Arthritis in Dogs and Potential Treatments

Arthritis in Dogs and Potential Treatments

Arthritis in Dogs and Potential TreatmentsThe “march of time” affects us all, even our pets. One of the most common reasons that dogs “slow down” as they age is dog arthritis. This condition is painfully familiar to a lot of pet parents of senior dogs. Below I’ll take a quick look at how dog lovers can effectively deal with arthritis in dogs.

What is dog arthritis?

Dog arthritis is also known as osteoarthritis in dogs. The term arthritis (from Greek) means “inflammation of the joint.” When faced with arthritis, the dog’s cartilage that lines the joint and provides cushion during movement is affected as well as the synovial and the bone itself [1].

Dog arthritis most often affects the joints of the long bones in the canine’s body, such as your dog’s spine, hips, knees and carpi. This degenerative inflammatory process can come from a variety of sources, and most often, arthritis in dogs causes pain and loss of function.

What causes arthritis in dogs?

Inflammation is characterized by 5 things in the dog’s body:

  1. Redness
  2. Swelling
  3. Heat
  4. Loss of function
  5. Pain

In regards to dog arthritis, these 5 cardinal signs are seen with acute cases, such as insults to the dog’s cartilage within the joint such as trauma and infection. Chronic arthritis in dogs is most often characterized by pain, loss of function and sometimes swelling of certain parts of your dog’s body.

Many things can cause or predispose your dog to arthritis, including:

  • Degenerative joint disease (DJD)
  • Obesity
  • Genetic diseases
    – Hip Displasia
    – Osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD)
    – Elbow dysplasia
  • Trauma or Injury
    – Fractures involving the joint
    – Cranial Cruciate Ligament rupture
    – Meniscal tears
  • Infection
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Poor conformation
  • Natural “wear and tear”

Actually how old is an “old dog”?

Veterinarians consider dogs to be “senior citizens” when they are about 8-10 years old. Giant breeds, like Great Danes, age faster and are considered to be seniors at 6 years of age [2].

How to know when a dog has arthritis?

Arthritis in dogs can present itself in a variety of ways.

The most common sign that dog owners see is that their dog is slowing down. Others may see a gradual change in their dog’s movement and notice signs of arthritic pain in dogs [3]. More specifically, you may see the following signs in a dog who potentially is suffering from arthritis:

  • Limping
  • Chewing or licking at a joint
  • Moves stiffly
  • Hunched back posture
  • Sleeping more
  • Shows aggression
  • Anxious
  • Lost interest in playing or in toys
  • Change in appetite
  • Grunts or yelps when moving, lying down or standing up
  • Avoids hard surfaces
  • Has difficulty walking on slick surfaces, such as tile or hardwood floors
  • Uses stairs very slowly or cautiously
  • Refusal to use stairs
  • Difficulty jumping
  • Refusing to jump up or down
  • Change in routine (i.e. dog no longer runs to the door upon hearing doorbell)

How is arthritis in dogs diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose your dog’s arthritis and focus on affected areas for treatment. A general canine physical exam and dog’s orthopedic exam are recommended. Palpating the joints and muscles, and watching the dog’s gait can be helpful in determining the severity of arthritis [4].

If your dog’s joints “pop” or “click,” this is called crepitus and is a sign of damaged or inflamed cartilage. If your dog’s knee (stifle joint) makes this type of sound, there may be damage to the cranial cruciate ligament (known as the ‘ACL’ in humans) or meniscus.

Based on the physical exam findings, your veterinarian may recommend radiographs (x-rays) for your dog to confirm or deny any suspicions of dog arthritis.

Are x-rays for dogs really necessary?

Sometimes x-rays of your dog’s body are necessary in order to get an accurate diagnosis on canine arthritis. Certain conditions that cause arthritis in dogs, such as OCD (osteochondritis dissecans) and dog hip dysplasia, are diagnosed by radiographs [5]. Having this specific information will allow your veterinarian to refer your dog to an orthopedic surgeon for dog arthritis treatment.

If conditions like these are diagnosed and treated early, it can slow the progression of arthritis in dogs, meaning less pain and loss of function in your canine’s future.

Can dog arthritis cause problems with other body systems?

Yes, arthritis in dogs can potentially affect other aspects of your canine’s health. For example, moderate to severe dog arthritis in the spine can affect how the nerves originating in the dog’s spinal column communicate with organs like the intestines and bladder.

