How will I know if my dog has arthritis?

dog with arthritis

Developing aches and pains is to be expected when animals get older. But how do you know if your dog is suffering from arthritis? A long-term condition, which deteriorates with time, arthritis requires ongoing management to help affected dogs remain as comfortable and mobile as possible.

What is Arthritis?

The term arthritis covers a number of different diseases involving inflammation of one or more joints. This can cause pain and stiffness.

Osteoarthritis (OA) — degenerative joint disease — is the most common form of arthritis in dogs and humans. It involves joint damage due to age-related wear and tear or following joint injuries, which contributes to pain and inflammation within the joints.

Hip and elbow dysplasia and cruciate ligament problems can also cause arthritis. The most commonly affected joints are the knees, elbows, hips, and backbone.

Which dogs are affected?

Arthritis is particularly common in older and obese dogs, as well as large breeds such as Labradors and retrievers. However, all dogs can be at risk. Most dogs suffer a gradual onset of the disease, with it becoming steadily worse over time.

In some dogs, the disease becomes evident suddenly following a minor incident such as the bumping or spraining of a joint that was already arthritic, even though it previously wasn’t presenting any symptoms.

Diagnosing the disease

In some cases, a vet may be able to make a diagnosis of arthritis based on a thorough examination of a dog’s joints if they are markedly stiff, have a poor range of movement, are thickened, or painful. X-rays are particularly useful as they can clearly show changes in bone contour and density in the joints.

Other investigative techniques include ultrasound scanning, nuclear scintigraphy — scanning the body for active sites of inflammation — and taking samples of fluid from joints.

Exercising an arthritic dog

Regular controlled exercise is paramount for dogs with arthritis. Several short periods of exercise a day rather than one massive walk are recommended for arthritic dogs. Affected dogs tend to cope better if their exercise levels are consistent. The amount and type of exercise should be appropriate to the dog in question and his current ability. Seek advice from your vet if you’re unsure.

Controlling an arthritic dog’s weight to avoid obesity is also very important.

Typical symptoms of arthritis

It can be difficult to spot a dog with arthritis; the disease tends to creep up slowly and many dogs learn to cope with soreness without showing any obvious pain. Owners should look out for the following signs:

  • Overt lameness in an affected limb — the diseased joint is often stiff and painful when manipulated.
  • Swelling and thickening of the structures of the joint.
  • Widespread stiffness.
  • Difficulty/slow in getting up.
  • Particularly stiff following a rest.
  • A reduction in mobility.
  • Muscle wastage due to lack of use.
  • An abnormal gait.

How to treat arthritis

There is no cure for arthritis but dogs who suffer from the disease can still lead happy and active lives. When it comes to treating arthritis there are a variety of options available. Most dogs with arthritis will require non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain-relieving medicines (NSAIDs) to help reduce pain and swelling, with other pain-relieving medicines being used in some cases. Nutraceuticals such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate can also help to relieve pain and reduce joint inflammation.

There are a large number of food products and supplements that contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, but the quality and effectiveness can vary — ask your vet to recommend a product if you’re unsure. Essential fatty acid supplements may also help.

In terms of complementary therapies, acupuncture and physiotherapy can prove very helpful in some arthritic dogs. Acupuncture involves placing small, sterile needles into areas of the body where they have an effect on the nervous system and modulate pain. The process has to be repeated at regular intervals and can be costly.

Physiotherapy can help dogs to keep mobile and maintain muscle strength. It can also be used to relieve pain and stiffness.

Hydrotherapy (swimming) can be very beneficial; it allows dogs to exercise without their joints having to bear any weight. It can help to ease the discomfort of arthritis and build up a dog’s strength and stamina. In a minority of cases surgery may be an option — it can be used to improve the way the bones fit together within the joint, reducing any ongoing damage. However, surgery will not help most old dogs who have typical wear and tear-related arthritis.

Other treatments may include herbal and homeopathic remedies and magnetic therapy, such as a magnetic collar.

Did you know?

  • Although arthritis is very common in dogs aged over seven, younger dogs can also suffer from the disease.
  • Arthritis often becomes worse in cold or damp weather.

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