Osteoarthritis in dogs: What it could mean for your aging pup

Feb 29, 2016 at 11:17 a.m. ET
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If you notice your dog having trouble getting up or moving around, the culprit may be more than old age — it may be arthritis.

The most common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis. Also called degenerative joint disease (DJD), it involves the deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the joints. This disease is so common that one in five dogs is affected.

According to practicing veterinarian and established veterinary medical journalist Dr. Jeff Werber, any joint in the body can be affected. "As in people, as a dog ages, the cartilage covering the end of the bones gets worn down, the lining becomes inflamed and the fluid lubricating the joint gets depleted," he explains.

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Risk factors

While any dog can be at risk for osteoarthritis, there are some risk factors that can make your dog's chances greater. Werber says some of the biggest risk factors include aging, genetics, weight and obesity, too little exercise and over exercise while your dog is young.

"Large dogs are more prone to arthritic hips and elbows and the knees of the back legs," he adds. "Smaller dogs tend not to have as many hip problems but are more prone to kneecap issues."

While osteoarthritis doesn't pick on certain breeds, larger breeds of dogs do tend to fall victim to the disease more than smaller breeds since increased size is a major risk factor.


Some of the symptoms that present with osteoarthritis are common in aging or injured dogs. For these reasons, they may not raise red flags with pet owners right away. If the symptoms persist or worsen, however, it's time to see your vet.

According to Werber, the most common symptoms of osteoarthritis in dogs are:

  • Limping and other gait issues
  • Pain
  • Unwillingness to move
  • Slowness in changing position or moving
  • Difficulty in climbing stairs
  • Difficulty getting on the bed or other furniture
  • Hesitance to get up in the morning
  • Initial stiffness abates with movement and activity

If your vet suspects a form of arthritis is to blame, he or she will probably take x-rays to confirm that diagnosis.

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How bad does it hurt?

According to Werber, the pain seems to come and go for dogs suffering from osteoarthritis, and it tends to be worse in the mornings.

"It's hard to determine pain levels in a dog because they are usually highly motivated to perform, even if in pain," he says.

Werber's rule of thumb is that if a dog is limping, it's a pretty safe bet that it is hurting.

Treatment options

Unfortunately, Werber says there is no cure for osteoarthritis, but the condition can be managed to some extent.

Some common treatments include anti-inflammatory medicines, joint supplements and cold laser therapy. "In bad cases, surgery (may be necessary) to smooth out the surface in joints or remove bone fragments to alleviate discomfort," he adds.

There are other, non-medical ways to help alleviate some of the symptoms for your dog. Werber suggests acupuncture, chiropractic care, heat and ice packs and non-impact exercise like swimming or water treadmills to maintain muscle tone.

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While arthritis issues in dogs are mostly genetic, according to Werber, there are some things you can do to prevent or delay the onset in your dog.

Weight is a major risk factor, so he advises keeping your dog lean, "especially during its rapid growth period, between about 1-2 years in age."

You should also avoid stress to developing bones and joints by not over exercising your dog when it is younger, and take care to not over supplement your dog in its growing years.