Fecal or urinary incontinence, as well as constipation, can occur in older dogs with arthritis [6].

How do you treat arthritis in dogs?

Upon stumbling on this condition, when your dog’s cartilage is damaged, it is very slow to repair itself (that is if it can be repaired at all).

When arthritis in dogs progresses to the point where the dog needs actual arthritis treatment, the cartilage can be supported, but the treatment focuses on regaining function and controlling pain in dogs.

A variety of methods can be used to treat arthritis in dogs, including:

  1. NSAIDs
  2. Narcotics
  3. Gabapentin
  4. Surgery
  5. Glucosaminoglycans
  6. EFAs
  7. Holistic remedies
  8. Acupuncture
  9. Physical therapy
  10. Cold laser therapy
  11. Stem cell therapy
  12. Exercise

Let’s quickly break these down into short sections.

1NSAIDs for dog arthritis treatment

NSAIDs are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These drugs reduce inflammation and help to control pain in dogs with arthritis [7].

COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors are the main types of NSAIDs on the market for dogs. The vast majority of them are COX-1. Some have both COX-1 and COX-2 activity. These drugs help to control precursors to the inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins.

COX-1 drugs are not very specific about which prostaglandins they target in the dog’s body. COX-2 are a little more selective. COX-2 NSAIDs typically cause fewer side effects. The drug’s specificity can make a difference for some dogs, especially if the dog suffers from digestive problems. It is important to discuss with your veterinarian which NSAID is right for your pet, and if it’s the right choice at all.

Common NSAIDs used in dogs include carprofen (Rimadyl), meloxicam (Metacam) and firocoxib (Previcox).

Always ask your veterinarian for a dog-safe NSAID, as many “human” products like ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are toxic to dogs.

2Narcotics for arthritic dogs

Narcotics are often referred to as opioids. These drugs act in the dog’s brain to inhibit pain sensation. They are often highly addictive to humans but there’s hasn’t been much research done with dogs.

Many veterinarians believe that narcotics are a good choice for arthritic dogs that cannot safely take NSAIDs, such as those dogs with liver or kidney diseases. Some dogs with digestive troubles can often tolerate mild narcotics better than NSAIDs.

The most popular “narcotic” drug for dogs, Tramadol, is a synthetic that has “opiate-like” mu-receptor properties and activity [8].

Other narcotics that may help to control arthritis pain in dogs include Vicodin, buprenorphine and Fentanyl.

3Gabapentin for treating arthritis in dogs

Gabapentin is neither an NSAID nor a narcotic. It was most often used to treat seizures and neurologic pain in humans; amputees use it to treat the “phantom pain” associated with losing a limb.

Gabapentin is a great option for dogs that cannot take NSAIDs or narcotics. A recent study [9] showed that a chemical compound closely related to gabapentin can reduce the severity of cartilage lesions in dogs with arthritis.

4Surgery for arthritic dogs

Correction of underlying causes of dog arthritis, such as in OCD or repair of a ruptured cruciate ligament, can prevent further damage and inflammation in dogs in the future [5].

5Glucosaminoglycans to treat arthritis in dogs

Glucosaminoglycans, or GAGs, are known as “joint supplements” and can contain a variety of compounds. These supplements have been used with success for decades in animals and humans [10].

Many basic supplements only contain glucosamine for dogs and chondroitin sulfate for dogs, while others include a blend of antioxidants and MSM for more optimal results. However, more research is needed to determine whether the addition of compounds such as Methylsulfonylmethane and similar is of any true benefit.

GAGs by themselves are compounds that help to nourish the cartilage and lubricate the dog’s joints.

6Treating dog arthritis with EFAs

EFAs, or Essential Fatty Acids – Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 7 [11, 12] – benefit many systems within the body, from skin to digestion and even joint pain. At appropriate doses, they have mild anti-inflammatory activity and many studies in both dogs and humans have demonstrated the benefits. More information and references can be found in our article on the benefits of fish for dogs.

Most essential fatty acid supplements for dogs are fish-based, but sustainable, vegan options are available too, such as those made from sea buckthorn berry.

7Holistic remedies for dog arthritis

Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) relies heavily on herbs for the treatment of arthritis in dogs. Eastern medicine focuses more on balancing the body, so herbal therapy may be recommended alongside a proper dietary therapy and acupuncture for dogs.

