Arthritis in Dogs: Causes, Signs and Diagnosis

Arthritis in dogs - help him
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

You look at Basco, your long time friendly Labrador Retriever companion, and it just hits you that he is not so spritely. Yes, looking back at things it is really some time now and you are really just noticing that he is not as jaunty in his walk as before. Basco seems even not to be interested in exercising and you consider you’ve got to do a little check on him. In your little routine stretching of the dog he seems to wince at the movement of his joints and he feels a bit stiff.

The subject of arthritis in dogs jumps out right at you and hits you like a brick, because your first dog Marco the Boxer had the very same condition.


You now begin to ask yourself, “What did I not do right?” and looking back at things, arthritis is not a walk in the park disease.

Causes of arthritis in dogs

Dog owners have always been at the mercy of diseases in their dogs. Many dogs, both large and small breeds do have some predisposition to one disease or another due to genetic issues. All older dogs however are prone to arthritis or osteoarthritis as it is sometimes called, a degenerative disease of the joints.

Animals are naturally made with Joints that attach limbs and other bony parts to each other. Joints however, are made to move back and forth like a hinge and in some areas such as the hip, are able to turn around. In any joint, one end of a bone rotates in the socket of the end of another bone. Each bone in the joint however is covered with cartilage that provides a smooth surface for each of the bones to move against without friction.

Movement is made even easier with a thick oily substance that cushions each bone in the joint and prevents any opportunity of bones rubbing together. All of this is held together by a series of fibrous tissues and ligaments to form a strong and healthy working joint.

Healty joint

The thing is that joints, like other parts of the body are naturally made to repair themselves. Dog joints however are subject to constant pressures put on them from your very active dogs. So from the many years of much running, bouncing, jumping and in some instance digging, joints suffer wear and tear that causes them to lose their firmness. There comes that time when natural repair is not so possible anymore and they simply wear out.

The cartilage that provides that sliding surface chips down, the fluid that adds lubrication becomes thin, the ligaments that hold all of the joint apparatus together wear out, and there isn’t anything left to prevent bones rubbing against each other. The dog is left with an inflamed and sometimes very painful condition, arthritis of the joints.

Arthritis however can be caused from several other problems. If your dog had suffered trauma to its joints as in an accident when it was younger, it very likely will develop arthritis when it gets older. Joint dislocation from all its running around and an infection are also possible factors that will result in arthritis. Hip or elbow dysplasia is a common genetic disorder found in some dogs where the joints do not develop properly and this does degenerate into arthritic conditions.

Overweight dogs are also prone to the condition. However, general aging is liable to bring on the condition and it suits all dog owners to prepare with your vet to help your dog in these circumstances.

Signs of arthritis in your dog

There is nothing in the world like a robust, enthusiastic and lively dog, fetching, chasing and just being plain mischievous.  But there is everything to be noticed about that dog that does not show the same passion and vigor in getting up to its antics. You may be surprised to find that pain is never the start of dog arthritis symptoms in the initial stages.

You will however notice that the dog is slowing down in its usual activities. It is not as energetic as it used to be, running, bouncing, jumping and so on. A dog with arthritis may find it difficult to jump on the couch, bound up the stairs easily, or even getting in the back of the car as it used to. This is because its joints have become stiff and may be sore.

Arthritis in dogs

According to Hines (2015), arthritis is a problem that comes on gradually and you may not even notice that your dog is slower than usual. Additionally, Hines suggests that some larger dogs that have been bred and trained for long endurance work or activities, will sometimes hide their pain or soreness until the problem gets real bad. Ordinarily, a dog would be up in a beat when called; but with stiffer and sore joints will seem slower as it takes longer to rise from its position.

The more overt signs of pain will be seen as the dog now walks with a limp, or a hanging limb. Large dogs, especially those who are overweight find it more difficult and sometimes their heavy panting belies the pain and stiffness that they are experiencing. In the more advanced stage of the disease, the dog will experience pain especially when you touch the joints and it will be difficult to find a suitable lying position.

Dogs at greater risks of arthritis

All breeds of dogs have some degree of risks of getting arthritis. Some breeds are however more susceptible because they are more genetically inclined to joint problems. Larger dogs are among those including the Great Danes. The Newfoundland is that breed that has a high rate of cruciate ligament disease. Similarly, Rottweilers are distinct for their ankle and knee problems and the Bernese Mountain dog for elbow dysplasia (Eckstein, 2015).

Diagnosis of arthritis

As the dog owner, you may be the first to notice that something is wrong with your pet.

Dog arthritis diagnosing

You also will ensure a speedy visit to the vet for a diagnosis. After a physical examination, the vet may ask that one or more of several things is done to determine the cause of a limp, or pain, stiffness or soreness. An X-ray, blood test, and other test can be done to determine arthritis.

Common methods of dog arthritis treatment

Here is where arthritis matters in your dog – making him or her better and reducing the pain that is associated with the problem. It must be determined from this point that from the moment arthritis is diagnosed in your dog, it cannot be cured. There are other methods of treatments that you can explore however, ensuring that your vet is integrally involved. He may suggest the options that you can pursue or that are best for your dog given its age and general stage.

Surgical treatments

This treatment method is most often considered as a last resort when the arthritic condition has worsened, the joint cartilage has become severely damaged, and other treatment options have failed at improving the dog’s health. In such situation the veterinary surgeon may recommend arthroscopic surgery to repair the joint, joint replacement, or joint fusion. Surgery does not always solve the problem and dogs that are overweight and have swollen and inflamed joints are not good candidates.

