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Understanding Canine Arthritis

Canine arthritis is one of the leading causes of chronic pain in dogs and can be an incredibly debilitating condition. It is estimated that at least 1 in 5 dogs suffers from osteoarthritis and many owners each year struggle with the decision to euthanize their family pet due to unmanageable pain because of this disease. Understanding measures we can take as dog guardians to help prevent the onset of arthritis, and knowing the signs to look for that may indicate our dog is suffering from early symptoms can help us to prevent pain and suffering in our dogs as they age.

Canine Arthritis (also called osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease) is a chronic condition where the joints in a dog’s limbs become inflamed and secondary issues develop that cause pain and a reduced ability to move the joint. Joints are the areas in our bodies where bones meet. The ends of our bones are covered in cartilage, a smooth and slippery material, and the spaces between the bones is filled with joint fluid (enclosed in a joint capsule). These two materials together allow for the easy, smooth and painless movement of our bones when everything is working normally. Arthritis develops as the cartilage in joints begins to break down and get thinner. When movement happens, it is more difficult for the bones to slide across one another, they rub and inflammation occurs along with further wearing down of the cartilage. Bones spurs, called osteophytes, develop at the joint site and create a jagged, rough edge where the smooth cartilage used to be. This causes increasing amounts of pain with movement as the spurs rub together and increase the friction between the bones which leads to stiffness, swelling and further immobility. Any dog may develop arthritis, and for those that do it has likely developed due to excessive running or exercise, an injury, or a genetic predisposition.

While middle to older aged dogs are more at risk of developing arthritis, it can also be seen in younger dogs. Diagnosis of the disease begins with guardian observation. Noticing when a dog is in pain while walking, running, attempting stairs, or even just trying to rise from a sleeping position is usually an indication that a vet visit may be in order. Other symptoms may include general lethargy, cracking in the joints, a decreased desire to go for walks, signs of muscle wastage, joints that are warm to the touch, excessive licking of the paws, whining or snapping when parts of the body are touched, weight gain, showing signs of difficulty staying in position when needing to toilet and general irritability. X-rays can show signs of bone spur growth and changes to the joints such as thickening and swelling. Seeing a veterinarian as soon as signs of arthritic pain begin to show in our dogs is important. While arthritis cannot be cured, there are measures that can be taken to slow its progression and the sooner these are started the better it will be for the well-being of the dog.

The effects on our dogs of developing arthritis are both physical and mental/emotional. The progressive nature of the disease means that over time the ability to walk, run, climb stairs and raise and lower the body from sitting, standing and down positions will become increasingly difficult and painful. When there is pain in one area of the body it is not uncommon for other parts of the body to compensate and get used a little more, especially if gait changes have occurred. This can result in overuse of muscles in other parts of the body which can then result in a secondary area of pain. For example, a dog limping due to arthritic pain in its front limbs may end up straining muscles in its back and be sore to touch in that area. Bone spurs that cause swelling/inflammation in the front paws often cause dogs to begin licking the area as a way of self soothing. This removes hair and leaves the skin raw and red, which leads to more irritation, inflammation and ulceration. These ‘lick granulomas’ are painful sores that then require their own treatment. If a dog has developed the disease and it has progressed to a more severe stage (where the majority of cartilage between the bones is gone and bone spurs have created an enlarged joint that is noticeable on the outside of the body), there will no doubt be a number of mental and emotional impacts felt as well. A dog who is still mentally fit and well may become depressed due to the inability to move in the same ways that they used to be able to move. They may show a lower interest in playing, running and walking…not because they do not want to, but because it is painful. There is also the chance of a dog beginning to lash out in ways that it may never have before when being touched in swollen/sore areas, or even in anticipation of being touched somewhere that hurts. Fears may develop in situations where the dog was previously fine, such as at the vet office where there is lots of handling, poking and prodding of sore areas, as the dog may begin to associate the location with pain. Due to their decreased mobility, dogs may find that they are not included in as many family outings as they used to be and find themselves left at home more often which only contributes to the emotional deterioration.

Working with a trusted veterinarian who is open to the use of complementary therapies alongside traditional pharmaceuticals can help ensure that the quality of life for a dog suffering from arthritis can stay at as high a level as possible for as long as possible. A combination of weight management/exercise strategies, joint supplements, anti-inflammatory medication and complementary therapies may be prescribed.

Exercise is an important component in working to prevent the onset of arthritis, as well as helping to manage the pain that a dog experiencing symptoms may be feeling. Working alongside a veterinarian who specializes in rehabilitation to develop an exercise plan that it suitable and safe for a dog can help give guardians peace of mind that they are not doing something to further create issues for their dog or that puts them in situations where they may feel uncomfortable from a pain perspective. Dr. Kristy Kirkby Shaw is a DVM and the founder of She outlines 7 principles of exercise that are meant to aid in developing the general overall fitness of a dog to help prevent the onset of arthritis. These 7 principles include:

-learning basic obedience commands and tricks that help build muscle strength and keep joints mobile (such as play bow, sit, stand, upward dog etc.)

