It can be as uncomfortable for our dogs as it is in humans - but
there are ways of managing the disease to ease your pet's pain.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis simply means 'inflammation of the joints' and is a
common problem for many dogs. Most of you will no doubt know of a
dog suffering from arthritis that has shown the textbook signs of
pain, discomfort and stiffness.
Inside a dog's joints, bone surfaces are normally covered with a
thin layer of very smooth cartilage, lubricated with a small amount
of joint fluid that allows the two surfaces to glide freely over
one another with minimum friction. In dogs with arthritis,
cartilage within the joint undergoes change or damage, becoming
less smooth and resulting in the bone surfaces rubbing together.
This causes discomfort to your dog, as well as further damage to
cartilage. As a direct result of this increased friction, new bone
starts to form around the joint making the joint stiffer, which
limits its movement even more - a condition known as degenerative
What causes arthritis?
Typically arthritis is a problem seen in older dogs, but the
condition can develop from an early age following problems with
bone and joint development. Depending on the cause, arthritis may
affect one or any number of your dog's joints. So what causes it?
Most cases develop as a result of abnormal rubbing within the joint
caused by joint instability (e.g. after ligament damage), damage to
or abnormal cartilage development, or damage caused by trauma (e.g.
fractures). Like humans, signs of arthritis can often vary
throughout the animal's life and result in the early onset of joint
problems in older age.
What are the signs that my dog has arthritis?
Often owners may ask how they can tell if their dog's suffering
from arthritis. As the disease nearly always causes pain and
stiffness, dogs may not be as keen to exercise as they were in the
past and may show lameness or obvious stiffness (especially after
long periods of rest). Commonly this stiffness improves with
commencement of exercise, with cold and/or damp conditions usually
worsening symptoms. Some dogs may even lick continually at an
underlying painful joint - occasionally causing unwanted patches of
saliva staining - but rarely do joints appear hot or swollen; more
commonly changes are subtle and undetectable to the naked eye. Some
patients will show obvious signs of pain, whereas others may just
become slower or grumpier.
How are dogs diagnosed with arthritis?
If your vet suspects your dog is suffering, they can sometimes
tell which joints are affected by any pain and/or discomfort by
examination, including joint flexion and extension. But to
investigate properly they usually suggest further tests (e.g.
x-rays), which help confirm and locate arthritic change, and
sometimes identify any underlying causes too.
Occasionally (in the case of suspected joint infection, for
example) your vet may recommend a small sample of fluid is taken
from inside the joint and, in some cases, blood samples may be
required to rule out any medical conditions associated with
How is arthritis treated in dogs?
With so many therapy options available nowadays, it's paramount
to match any treatment with their underlying cause and joint(s)
involved. Arthritis is commonly worse in overweight and unfit dogs,
so the most important therapy is the combination of weight control
and exercise management: minimising load on the joints, and
maximising the range of movement and fitness of the muscles around
Many patients benefit from anti-inflammatory therapy for a few
weeks or months, with long-term drug therapy proving very useful.
Pain relief is vital and the most common veterinary painkillers
used are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
What possible medications are available?
If your vet suspects your dog has arthritis, he/she may require
treatment on numerous occasions over their lifetime, with
treatments varying greatly in terms of medication and timescale
between patients to give your dog the best immediate and long-term
There are three main families of drugs used to successfully
treat canine arthritis. The first are cartilage protectors designed
to reduce cartilage damage (including hyaluronic acid,
polysulphated glycosaminoglycans and pentosan polysulphate). These
may all reduce cartilage degeneration, as well as promote repair of
joint structures and reduce painful inflammation.
Recently the buzzword has been about a second family of drugs:
nutraceuticals (primarily glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate) -
building blocks for cartilage. Adding nutraceuticals to your dog's
diet may enable cartilage repair, which then provides relief from
signs of arthritis.
The third set is anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These seem
ideal for managing inflammation associated with arthritis, but
potential problems are their significant side effects, resulting in
some warning against long-term use. In the short term, drugs with
the highest impact on analgesia and inflammation are often the
first choice, but using them in the medium or long term may prove
detrimental to the patient so alternatives must be sought.
New drugs are always being developed and becoming available, so
development of a successful management plan in the patient requires
regular review of the current medication with detailed progress
reports from the owner.
Can arthritis be cured?
In terms of prognosis, unfortunately it's the case that once
cartilage in your dog's joint(s) has been damaged it rarely repairs
itself completely. But the good news is many pets can successfully
be made pain free by appropriate long-term use of medication and
sensible management to control further deterioration.
With so much variety in severity of arthritis between patients,
many dogs cope well, leading full and active lives without any
veterinary intervention at all. However, certain patients will
require treatment ranging from simple lifestyle changes to complex
This article was written by Marc Abraham and was originally
published in the Crufts Magazine - www.thecruftsmagazine.com.
Marc Abraham is a vet based in Brighton. He regularly
appears on UK television. For more information about Marc
please visit www.marcthevet.com.
Who can I contact for further advice?
The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable
to provide general or case specific veterinary advice. If you
have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this
article then please contact your local veterinary practice for