Commonly used herbs for dog arthritis include devil’s claw, turmeric, reishi mushroom, and Boswellia [12, 13]. However, as you can imagine, research and evidence is scarce in this area, so take any information related to holistic veterinary medicine with a grain of salt.

Always seek out the advice of a holistic veterinarian that practices TCVM before giving your dog herbs. Herbs have pharmaceutical properties and must be dosed properly. Your holistic vet can provide the most customized all-natural plan for your dog’s particular needs.

8Acupuncture to treat arthritis in dogs

According to theories on the practice of acupuncture [14], it is based on balancing two energy forces, Yin and Yang. Energy fields flow through the body (known as chi) along meridians. When these energy forces are out of balance, supposedly diseases in dogs (and humans) occur. Stimulation of points along the body’s meridians with needles or pressure has been claimed to help restore balance and treats the disease in dogs and people.

Dry needle, aquapuncture (with vitamin B12) and electro-acupuncture are commonly used. In Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, there are 6 different types of dog arthritis that can be treated with acupuncture. But similarly to holistic remedies, make sure you do your own research and approach that type of treatment with a healthy amount of skepticism.

9Physical therapy and massage

Physical therapy (PT) exercises and massage help improve mobility by strengthening and relaxing your dog’s muscles [15]. Dog’s joint pain due to arthritis often means less movement. The muscles that support and move the joint then become atrophied in canines, or they become smaller and less strong. Weak muscles in turn make weak joints even worse.

The most common PT used in dogs is hydrotherapy, which is now a rapidly growing business due to its effects. Canine hydrotherapy may involve a dog swimming or walking on an underwater treadmill. Other exercises for dogs are also used, such as “sit to stand” to improve canine’s rear limb and knee function, or cavaletti to improve the body’s balance.

Overweight and obese dogs can benefit from regular PT, as exercise promotes weight loss in canines which in turn reduces the pressure on damaged joints.

10Cold laser therapy for arthritic dogs

Cold laser therapy [16] is mainstream in most veterinary practices in the US. The “cold laser” is a low-level laser that stimulates healing in damaged bodily tissues, including joints. When targeted on an arthritic joint, cold laser reduces swelling, pain and muscle tension.

Most arthritic dogs find the procedure of cold laser therapy to be relaxing. The length of treatment sessions depends on how severe the dog arthritis is and how quickly their pain and mobility improve.

11Stem cell therapy to treat dog arthritis

Most arthritic dogs who undergo stem-cell therapy for dog arthritis have reduced lameness and increased range of motion in the treated joints.

Stem cell therapy is a viable option for dogs that are unable to take NSAIDs or narcotics for dog arthritis pain. The procedure is extensive as it requires adipose (fat) tissue to be taken from the animal and submitted for cell culture. The stem cells derived from the fat are then injected into the joints or intravenously [17].

12Exercise for dogs with arthritis

Exercise is recommended for almost every dog with arthritis. Sustained, low-impact exercise, such as slow walks and swimming, benefit dog’s arthritic joints the most [18]. Like physical therapy, gentle exercise will also improve muscle strength and overall joint function in most canines.

Exercise is also necessary for overweight and obese dogs. Obesity contributes a great deal to the progression of arthritis in dogs, as too much weight on the joints cause faster “wear and tear” on the dog’s cartilage [19].

Noticeable improvement of lameness is typically seen when overweight dogs lose between 6-9% of their body weight.

Can I treat my dog’s arthritis without medication?

Many dog parents want to treat arthritis in dogs in the most natural way possible. Most of the time, this means staying drug-free.

Options that are drug-free include acupuncture, physical therapy, massage therapy, cold laser therapy and exercise. Other pet owners simply want to avoid pharmaceuticals such as NSAIDs, opioids and gabapentin, but are okay with using natural dog supplements and Traditional Chinese herbs.

If you and your dog’s veterinarian decide to go the drug-free route to treat arthritis in your pet, it is best to use a combination of different methods. Using one or two modalities typically don’t have as much benefit and effect on dog arthritis as when you combine them.

A common drug-free protocol may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • GAGs supplement, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate
  • Omega Essential Fatty Acid supplementation
  • Vitamin C supplementation(12)
  • Gentle, low-impact exercise, such as swimming or slow walks
  • Cold laser therapy

Are there any new arthritis treatments available?

