Does My Dog Have Arthritis?

What is Arthritis?

Your pet’s joints give the skeleton flexibility and allow him to walk, trot, run, jump, climb, and move his head and neck to better see things.

Your pet’s body has three types of joints:

  • ball and socket such as the hip and shoulder joints
  • hinged joints such as the knees
  • gliding joints such as the ankles.

The joints are lubricated by synovial fluid to help them move smoothly and are stabilized by tendons and ligaments. When the joints are damaged by injury or disease, arthritis (joint inflammation) can occur.

There are two kinds of arthritis that affect dogs and cats: degenerative joint disease and inflammatory joint disease.

Degenerative Joint Disease in Dogs

This is commonly referred to as osteoarthritis. It happens when the cartilage that protects the bones of the joint is destroyed. The destruction of cartilage can happen two ways:

  • Normal stress on abnormal joints – an example of normal stress on abnormal joints would be hip dysplasia resulting from malformation of the hip sockets.
  • Abnormal stress on normal joints – an example of abnormal stress would be constant jumping over objects or injuries sustained in an accident.

Degenerative arthritis is a painful joint disease that affects one in five adult dogs. The condition may not make itself known until your pet has had years of abnormal stress. Since the cartilage has no nerve supply, the damage can progress with no outward symptoms until the joint is severely damaged and the lubricating fluid has lost its ability to protect the bone surfaces. This is why the degenerative form of arthritis is most often seen in older animals.

Inflammatory Joint Disease in Dogs

This form of arthritis is far less common. It is usually caused by an infection (e.g. bacterial or fungal infection, tick-borne diseases and Rocky Mountain spotted fever) or by an underlying defect in your pet’s immune system, which may be hereditary.

Signs that Your Dog May Have Arthritis

The following signs suggest that your pet may have arthritis. A veterinarian should be consulted if he/she exhibits any of the following behaviours:

  • Reluctance to walk, climb stairs, jump, or play
  • Limping or walking strangely
  • Swelling in, or abnormal appearance of, a joint.
  • Lagging behind on walks.
  • Difficulty rising from a resting position.
  • Yelping in pain when touched or generally resisting touch.

Treatment Options for Your Pet

Treatment for your pet will depend on the cause and severity of the arthritis. Veterinary prescribed treatment for established arthritis normally includes analgesic (pain-killing) and anti-inflammatory medications, dietary management, exercise management and, occasionally, surgery.

Click here for top ten tips to avoid poisoning your dog

Analgesic and Anti-inflammatory medications

Ideally, these should only be used for the short term, when necessary to encourage movement. Although your pet may respond quickly to anti-inflammatories, this is usually because they are quelling pain, and not because the condition itself is improving. In most cases these medications act simply as painkillers, and should only be used in addition to lifestyle modifications including weight control and good exercise management.

Commonly prescribed analgesics and anti-inflammatories include acetaminophen and various NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs).


For mild to moderate hip dysplasia in dogs, your veterinarian may recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol®, Panadol®, Exdol®, etc.) to relieve pain. Since acetaminophen is only a pain reliever and has no anti-inflammatory properties, it can generally be safely combined with anti-inflammatory medications when recommended by a veterinarian.

Too-high doses of acetaminophen in any animal can cause liver damage. You should therefore seek a veterinarian’s advice before administering acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is toxic to cats.


NSAIDs are a type of medication that helps reduce pain and swelling of the joints and decreases stiffness. When taken at a low dose, NSAIDs reduce pain; when taken at a higher dose, NSAIDs can also reduce inflammation. NSAIDs such as ASA (Aspirin®, Anacin®, etc.) can be purchased without a prescription.

NSAIDs do not prevent joint damage and when used over the long-term, may accelerate joint breakdown. Taking more than one NSAID at a time increases the possibility of heartburn and severe side effects such as ulcers and bleeding. (Special buffered ASA is available for dogs.) Many NSAIDs require a prescription including Phenylbutazone® (Bute) and the newer sub-class of NSAIDs called Cox 2 Inhibitors (Rimadyl® (carprofen), Metacam® (meloxicam) and Etogesic® (etodolac).

*Never use Ibuprofen for dogs as it is toxic to a dog’s kidneys.


ortisone is a corticosteroid that reduces inflammation and swelling. For severe pain and inflammation, veterinarians may inject a corticosteroid, such as cortisone, directly into the affected joint. Cortisone mimics the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol, which is a hormone naturally produced by the body. Although corticosteroids closely resemble cortisol, they exert a much more powerful anti-inflammatory effect. An injection can provide almost immediate relief for a tender, swollen and inflamed joint.


isco-supplementation is the process of injecting a gel-like substance into the joint. This substance lubricates the cartilage, reducing pain and improving flexibility. Visco-supplementation decreases friction within the joint, thus reducing pain and allowing greater mobility. This method of treatment requires ongoing injections as benefits are only temporary. Substances used in visco-supplementation include hyaluronic acid, or HA (Legend®, Hylartin® and Synacid®), and poly-sulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGS) such as Adequan®


Recovery®SA with Nutricol®, is an elite proprietary performance and wellness supplement for small animals that enhances quality of life. Recovery®SA improves healing by increasing circulation of nutrients to affected cells and extracellular structures, halting tissue damage and modulating inflammation. It may be used in combination with prescribed medications. Always consult with the veterinarian prior to adding a new natural lifestyle supplement to an animal’s feeding program.


If your pet’s joint/s becomes severely damaged or if the pain is intense, your veterinarian may recommend surgery. While surgical intervention should be considered a last resort, appropriate surgery can reduce pain, and improve movement and function.

There are a number of different kinds of surgery for degenerative arthritis — some less invasive than others:

  • Arthroscopic surgery, for example, involves making small incisions through which the surgeon can clean cartilage debris from the joint.
  • Other surgeries are undertaken to repair bone deformity, fuse joints or rebuild part of a joint.
  • Your pet may also undergo an operation to replace a damaged joint with an artificial joint.

Lifestyle Modifications for Pets

While medications may help your pet overcome pain associated with arthritic conditions, it is important that he or she maintain a healthy lifestyle. Leading an active life will ensure your pet’s joints are kept in motion and remain able to work efficiently.


Weight control is an important component of any treatment for arthritis. (Excess weight puts more pressure on the joints, impeding healing.) Your veterinarian will recommend a suitable diet for your pet and you should make every effort to stick with it (as tempting as it may be to give your pet more treats to compensate for his/her pain).


Exercise is an important component of healthy living. Exercise helps reduce pain, prevents further joint damage and can help your pet maintain a healthy weight. Disuse of a sore joint will cause the muscles around it to weaken, resulting in pain. Dogs should be taken for a daily walk and kept as mobile as possible.

While it is difficult to impose an exercise regime on a cat, cats that are affected by osteoarthritis will benefit greatly from regular activity. A little exercise taken frequently is recommended, so be prepared to wake up your cat for a stroll about the house from time to time. Avoid letting him/her sleep in one place for hours.


Some pets and many working animals do not get adequate rest for optimum healing. (Young children, for example, may interrupt pets excessively, impacting their rest.) Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on how much rest your pet requires during the healing period.

For more information on helping your pet stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Dog