Arthritis is a common condition seen in dogs, especially as they get older. Medically known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), the disease involves the deterioration of cartilage which leads to progressively worsening inflammation of the joints.
"We tend to start seeing arthritis in senior and geriatric dogs, age 8 years and above," explains Dr. Yui Shapard, BVM&S, MRCVS and medical director at Pawp. "Approximately 25% of dogs are diagnosed with arthritis, and it can affect any age, gender, and breed of dog."
Dr. Shapard explains that arthritis occurs in two forms—primary and secondary. Primary is typically age-related wear and tear on the joints seen in older dogs, while secondary is due to a wide range of factors such as elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, osteochondrosis, direct trauma, infection, and more.
Arthritis is over-represented in large/giant breed dogs, sporting dogs, and pure breeds like bulldogs, French bulldogs, dachshunds, and Welsh corgis that tend to have underlying orthopedic issues noted above.
We spoke with Dr. Shapard to learn more about the signs of arthritis in dogs, what treatments are available, and how pet parents can prevent the condition.
There are a few telltale signs that your dog may be suffering from arthritis. These include:
Changes in gait (how they walk)
Chronic and progressive limping
Changes in posture or sitting position
Struggling to sit up or lie down comfortably
"Swelling and decreased range of motion in the affected joints and muscle loss may also be observed, especially by your veterinarian," explains Dr. Shapard. "Signs of pain are not always obvious, as dogs are generally more stoic than we are, but this may be elicited when the affected joint is palpated."
Dr. Shapard notes that a typical symptom of arthritis in dogs is a dog struggling to get up in the morning and limping or acting stiff, but once the day goes on, they start walking normally—usually this is a sign seen in the earlier period of arthritis development.
Sadly, there's no cure for arthritis, and there's also not a gold-standard treatment to manage the symptoms. Instead, veterinarians use supportive therapy through one or several different modalities depending on the severity of the arthritis and how the dog responds to treatment.
The goal of treating arthritis in dogs is to:
1. Alleviate discomfort
2. Minimize additional degenerative changes in the joints
3. Restore function of the affected joints
To accomplish these goals, several aspects needs to be considered based on the individual patient. The first is weight management.
Arthritis is commonly seen in overweight or obese dogs, so weight loss and maintaining ideal weight is key to treating arthritis. Excessive weight leads to increased stress on the joints, causing more wear and tear and further reducing activity. A few studies also reveal that fatty tissues are pro-inflammatory and can contribute to the continued development of arthritis.
Dogs with arthritis are encouraged to complete moderate, low-impact exercises. The best way to go about navigating this is to chat with your veterinarian about what form of exercise works best. One great low impact exercise for dogs is hydrotherapy. You may also want to consider instituting physical therapy.
Pet parents can incorporate chondroprotective supplements like glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitins to help treat the arthritis. Polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs) are also a great chondroprotective option to leverage—they're not the cheapest option compared to the supplements, but can be very effective and provide faster relief. PSGAGs also have the ability to increase synovial fluid, which can lessen the load and risk of wear and tear.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also a very reasonable supplement with anti-inflammatory properties and are usually one of the first supplements recommended for dogs with early signs of arthritis.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are another effective and beneficial treatment option for arthritis in dogs, but they need to be used with some caution, as side-effects can occur with long-term use. Regular monitoring of kidney and liver values are encouraged every few months.
Finally, a surgical option can be considered if medical treatment is inadequate and an underlying secondary cause is diagnosed—such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament rupture, etc.
The most effective way to reduce the risk of arthritis is to make sure that your dog's weight remains optimal.
"Obesity and overweight dogs are much more prone to developing primary arthritis, and so while this may not 100% prevent the risk of age-related arthritis from developing, it can certainly mitigate the risk and the severity," says Dr. Shapard.
Dr. Shapard also recommends starting them early on joint supplements and omega3s—these are supplements that are harmless to give long-term. It's also recommended to avoid strenuous, high impact activities in giant and smaller pure breed dogs known to possess compromised orthopedic anatomy.
If you think your dog has arthritis and aren't sure about next steps, the team at Pawp is here to help 24/7.