Yes, there are new treatments for dog arthritis on the horizon.

Joint Distraction

A study published in 2015 [1] showed that a procedure called “joint distraction” can be used to improve osteoarthritis in the knee. Joint distraction is a form of “repair” surgery for arthritic joints. The joint surfaces are pulled slightly apart and are held apart by an external fixator. This distraction of the joint reduces mechanical stress on the cartilage and can help it to repair.

The canine subjects in this study had experimentally-induced arthritis in the knee. The group that underwent joint distraction had the best tissue damage scores and better cartilage repair activity compared to the control group.

This study may change how knee surgery patients recover, as some may benefit from joint distraction in the treatment or prevention of arthritis.

Nerve Growth Factor Antibody (NGF-Ab)

Nerve growth factor (NGF) is a key regulator of nociceptive pain and plays a role in how the body perceives arthritis pain.

NGF-Ab is being developed as a treatment for arthritis but only for humans so far. Recent studies have shown that pain reduction with use of NGF-Ab is fast and sustained [20]. There is evidence that NGF plays a role in canine arthritis pain, which may open the door for development of dog-specific NGF-Ab therapies [21].

The bottom line

If you think that your dog is suffering from arthritis, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. No matter your philosophy or finances, there is always something that can be done to deal with arthritis in dogs. Taking action now can improve your dog’s quality of life for years to come.


[toggle title=”References”]
  1. Wiegant, K. et al., Evidence of cartilage repair by joint distraction in a canine model of osteoarthritis. Arthritis Rheumatol. February 2015;67(2):465-74. doi: 10.1002/art.38906
  2. Bruyette, D. Senior Wellness Programs. Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference Proceedings. 2002. Veterinary Information Network.
  3. Tacke, S. Behavioral Manifestations of Pain: Assessing Clinical Signs in Osteoarthritis. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings. 2010. Veterinary Information Network.
  4. Cochrane, S. A Practical Approach to the Abnormal Gait: Is It Orthopedic or Neurologic? World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings. 2007. Veterinary Information Network.
  5. Taylor, R. Elbow Arthrosis: Basic Principles. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings. 2001. Veterinary Information Network.
  6. Yeon, S. Canine And Feline House Soiling: Cause And Treatment. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings. 2011. Veterinary Information Network.
  7. Mosing, M. NSAIDs: An Update. British Small Animal Veterinary Congress. 2011. Veterinary Information Network.
  8. Plumb, D. Tramadol HCL. Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook. 8th Online, Veterinary Information Network.
  9. Boileau, C. Oral treatment with PD-0200347, an alpha2delta ligand, reduces the development of experimental osteoarthritis by inhibiting metalloproteinases and inducible nitric oxide synthase gene expression and synthesis in cartilage chondrocytes. Arthritis Rheum. February 2005;52(2):488-500. [study]
  10. Johnson, K. et al., Effects of an orally administered mixture of chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine hydrochloride and manganese ascorbate on synovial fluid chondroitin sulfate 3B3 and 7D4 epitope in a canine cruciate ligament transection model of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. January 2001;9(1):14-21. [study]
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  12. Chambreau, C. Holistic and Homeopathic Treatment of Arthritis. Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference. 2012. Veterinary Information Network.
  13. Reichling, J, et al., Dietary support with Boswellia resin in canine inflammatory joint and spinal disease. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. February 2004;146(2):71-9. [study]
  14. Xie, H. Acupuncture and Osteoarthritis. Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings. 2011. Veterinary Information Network.
  15. Millis, D., Levine, D. The role of exercise and physical modalities in the treatment of osteoarthritis. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. July 1997;27(4):913-30. 33 Refs [study]
  16. Van Dyke, J. Physical Modalities and Their Application in Veterinary Rehabilitation. Western Veterinary Conference. 2012. Veterinary Information Network.
  17. Hutchinson, M. Treatment of Osteoarthritis Utilizing Regenerative Stem Cell Therapy. Western Veterinary Conference. 2013. Veterinary Information Network.
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  21. Isola M, Ferrari V, Miolo A, Stabile F, Bernardini D, Carnier P, et al. Nerve growth factor concentrations in the synovial fluid from healthy dogs and dogs with secondary osteoarthritis. Vet Comp Orthop Traumatol. 2011;24(4):279–84. [study]

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