Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), is the most common form of arthritis in dogs. The condition causes progressive and permanent deterioration of a dog’s joints, causing pain, stiffness and lameness.
Although there’s no cure for osteoarthritis, that doesn’t mean your dog can’t live a long, happy life. As with arthritis in humans, there are plenty of ways you can help manage and alleviate your dog’s pain. To help you understand the condition, we’ve laid out everything you need to know about osteoarthritis in dogs, including signs, symptoms and the most effective treatments for managing your pet’s pain.
What is osteoarthritis?
While arthritis is the umbrella term for joint inflammation, osteoarthritis refers to a degenerative joint disorder, which results in the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions joints. This breakdown causes the bones to rub against each other, exposing your dog’s small nerves and causing chronic joint pain.
While osteoarthritis is an unpleasant and painful condition, it’s important to remember that it’s extremely common, affecting a quarter of all dogs at some point in their lives.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis
The most obvious symptoms of osteoarthritis in dogs to watch out for are pain, stiffness and lameness. Often, stiffness and lameness are more noticeable after your dog has been resting, and the symptoms may start to ease – or ‘warm out’ – as your dog moves around.
Other key symptoms to watch out for include:
- Swollen joints
- Refusing to use stairs or to jump into a car, or reluctance to move in general
- A noticeable change in behaviours, such as increased whining, irritability or aggression
- Restlessness, or seeming like they can’t get comfortable
- Licking their joints
- Lack of enthusiasm for walks
- Shuffling when walking and failing to play normally
What causes osteoarthritis in dogs?
Like humans, dogs are more likely to develop osteoarthritis as they get older, with certain larger breeds – such as German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Rottweilers – more prone to arthritis and decreased mobility.
While there are no known direct causes for osteoarthritis, underlying issues such as trauma, hip or elbow dysplasia, cruciate ligament injury, or dislocation of the knee cap or shoulder can leave dogs more vulnerable to developing arthritis. Dogs who struggle with other health conditions, such as osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), diabetes or hyperlaxity may also be at a greater risk of developing joint problems later in their life.
Another reason dogs can develop osteoarthritis is obesity. All that excess weight puts unnecessary stress on a dog’s joints, which can result in chronic pain and eventually lead to degenerative joint issues.
How to treat osteoarthritis in dogs
Although osteoarthritis in dogs can’t easily be cured, there are a variety of treatment options to help manage your dog’s symptoms. The type of treatment that will work best for your dog depends on how bad their arthritis is, as well as factors like their breed, weight and medical history, but most dogs respond best to a multi-model treatment approach.
Long-term medicine, such as anti-inflammatories, are often prescribed to help manage your dog’s joint pain and reduce swelling. Depending on how aggressive your dog’s arthritis is, these painkillers may be reduced or stopped over time, but some dogs may need ongoing prescriptions to alleviate their symptoms.
Although exercise can be painful for dogs with osteoarthritis, it’s important not to eliminate your dog’s physical activity altogether. When you first notice your dog’s osteoarthritis symptoms, it can be best to decrease their activity to a couple of short walks on their lead – but, in the long-term, it’s important to try and gradually increase their exercise to as much as is appropriate for their size, age and breed. If your dog stays fit, active and at a healthy weight, they’ll enjoy a better quality of life and are less likely to suffer from joint pain.
To prevent their joint pain from getting worse, avoid excessive amounts of exercise or activities that are too strenuous for your dog, such as jumping or running. A specialist will be able to advise you on how much exercise is best for your dog’s condition.
Even if your dog’s osteoarthritis wasn’t caused by their weight, weight management is still an important part of their treatment. Dogs struggling with joint pain are often more resistant to exercise, which means that – even if wasn’t an issue before – they may start to put on weight, which can increase the stress on their joints. And, if your dog is a healthy weight, their osteoarthritis is likely to progress much slower.
If weight starts to become an issue for your dog, your vet might prescribe a specific diet. They may also recommend introducing joint supplements into your dog’s diet, such as chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine sulfate and omega-3 fatty acids. Although it’s not well understood how these supplements alleviate joint pain, they don’t have any severe side effects, so it’s worth seeing how your dog responds to them.
Alongside a light exercise routine, your vet might recommend some physical therapy. Activities like physiotherapy and hydrotherapy can help dogs retain and strengthen their muscle tone, as well as work to improve their overall endurance. Massages can also be useful for alleviating joint pain, as can cold and heat therapy. However, to avoid making painful joints worse, all therapies should be discussed with your vet before they’re started.
If your dog’s joints become severely damaged or if they’re struggling with intense pain, a specialist might recommend surgery to help alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of their arthritis. These operations can include joint removal or replacement, or the removal of aggravating causes, such as bone fragments in a joint. Alternatively, surgery to slow down the progression of arthritis can be performed, such as TPLO (tibial-plateau-levelling osteomy), corrective osteotomies, and patella grove replacement.
How long can a dog live with osteoarthritis?
The good news is that a dog with osteoarthritis can live as long as a dog without, as long as they have no other underlying health conditions and their symptoms are properly managed.
Like people, dogs are prone to more health conditions and complications as they get older. It’s likely your dog’s arthritis will progress over time, but with the right treatment and regime, you can help them stay on their feet for longer.
As long as you follow your vet’s treatment guidance and keep your dog active, there’s no reason they can’t live a long, happy life.
How to ask for a referral to Swift
If you’re worried your dog might have osteoarthritis, book an appointment with your GP vet so that they can assess your dog and provide an accurate diagnosis. If they do diagnose your dog with osteoarthritis, you can ask them to refer you to our orthopaedic team for treatment. You can find out more about the referrals process here.
For more information about common illnesses, surgery and treatments for dogs and cats, head on over to our blog.