The information in this article has been reviewed and updated.

Senior Golden Retriever
If your dog seems lazy or is reluctant to run or play or even get out of bed, especially the day after exercising, he may be suffering from arthritis — usually called “osteoarthritis” or OA in pets. Other signs of OA can include stiffness when getting up, limping, obvious pain, reluctance to jump or go up or down stairs, irritability, diminished muscle tone and amount (due to lack of use), and loss of appetite (often due to pain or to difficulty reaching down to the bowl to eat).

It’s easy to dismiss such changes as inevitable signs of aging, but don’t. And don’t assume your dog has arthritis unless your veterinarian has checked him. These signs could be caused by other medical problems that need to be addressed.

What Causes Arthritis?

Arthritis is believed to affect an estimated 20% of pet dogs over 1 year of age. And although it is more common in older dogs, it can appear in dogs of almost any age. Arthritis can affect any joint in the body, but common areas include the hips, knees, elbows, shoulders, neck, and back. Very commonly, an injury to a joint can lead to early onset of arthritis in that joint. Some inherited diseases, like canine hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia can eventually lead to arthritis pain that is so severe that the dog has difficulty walking. Even some infectious diseases can lead to arthritis. 

Genetics play a role for some affected dogs, and obesity is known to increase the risk of arthritis, but sometimes there is no obvious cause. In some cases, abnormal stresses or trauma to the joint can cause degeneration of the joint cartilage and underlying bone. The synovial membrane surrounding the joint becomes inflamed, and the bone can develop small bony outgrowths called osteophytes. These and other changes cause the joint to stiffen, become painful, and have decreased range of motion. 

What Are the Management Options?

Arthritis in dogs is a progressive condition, but your veterinarian will discuss management options with you. For some conditions (such as hip dysplasia) that lead to arthritis, your veterinarian may recommend surgery. But surgery isn’t right for every pet, so other options can be explored.

Conservative management focuses on pain relief and promoting better mobility, joint function, and quality of life for the pet. These treatments don’t “cure” the arthritis, but they help the pet live more comfortably with the disease.

Conservative treatment can include a variety of elements, such as medication for pain and inflammation, keeping the dog’s weight down, and maintaining a program of controlled exercise. Your veterinarian can work with you to develop the best plan for your pet.

Low-impact exercise such as walking or swimming can help many dogs with arthritis. And environmental modifications, such as ramps and skid-proof floor coverings can make it easier for arthritic pets to get around without slipping or falling. A soft bed with lots of thick padding can help cushion painful joints. While a warm bed often helps the joints feel better, choose a pet-safe warming pad and be sure to place a towel or blanket between the pad and your dog’s skin and use a low setting to reduce the risk of accidental burns. Massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy can also be helpful for some pets.

Ask your veterinarian about drugs that can alleviate some of the signs of arthritis. Many veterinarians prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) made especially for dogs. These drugs reduce inflammation and pain. Do not give your dog human arthritis medications unless your veterinarian has directed you to do so.

Some owners are concerned about side effects of NSAIDs in dogs, and it’s true that some dogs develop problems, including vomiting and appetite loss, while on these medications. This is why they should only be taken under your veterinarian’s supervision, possibly with blood testing before and throughout the course of treatment, to help monitor for potential drug complications. If such effects are seen, your veterinarian can try another drug. Arthritis is a painful condition, so it’s not fair to the dog to withhold medication out of fear of adverse effects.

Some products modify the joint fluid and help protect joint cartilage, but do not necessarily provide pain relief. Other medications provide pain relief alone (without having an anti-inflammatory effect), and other medications target arthritis-asociated nerve pain. These products are sometimes used in conjunction with NSAIDs or other types of medications. Ask your vet about the best options for your dog.

What Alternative Treatments Are Available?

Supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, may improve the condition of joint cartilage and fluid. Glucosamine promotes the synthesis of collagen and some other joint components. Chondroitin sulfate helps to shield cartilage from destructive enzymes. Other popular supplements include perna caniculus (green-lipped mussel) and Omega 3 (fish oil). While these supplements are not technically “drugs”, they do benefit some pets. But they are not without their own potential side effects, so be sure to discuss with your veterinarian whether these supplements might help your dog. 

Some dog foods, especially prescription brands available from your veterinarian, include supplements and other components that may help improve joint function. 

Arthritis can be a subtle disease. The signs are easily missed if you don’t know what to look for. So, watch your dog for signs of arthritis, and don’t ignore them. The sooner you can identify the problem, the sooner you and your veterinarian can start exploring management options. Your dog will be more comfortable, more active and happier if his joints don’t hurt.