What You Need to Know About Arthritis in Dogs

Information About Canine Osteoarthritis

old dog sitting outside

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Arthritis is a term that describes inflammation of a joint or multiple joints in the body. It is usually accompanied by pain and stiffness. This disease name comes from the Greek word arthro (joint) and the suffix -itis (inflammation).

Arthritis not only occurs in humans; it is common in dogs and other animals as well. There are numerous forms of arthritis. In dogs, the main forms are as follows:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA), also called Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD)
  • Immune-mediated arthritis (polyarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Infective arthritis (bacterial, viral or fungal)

Of these main types of arthritis, Osteoarthritis is by far the most common. Therefore, this article will focus on information about osteoarthritis.

What is Canine Osteoarthritis?

Also known as degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is a chronic degenerative disease that affects one or more joints in the body. The cartilage in a joint serves as a buffer between the bones. Softer and more flexible than bone, cartilage absorbs shock during joint movement and helps provide joint lubrication. As this cartilage wears away, the bones begin to rub against one another. The bone-on-bone friction causes bone destruction, abnormal bone regrowth, and swelling of the soft tissue around the joint. All of this leads to chronic pain and stiffness in the joints. The most commonly affected joints are the hips, knees, elbows, hocks, shoulders, carpi (wrists) and spine.

Osteoarthritis is a chronic progressive condition, meaning once it begins it will continue to gradually get worse. There is no cure for arthritis, but there are many treatments available that can slow the disease progression and relieve some of the pain, stiffness, and discomfort it causes.

Causes of Arthritis in Dogs

Degenerative joint disease develops as a result of long-term stress on a joint. Most commonly, arthritis is seen in older dogs as a lifetime of wear and tear on the joints leads to the development of the disease.

When osteoarthritis occurs in younger dogs, there is often another factor. An old traumatic injury or repeated stress on the joints might have caused initial damage to a joint, leading to arthritic changes. Abnormal joint development, a congenital joint deformity or an inherited joint condition (like hip dysplasia) can also begin the disease process. In addition, obesity puts excess stress on joints, possible causing early onset of osteoarthritis. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is one of the best ways to prevent osteoarthritis, slow its progression, and reduce the pain it causes.

Arthritis Symptoms in Dogs

The symptoms of arthritis in dogs vary from mild to severe. If fact, many owners do not even realize their dogs have arthritis until it becomes severe. This does not mean those dogs do not feel mild to moderate pain in the early stages, just that they do not show it the way a human might. Remember that dogs tend to hide their discomfort as part of their survival instinct. This is part of the reason routine veterinary exams are so important, especially as your dog ages. A vet might detect subtle signs of arthritis during an exam that could otherwise go unnoticed at home. The following are the most common symptoms of arthritis in dogs:

  • Lameness/abnormal gait
  • Stiffness, especially after waking up
  • Difficulty jumping into the car or onto furniture
  • Difficulty sitting or standing for periods of time
  • Reluctance to go up the stairs, run, or jump
  • Decreased interest in walks, games, or participation in other types of exercise once enjoyed
  • Withdrawal from family members, including other pets in the home
  • Licking self over specific joint or joints
  • Sensitivity and soreness when joints are touched (in severe cases, the pet may cry out or even snap)
  • Changes in behavior and/or attitude
  • Trouble getting comfortable/restlessness
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Creaking or grinding of the joint when moved (called crepitus; this is usually noticed on a veterinary exam)

Be aware that some of the above symptoms can be signs of other health problems as well. If you notice these or any other signs of illness, be sure to contact your veterinarian.

Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs

Your veterinarian may diagnose your dog with arthritis using a combination of diagnostic tools. Often, the process begins with the history you provide. Your vet will listen as you describe your dog's symptoms, which act as clues to your dog's condition. A thorough examination will then take place, during which your vet will manipulate the joints and feel for stiffness, swelling, and creaking/grinding when the joints are manipulated.

For confirmation arthritis and a sense of the severity, your vet may recommend radiographs (x-rays). These will allow your vet to actually see the affected joints, pinpoint changes to the bones, and determine the severity of arthritis.

Once a diagnosis has been made, your veterinarian will talk to you about the treatment options. There are also some lifestyle and environmental changes you can make to help your dog. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are fortunately many ways to treat and manage the disease and its symptoms.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.