Senior dog

Osteoarthritis is a common disorder in dogs that involves the thinning of joint cartilage (the protective cushioning between the bones), the buildup of fluid within the joint, and the formation of bony growths within the joint. Over time, this process leads to reduced mobility and pain.

What Are the Common Causes and Symptoms of Canine Arthritis?

It’s estimated that about 20 percent of dogs over the age of one develop arthritis.

Several things can lead to the condition, including ligament injuries, fractures, obesity, degenerative joint disease, and such front and back leg developmental disorders as elbow dysplasia and hip dysplasia.

Symptoms of arthritis are most noticeable after a dog has been resting, and the number-one sign of arthritis is pain, which can vary from mild to severe. Arthritis pain can cause additional symptoms, such as stiffness, limping, changes in behavior and a reluctance to get up, jump or go up and down stairs.

If your dog exhibits any of these signs, visit your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis.

How Can Diet and Exercise Help an Arthritic Dog?

With the right diet and exercise plan, as well as pain relief, you can improve your dog’s joint health and also quality of life.

Most importantly, dogs who stay at a normal body weight throughout life have a lower risk of getting arthritis. If arthritis does develop, it typically occurs later in life, tends to be less severe, and progresses more slowly in dogs of normal weight compared to those who are overweight. The signs of arthritis often increase in overweight dogs, and many of them experience significant relief after shedding added pounds.

In addition to working with your veterinarian to develop a proper weight loss plan for an arthritic dog who’s carrying extra pounds, daily exercise can help to maintain muscle strength, which is necessary to stabilize painful joints.

Swimming or leash walking are excellent forms of exercise for dogs with affected joints. Activities that should be avoided: 

  • Jumping
  • Running up or down stairs
  • Abrupt stops after running, such as catching a ball
  • Any exercise on slippery surfaces

Can Physical Therapy Alleviate Canine Arthritis Symptoms?

Physical rehabilitation is necessary for dogs who are affected by weak muscles — and underwater treadmill therapy, veterinary massage and at-home physical therapy is commonly prescribed. 

Other forms of therapy used by veterinarians to provide pain relief from arthritis include laser treatments, acupuncture, therapeutic ultrasound and electric stimulation. Above all, it is important to work with a veterinarian specifically trained in rehabilitation techniques for the best outcome.

Is There Anything That Owners Can Do to Make Arthritic Dogs More Comfortable?

Arthritis symptoms are often worse after resting, so padded or orthopedic foam beds are recommended to reduce pressure on the affected joints.

Owners can also purchase special ramps to help an arthritic dog tackle stairs, couches, beds and cars.

What Medication Is Available to Dogs With Arthritis? 

There is no medication that can prevent the development of arthritis or stop its progression, but oral anti-inflammatory meds — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids — can help to decrease pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis.

Due to the many negative side effects associated with steroids, NSAIDs have become the most commonly used anti-inflammatory medication for arthritic dogs. However, NSAIDs do carry some risks, including significant liver or kidney problems. And owners must avoid using aspirin, NSAIDs and/or steroids together as life-threatening side effects are possible. 

In order to monitor your dog for any such problems, your vet should perform bloodwork before prescribing an NSAID, as well as during the course of treatment. 

When lifestyle changes and NSAID therapy isn’t enough to reduce pain, other drugs — such as tramadol and amantadine — can be helpful additions when it comes to treating severe arthritis pain. 

Are There Any Dietary Supplements That My Vet May Consider?

Dietary supplements are another cornerstone of arthritis therapy. Since many of them can take weeks to exert their effects on a joint, it is often best to start them with anti-inflammatory medications. After four to six weeks, the medication can often be reduced, and many dogs will remain pain-free on the supplement alone. 

Supplements like glucosamine/chondroitin, polysulfated glycosaminoglycans and hyaluronon provide the building blocks to make new cartilage. And omega-3 fatty acids and green-lipped mussel have been found to reduce joint inflammation in affected dogs, often providing significant relief from arthritis symptoms.

When it comes to supplements, you should always consult with your vet about the best options for your dog. Dietary supplements vary widely in the quantity as well as quality of promised ingredients, and your dog’s results will depend on the grade of the supplement you select.

How Can Regenerative Stem Cell Therapy Help My Arthritic Dog?

This is a relatively new procedure that shows promise in the fight against arthritis. Although stem cells do not permanently stop arthritis, they have been found to provide anti-inflammatory effects, decrease pain and stimulate the regeneration of cartilage for up to one year. 

Your veterinarian will surgically collect a fat sample from your dog, and send it to a facility that can isolate and grow stem cells, which are then returned to your veterinarian for joint injection. Speak to your vet for more information on the suitability of this treatment for your dog.

Dr. Donna Spector is a board-certified internal medicine specialist who practices in the northern Chicago area. She also owns a consulting business that focuses on bringing specialty veterinary care to underserviced regions, providing consultations directly to pet owners and their veterinarians.