Arthritis in dogs: what to look out for and how to help

Is your dog having mobility problems? Here’s everything you need to know about canine arthritis – from the early signs to managing the condition.

Just like their owners, our dogs can suffer from arthritis (inflammation of one or more joints) as they age. If you notice your dog becoming more reluctant to move, arthritis could be the cause, especially if their puppyhood is well behind them! But don’t worry – with your vet’s help, there’s plenty you can do to manage the symptoms as they progress, so your dog can still enjoy a good quality of life for years to come.

What causes arthritis in dogs?

While it’s possible for dogs, like people, to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (when the body’s own immune system attacks the joints), the most common types of arthritis in dogs are osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD). These types of arthritis are largely due to natural wear and tear on their joint cartilage over the years, but they can also be caused by earlier developmental issues.

Larger breeds, such as Labradors or German Shepherds, are more susceptible to arthritis than smaller ones. A common cause of early-onset arthritis in bigger dogs is elbow dysplasia or hip dysplasia, which occurs when these joints haven’t formed properly.

Dog arthritis symptoms

Recognising advancing symptoms of arthritis, or general signs of pain in your dog, is helpful, as the sooner any problems with their joints are treated, the better. You may notice that your dog is less agile, struggles to get up after a lie down, is limping, has difficulty climbing stairs or shows stiffness after activity or resting. If you notice these signs of arthritis in your dog, take them to the vet to get checked out properly.

Many owners underestimate the degree of pain their pet is in when suffering from arthritis. They assume that because their dog doesn’t whimper and is still eating, there can’t be that much wrong. Owners are often surprised at the change in demeanour once their pet has been treated for arthritis.

Arthritis is diagnosed by a thorough veterinary examination and X-rays to pinpoint the problem, so treatment can be targeted at the right place. While arthritis caused by wear and tear can’t be reversed, there’s a lot that can be done to ease the symptoms and slow down its progress.

How to help a dog with arthritis

Simple adaptations to your house, such as ramps, could make it easier for your dog to move around, get upstairs and access your vehicle, reducing their risk of slipping and straining muscles.

As your dog ages, you may need to adapt their exercise routine to keep them active without putting too much strain on their joints. Think gentle walks and brain-teasing puzzles rather than strenuous runs or tug-of-war – ask your vet what’s suitable for their age and stage.

Diet and supplements for arthritis in dogs

Being overweight puts extra strain on painful joints, so making sure your dog is a healthy weight should be the number one priority. Your vet may recommend putting your dog on a diet to help them shed excess pounds and minimise further joint damage.

Your vet might also suggest dietary supplements that may help to maintain healthy joints in dogs, such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

Medication for arthritis in dogs

Pain relief is important and there are various options, including analgesics, which are well tolerated, or anti-inflammatory drugs.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are highly effective at reducing inflammation and pain, but could have potential side effects, so your vet will check whether they’re suitable for your dog before prescribing.

Novel approaches include medications given by injection that inhibit the counterproductive effects of the body’s own antibodies on its joints.

Your vet will be able to help you come up with a treatment plan tailored to your individual pet’s needs.

Other treatments to help a dog with arthritis

You may also want to consider other therapies for arthritis, such as physiotherapy, hydrotherapy or acupuncture to relieve stiffness and increase your dog’s range of movement. Modern high-tech treatments include therapeutic laser therapy, which can help reduce inflammation in tendons and ligaments and improve stiffness, or pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), which is getting more popular in veterinary medicine after originally being used to treat people.

With the right treatment, lifestyle adaptations and care, your dog can still live life to the full.

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