What to know about osteoarthritis in dogs.
While most of us think of osteoarthritis as a condition that only affects senior dogs, it can actually be found in young and adult dogs because it's not just related to age. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common health issues in dogs and affects an estimated 25% of pups.1 You might see or hear it being called by other names such as "degenerative joint disease," shortened to "arthritis" or abbreviated as “OA.”
What Is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?
Osteoarthritis is a gradual deterioration in the structure and cartilage of your dog's joints; the cartilage between joints breaks down, joint fluid thickens and bone spurs develop. The changes cause painful inflammation, resulting in joints that don't move as well as they should, pain and sensitivity — becoming worse over time. This can eventually lead to bone-on-bone contact within the joint and loss of normal function, meaning everyday activities such as walking, sitting down or standing up can become challenging.
Arthritis can commonly occurs in knees and hips — joints where two bones come together — but it can happen to any joint in a dog's body. Here are a few tips to help you understand what it is, what signs to look for and what treatment might look like for your pet.
Causes of Osteoarthritis in Dogs
Canine osteoarthritis is a multifactorial disease that may be caused by a combination of:
- Genetics or joints that don’t develop normally
- Abnormal stress on joints
- Old injuries
Dogs may also have an increased risk of developing arthritis if they exercise too much or too little, go up and down lots of stairs or walk primarily on slippery floors.
Dog Osteoarthritis Symptoms
Unfortunately, signs of arthritis in dogs are sometimes difficult to spot, so you may only notice when the disease gets worse and changes in your dog's behavior become more obvious. Because arthritis causes discomfort, let's look at the signs of this condition so you can spot them as soon as possible and quickly get your dog treatment and relief for their arthritis pain.
If your dog is experiencing pain in a joint, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:
- Moving more slowly
- Tiring easily
- Problems jumping
- Difficulty getting up or moving on smooth surfaces
- Behavior that appears depressed, such as not eating as much, less activity, reluctance to exercise and less interaction with you
- Seems to be in pain, such as yelping or groaning when they try to move or wounds on the top of the feet (especially rear)
- Shaking or trembling in their legs
- Swollen joints
- Loss of muscle mass around affected joint
- Restlessness while standing
- Uneven wearing of nails or paw pads
- Problems positioning themselves when going to the bathroom
Osteoarthritis can occur in just one joint, so your dog may show these symptoms only in one leg.
Diagnosing Arthritis in Dogs
The diagnosis of arthritis in dogs has three main parts:
- History: Tell your veterinarian about any changes you've noticed in your dog's behavior. Better yet, take videos of these behaviors and share them during your visit.
- Physical examination: Your veterinarian will conduct a full physical exam to check your pet's health and joints.
- X-rays: Arthritis shows up on X-rays as changes to the bones of the joint, as well as changes in spaces between bones.
Treatment for Osteoarthritis in Dogs
There's no quick fix for osteoarthritis. It's a degenerative disease that occurs over time. When something is damaged in our bodies (both humans and dogs), we generally depend on blood flow, as it supplies oxygen and healing factors.
Unfortunately, joints don't get much blood flow, instead depending on synovial fluid to keep them lubricated and moving smoothly. When a joint is affected by osteoarthritis, there can be less synovial fluid produced and the synovial fluid that is there can become filled with inflammatory debris and is no longer able to do its job effectively.
That being said, some interventions can slow down the progression of osteoarthritis and help your dog feel better.
Vets may recommend a combination of treatments and/or lifestyle changes such as:
- Changing your dog’s lifestyle: controlled exercise, using dog ramps to reduce jumping, etc.
- Complementary therapies such as massage, acupuncture, electrical stimulation, hot and cold therapies or therapeutic laser therapy
- Weight loss
- Exercise and rehab programs to strengthen muscles (swimming is especially great for this)
- Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids or glucosamine, or a prescription diet for joint health
In addition, the core treatment vets use to treat and manage osteoarthritis is called an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug). NSAIDs reduce inflammation in the joint(s), reducing pain and discomfort in your dog. Your dog may need to take them daily, and they typically come in hard pills, though there are also meat-flavored soft chew versions available that can make administration easier for owners.
When it comes to general cost, after initial diagnosis ($100-$500 or more than $2,000 if your dog needs an MRI), monthly cost typically ranges between $30 and $200 to help your dog's arthritis pain. Surgery, if needed, could be a few thousand dollars. Cost can vary depending on a variety of factors so it’s a good idea to talk to your vet about specifics.
Osteoarthritis can be a painful condition for dogs of all ages, but the good news is that it can be managed. Work with your vet to develop a plan to help your dog with arthritis live their best life.
1. Lascelles, Duncan. "Joint Pain in Pet Dogs and Cats." International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) Fact Sheet, no. 9, 2016.