Arthritis in dogs

It can be as uncomfortable for our dogs as it is in humans. However, there are ways of managing the disease to ease your pet's pain.

Info graphic on arthritis

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints and is a common problem for many dogs, causing pain, discomfort and stiffness. In dogs with arthritis, cartilage within a joint (hip, elbow etc.) changes or becomes damaged, making it less smooth and causing the bones in the joint to rub together. This rubbing can be uncomfortable or painful and can damage to cartilage even more. As a direct result of this increased friction, new bone forms around the joint, making it stiffer and more difficult to move (known as degenerative joint disease).

What causes arthritis?

Arthritis is usually a problem in older dogs, but the condition can develop from an early age due to problems with bone and joint development. Depending on the cause, arthritis may affect one joint, or any number of your dog's joints. 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
  • damage caused by trauma (e.g. fractures)

What are the signs that my dog has arthritis?

  • Reluctance to exercise 
  • Lameness or stiffness (especially after long periods of rest)
  • Worsening signs when cold or damp
  • Licking at joint (signs of saliva staining)
  • Your dog appearing slower than usual
  • Your dog being grumpy

How are dogs diagnosed with arthritis?

Your vet can sometimes tell which joints are affected by any pain and/or discomfort by examination, including joint flexion and extension. To investigate properly they may suggest further tests (e.g. x-rays) to help confirm and locate arthritic change, and sometimes identify any underlying causes too. In some cases, blood samples may be required to rule out any medical conditions associated with arthritis.

How is arthritis treated?

If your vet suspects your dog has arthritis, they 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 solution.

Cartilage protectors

Cartilage protectors are 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.

The importance of weight loss

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 those joints.

Nutraceuticals

Nutraceuticals are not medicinal products, but feed supplements that are designed to support the healthy function of dogs. Commonly used nutraceuticals are joint supplements. A growing number of vets in the UK would recommend joint supplements such as seraquin, as these supplements tend to contain chondroitin and glucosamine, which occur naturally in joint cartilage, alongside natural ingredients like curcuminoid (component of turmeric) a potent antioxidant.

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.

Joint supplements

These can often be given as a treat alongside any prescription medicines prescribed by your vet.

New drugs

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?

Unfortunately not. Once cartilage in your dog's joint(s) has been damaged it rarely repairs itself completely. But 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 surgery.

Article author

This article was written by Marc Abraham, a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television. 

Additional information and advice on nutraceuticals also provided by Boehringer Ingelheim.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!

We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article then please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you're looking for a vet practice near you why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a Vet web page.