- hydrostatic pressure to support balance
- resistance to develop strength
- conductivity which helps cool or heat the body
Further reading: Hydrotherapy for Dogs: The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs
Walking is the primary form of dog exercise. Leash walks with modifications such as walking in sand, water, exercises on mild incline etc. can go a long way to help your dog.
Treadmills, particularly underwater treadmills, can offer further benefits.
Further reading: Treadmills for Dog PT: A Comparison of Canine Treadmills
If you ask out dogs, out of all the therapies we employed for them, they love massage the most. Massage can offer many benefits such as:
- reduced tension
- decreased inflammation and pain
- reduced swelling
- increased blood flow and healing
- and more
Weather can play a role in making your arthritic dog feel worse. Changes in barometric pressure affect your dog’s joints.
There are ways to counter the impact of weather on your dogs arthritis.
Physical therapy is an exceptional modality from which your dog can greatly benefit. It is extremely rare that PT would be contradicted but to be thorough, I should include that here too.
Such situations are uncommon and your physical therapist should be aware of them.
Further reading: Contradictions to Canine Physical Therapy
Cryo- and Heat Therapy
As you imagine, cold and heat therapy have the opposite effect.
Therapeutic effects of cold therapy
- reduced inflammation
- decreased plain
- reduced redness and heat
- bleeding control
Therapeutic effects of heat therapy
- increased blood flow
- increased supply of nutrients and immune cells
- muscle relaxation
Let me preface this that I have no idea whether or not Reiki helps dogs with arthritis. Nor I know that it doesn’t.
Reiki is a Japanese energy healing technique. As such, it could potentially help relieve your dog’s chronic pain. I am open to the notion that energy healing could work. However, I do believe, that more than with anything else, the practitioner matters. If I were to try this, I’d seek a practitioner with a solid record.
Further reading: Reiki for Dogs: Is It Real?
To find the best herbal option for your dog, I recommend you work with a good holistic or integrative veterinarian. Integrative—Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM)—contain a combination of various herbs and compounds; some TCVM veterinarians even mix their own.
Further information: Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine: Our Journey to TCVM
Boswellia is an extract from the bark of a tropical tree also known as Indian Frankincense. It has been used for a long time and it can work both as anti-inflammatory and analgesic.
Managing your dog’s exercise, environment, and utilizing targeted support can go a long way to
- help prevent excess stress
- reduce the odds of further injury to your dog’s painful joints
If your dog arthritis is caused by underlying problems such as hip dysplasia, you can increase your dog’s mobility and decrease pain with mobility assistance products such as a hip dysplasia soft support, IVDD support, and more.
Further reading: Dog Mobility Assistance Products
Slippery surfaces are a sore dog’s worst enemy. You can cover slippery flooring with carpets or rugs. It does, however, only work in places you control. What if you’re going to a veterinarian or other places? ToeGrips are a solution that works everywhere, all the time. I used them myself to help Cookies recovery from iliopsoas injury.
Help your dog avoid having to jump or struggle with stairs. Ramps can make life easier and safer for your arthritic dog. You can make them yourself or find one that best suits your circumstances.
Further reading: Ramps!
Frailty syndrome is a range of physiological changes that come with old age. It can also occur after extensive surgery or prolonged illness.
There are measures you can take to help your dog.
What we use?
I have used NSAIDs short-term when it was necessary. For long-term solution, however, I look to non-drug solutions whenever possible.
My go to measures include:
- physical therapy
- chiropractic therapy
- laser therapy
When my dog needs a massive intervention, the first option I consider is regenerative therapy. Over time, we have utilized both
- stem cell therapy
- platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP)
Managing Canine Osteoarthritis in All Stages and Ages