Osteoarthritis is a painful, progressive joint condition that’s common in senior dogs, and pet owners play an important role in catching the disease early. Learn how to spot the signs and partner with your veterinarian to manage the disease.

By Sarah Mouton Dowdy
October 16, 2020
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Dogs are living longer lives, and similar to humans, their advanced years often come with painful chronic diseases like osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, the signs of arthritis in dogs are often dismissed. “We [pet owners] have a tendency to write off the signs as the dog just ‘getting older’ or ‘slowing down,’’’ says Joyce Login, DVM, CPH, Veterinary Medical Lead, Chronic Pain Portfolio at Zoetis. “But I think most of us know there’s something not quite right with our pet. We just don’t know what it is.”

What Is Canine Osteoarthritis?

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, canine osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, is characterized by the wearing of away of joint cartilage (the connective tissue that protects the ends of bones), the buildup of fluid within the joint, and the formation of new bone around the joint. All of this results in pain and decreased joint mobility and function. 

While the cause of osteoarthritis in dogs isn’t always known, there are several things that might be to blame. These causes could include issues like injury, infection, the animal’s immune system, and abnormally formed joints (like those seen in hip dysplasia).

Osteoarthritis in dogs is quite common. The American College of Veterinary Surgeons says it affects approximately a quarter of dogs and can occur in dogs of all ages. It is also progressive, meaning it will get worse with time if not treated.

Signs of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

“Dogs don’t show their pain the way we expect them to,” Login explains. “They don’t always cry out or yelp like a lot of people think they will.” She says the signs tend to be more subtle and behavioral.

According to Login, the behavioral signs of osteoarthritis in dogs to watch for include:

  • Limping after exercise
  • Not being able to walk long distances and moving slower than usual
  • Difficulty getting up after lying down
  • Difficulty jumping (e.g. your dog is no longer able to jump onto the couch like he used to)
  • Difficulty using stairs
  • Stiffness
  • Increased irritability

These changes in behavior can be easy to dismiss as normal aging or to even miss altogether. And because your veterinarian can’t see how your dog behaves in his natural habitat, your observations from home are a crucial part of getting to a diagnosis. Luckily, we pet parents have some tools available to us that can help.

Diagnosing Dog Arthritis

Zoetis has created a free, simple checklist for dog owners to fill out online that can serve as an osteoarthritis screening tool. The questionnaire includes the list of signs above, but provides more details, including some helpful animations that illustrate exactly what to watch for in your dog’s behavior.

Login says you can start filling out the checklist for your dog at any time—even when he’s young and has no signs of disease. It can help to start early so you can more easily spot any gradual changes over time. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, so the earlier you catch it, the better.

Considering that you’re able to print out the results and share them with your veterinarian, it might work well to get in the habit of completing the questionnaire before each wellness exam for your dog. However, if you notice anything out of the ordinary and your dog is months away from her next veterinary visit, there’s never a bad time to fill out the checklist and contact your veterinarian if you have concerns.

When it comes to helping your veterinarian diagnose osteoarthritis in your dog, your phone—specifically the camera function—is one of the best tools you have at your disposal. Login says that by recording your dog going up the stairs, walking, playing, etc., you can show your veterinarian exactly what your concerns are without relying on your memory or descriptive abilities. “And if it’s osteoarthritis,” she explains, “your veterinarian will be able to help identify that from the video.”

In addition to a physical exam and your observations from home, your veterinarian may order x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computed tomography (CT) to definitively diagnose osteoarthritis in your dog.

How to Treat Osteoarthritis in Dogs

There isn’t a cure for canine arthritis, but it can be successfully managed. Login says the goals of treatment are to improve your dog’s comfort and to slow disease progression. This typically involves a three-part plan:

1. Control your dog’s pain.

Pain control is the foundation,” Login explains. That’s because if your dog hurts, he’s probably not going to want to exercise. And if your dog won’t exercise, it becomes more difficult to control her weight. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most common medications used to treat osteoarthritis in dogs, Login says. But if your dog doesn’t tolerate these drugs well, your veterinarian may recommend some other options to try.  You aren’t limited to pharmaceuticals when it comes to pain control, however. Talk to your veterinarian about your options, and whether holistic veterinary care—including treatments like acupuncture, laser therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy, aqua therapy, and stem cell therapy—might help. Your dog could also be a candidate for supplements like omega-3-fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin.

2. Control your dog’s weight.

Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of slowing disease progression, as excess weight puts more pressure on your dog’s painful joints and can promote inflammation. Your veterinarian can help you develop a plan that includes a target weight, what kind of food to provide, how much to provide, and when to provide it. Some prescription diets for dogs are designed to both manage weight and provide joint support.

3. Make sure your arthritic dog gets regular, low-impact exercise.

Exercise is key to keeping joints healthy, but you may need to modify your dog’s regular activities if he’s suffering from osteoarthritis. For example, instead of letting him run free, the American College of Veterinary Surgeons recommends keeping your dog on a leash and going for walks. If you’re not sure how to safely keep your dog moving (or even how to motivate him to move), ask your veterinarian for tips.

In some cases of dog arthritis, surgery is the best treatment option. Partner with your veterinarian to determine the best plan for your pet. And remember to always check with your veterinarian before starting your dog on any sort of treatment—even if it’s an over-the-counter supplement.

Environmental Adaptations for Dogs with Arthritis

There are several simple adjustments you can make to your dog’s home environment to increase his comfort if he has arthritis pain. Login suggests providing:

  • Warm, supportive bedding. Login notes that you can buy heating pads designed specifically for animals but warns that human heating pads should never be used on animals, since their skin can burn much more easily.
  • Ramps or stairs to help your dog access the couch or other furniture he enjoys.
  • Raised food and water bowls so your dog doesn’t have to bend down.
  • Non-skid surfaces like rugs or yoga mats on slippery hardwood, tile, and vinyl flooring to keep your dog from falling and to make it easier for him to lay down and get back up.

You are the expert on your dog’s behavior, so if you see something out of the ordinary—even if it’s seemingly small and insignificant—don’t dismiss it.