Nonsurgical treatments

  • Improve weight and body conditions – It has been found that treating those conditions that advance arthritis in dogs is an effective way to drastically improve the situation of the animal. Therefore, the vet will recommend that the dog is put on a weight loss programme.
    The idea is to reduce the weight and put less stress on the joints, therefore giving some reprieve for any repair to take place. Secondly, too much fat in the body also causes inflammation which again worsens joint health. The vet will build the muscles surrounding the joints they can help to protect them.
  • Use traditional medication – Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are given to block the amount of the enzyme prostaglandins that forms in the body and builds up inflammation. The drawback to this method of treatment however is the side effects that the dog can experience, chief among them liver and kidney problems. But Hines determines that the only way that you can eliminate side effects from NSAID drugs is to use those that totally are without any effect and use instead naturopathic or homeopathic medicines and therapies.
  • Consider controlled medicationThese are narcotics but are very effective and aggressive in relieving pain in arthritic joints. The fact is that these drugs are not so destructive in causing organ damages. However, they are highly addictive and therefore must be carefully monitored for signs. They preferably should be used intermittently rather than daily.
  • Make a change in dietA dog that is obese will find it more difficult to move around as there is more pressure being placed on the joints due to the weight. The first thing that you would do is to seek to reduce his weight and this will mean controlling both the amount and types of food that he eats. Dogs love food and likely have been fed with high calorie foods that packs on the weight. Lower calorie foods are available commercially; you will only need to look for them.
    Additionally, you can also add low calorie foods such as cabbages, green vegetables and carrots to his diet. Otherwise, you may consider preparing some wholesome home cooked food for him if you are up to it. This way you can be selective and therefore control what goes into your pet’s diet. Consider including 20 – 45% protein, 5 – 10% fat and 20 – 35% carbohydrates in his diet.  You must remember also that there are certain foods that must not be fed to dogs, including garlic, chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, tomatoes and avocado.
  • Consider nutritional supplements – Although some manufacturers have sought to help the process along by adding nutritional supplements to some dog foods, you can also seek to identify the best ones on the market and make it a part of the dog’s routine for healthy foods.
    Some supplements such as glycosaminoglycans (CAGs) are suggested as the first step in dog arthritis treatment, included among them glucosamine and Chondroitin sulfate (Straus, 2007). These products are made from shells and shellfish, green-lipped mussels and cartilage. CAGs are not only seen to reduce the symptoms presented by arthritis, they also help to protect the bones of the joints by providing cartilage. They appear in oral supplement as well as they can be injected.
  • Low impact exercise – Your arthritis dog will have long gone lose interest in any major running or jumping activities. However, he or she will need to exercise since this will send more oxygen to the affected areas and you may just have some healing taking place. It is best to give your dog at least 15 minutes to half an hour of walks per day.
    Some dogs will want to go longer trips despite their illness; but they will surely indicate when they want to stop. You also do not want to cause further damage to joints with too much activity. Swimming is a good form of exercise for dogs with arthritis as the body does not put pressure on the joints.
  • Consider natural anti-inflammatory – It is the natural tendency that our first consideration when our dog has arthritis is traditional medicines. You may however want to try natural anti-inflammatory therapies before embarking on a course of medication. Natural anti-inflammatories are found in a variety of foods and therefore the dog may also get other the nutritional values that come in them.
    One of the best sources of anti-inflammatory therapies is fish oil. Fish oils, especially those that come from the krill and cold water mackerel and salmon are great sources of Omega 3 – fatty acids that are good for general health and act to stop or prevent the action of inflammation in the joint. Fish oil is available in gel capsules and you can give your dog 1 capsule per 10 pounds of body weight daily.
    Fish oil is also available in liquid and you would measure so the dog would get 300 mg per 10 pounds of body weight. Vitamins E and C have anti-inflammatory properties also. Bromelain, an enzyme that is found in pineapple has strong anti-inflammatory properties. Bromelain works best however when given separately and not mixed with foods. You can give the dog one hour before or two hours after meals.  You may also want to consider some herbs that are well-known for arthritis such as Boswellia, the yucca root, turmeric and hawthorn. You can get herbal therapies in tinctures and glycerite forms.

Making your dog more comfortable

Arthritis in dogs is certainly quite discomforting. The dog will find it difficult not only to get up but also to lie comfortably. There will also be painful episodes especially during cold and damp weather. Dogs are not able to help themselves and will depend on us humans to give them a better quality of life. There are several things that you can do to help them along.

Provide soft bedding to make sleep comfortable. Hard surfaces will only aggravate pain. Engage your dog in short gentle play. He will get the exercise to improve muscle mass and reduce weight and still enjoy your company.

Dog massage

There is nothing like a good massage. Gentle massages and physical therapy will soothe the muscles and joints of the dog that usually feels and acts better each session. According to Hines, it is not only the improved circulation that occurs, but dogs just love the touch and attention that come from you and they will feel better from this.

You can even provide this care yourself and make it inexpensive. Your dog will find it difficult to reach behind, over and under to groom itself. You can help by grooming those hard to reach areas. The ASPCA (2015) also suggests that you have a mobile ramp to help the dog get in and out of the car and access other areas that may be difficult to climb.

Did you know that trimming your dog’s toe nails can add a lot more comfort to walking? Well, long nails present unsteady gait and will cause more pressure to be placed on the joints, therefore making his arthritis worse. Trim the nails so that they barely touch the floor when he walks.

Adding some warmth to sore and painful areas can soothe and relieve aches and pains. Give your dog frequent hot tub baths; you can also add heat from heating pads. This will relax the muscles and improve circulation to the affected areas and reduce pain.


Many dogs can be expected to develop the painful and debilitating condition of arthritis. Dog owners need not be frightened or get panicky if their dogs have been diagnosed with the disease. Dogs can live better quality of life once you manage the condition properly. Always consider your veterinarian a partner and expert in treatment and have frequent consultations for good results.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.