-starting with slow and easy walks where your dog is able to walk without showing signs of discomfort for the duration

-training proper form when learning new exercises to prevent poor posture that can contribute to muscles and tissue learning to work incorrectly

-watching for signs of fatigue during exercise and knowing when to give your dog a break

-gradually progressing in exercise duration, intensity, distance, repetition and frequency – too much too soon can have the opposite effect that you are looking for

-watch for signs of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) – microscopic tears occur in muscles during exercise and need time to heal…not allowing time for our dogs to recover after a period of particularly strenuous exercise can damage muscles, causing more pain, swelling and bruising

-rest days are important recovery times for dogs…high intensity exercise is not needed everyday

Joint supplements can be taken as a preventative measure, and as a pain/inflammation management tool. Thy can help reduce swelling and improve joint function in mild to moderate cases of osteoarthritis. Glucosamine, chondroitin, turmeric and green-lipped muscle are common ingredients in joint supplements as they have powerful anti-inflammatory components, promote healing and are safe for long-term use.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) are often prescribed to help with pain management in more severe cases of osteoarthritis. They can be effective in reducing inflammation but do have side effects that make it difficult for dogs to tolerate in some cases. If used long-term they can damage liver and kidney function and so any dogs taking these to help with pain should have regular bloodwork done in order for the vet to monitor the effects, if any, they are having on internal organs. There are many different kinds of NSAIDs so if one does not sit well with your dog, another can be tried. Some dogs see relief after a single dose, whereas others may need up to two weeks of consistently taking the medication in order to see results. There is a cumulative benefit to using NSAIDs so if the benefit outweighs the risks, it can be worth it to continue to administer them long term.

As for complementary therapies to help with the management of arthritic pain in dogs, there are a few that have been deemed to be beneficial. Physical rehabilitation can be divided into three areas: manual therapy, therapeutic modalities and therapeutic exercise. A veterinary physiotherapist can use soft tissue range of motion exercises, massage and stretching to help improve joint mobility. Because the body compensates in other areas when there is pain in another, a canine physiotherapist can assess and treat the whole body of the dog, no just the specific areas where arthritis has been identified. Therapeutic modalities are items that are place on the dogs body to decrease pain and are often used in conjunction with manual therapy and therapeutic exercise. Items such as cold and heat packs (cryo and thermo therapy), and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS…where small electrical currents are administered to affected areas) can help to increase circulation and reduce inflammation. Some dogs take time to get used to the sensation of TENS therapy and if it is seen to be a stressful process it may be better to forego it…at the same time, other dogs tend to fall asleep during this particular therapy. It’s possible that the less advanced the arthritis is the easier it is for a dog to take the feeling of the electrical stimulation of the TENS impulses. Hydrotherapy swims in warm water pools or walks on underwater treadmills are also often prescribed to help dogs suffering from osteoarthritis and other forms of joint disease, such as hip dysplasia. The buoyancy of the water makes it easier for dogs to move on sore limbs as they do not need to put as much weight on the sore areas. Walking or swimming through the resistance that water provides helps to build muscle, encourages weight loss and improve joint range of motion. The warm water used in hydrotherapy pools and treadmills helps to increase circulation of the blood which helps to get blood flow moving out to the limbs effectively and provides a soothing environment.

Watching a beloved family dog suffer with any form of arthritis or joint disease can be difficult. More times than not, the body begins to go before the mind, and we see physical challenges appear long before mental declines begin. Regular yearly vet visits to assess the overall health and well-being of a dog and implementing preventative measures when a dog is younger can make a big difference on the quality of life of our dogs as they age. Long before it gets to the point of needing to administer pain medication and make weekly trips to the physiotherapist for hydrotherapy and laser treatments, we can make sure we are making appropriate lifestyle choices for our dog’s in their daily lives to do what we can to prevent early onset of this debilitating disease. We can ensure they are fed a nutritious diet that contains essential fatty acids that help naturally lubricate the joints, get appropriate exercise that does not put excessive stress and strain on their joints, provide ramps and steps to help them navigate getting in and out of cars that may be high off the ground, make sure their nails are cut to appropriate lengths to encourage a normal walking posture and even raise water bowls to take the strain off of the back and neck for taller dogs. Arthritis is a disease that can come on slowly and it is often the case that people notice small changes in their dog’s behaviour or movement but chalk it up to ‘just getting old’. It is best become familiar with the signs of the onset of arthritis and see a vet as soon as possible. This way we can keep our dogs as pain free as possible, for as long as possible.


“Osteoarthritis in Dogs – Signs and Signalment” Elizabeth Racine, DVM (2018):

Canine Arthritis Research and Education:

Canine Arthritis Management:

“Canine Osteoarthritis and Treatments: A Review” Veterinary Science Development. Stephanie D. Bland (July 2015):

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