Arthritis in Dogs: What is it, and how to Help Your Canine?
More than 1 in 5 dogs in the United States gets diagnosed with some form of arthritis. Understanding symptoms early is vital to help your canine companion. Diet, exercise and weight management play an important role in prevention and treatment.
What is Canine Arthritis?
While there are more than 100 different forms of arthritis in humans¹, canine arthritis is typically categorized into osteoarthritis, septic arthritis and immune-mediated polyarthritis.
The by far most common form of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis (OA), which is also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD). Osteoarthritis is characterized by progressive, long-term, permanent deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the joints. The resulting friction causes pain and loss of mobility. Osteoarthritis can develop in any joint of your dog’s body.² ³
Septic arthritis (SA) is a type of joint inflammation caused by a bacterial or, less often, fungal infection. This type of arthritis typically affects a single joint, but there can be more than one joint involved in some cases.
Septic arthritis is characterized by an inflammation plus the presence of a disease-causing organism within the fluid surrounding the joint. It is most commonly seen in male dogs between four and seven years of age, and certain predisposed breeds.⁴
In immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA), the joints and other organs of your dog are attacked by their own immune system. The immune system normally protects a dog from viruses, bacteria and other invaders. In canines with autoimmune diseases, it becomes overactive and attacks healthy tissue.
Immune-mediated polyarthritis can be either erosive or non-erosive. In the non-erosive form, there is no destruction of bone or cartilage. In erosive IMPA, there is bone and cartilage destruction in one or more affected joints. The erosive type is very similar to rheumatoid arthritis in humans. Fortunately, erosive IMPA is rare in pets, accounting for less than one percent of all reported cases.⁵
How Likely is it That my Dog Will Develop Arthritis?
Unfortunately, arthritis in dogs is very common. According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 20% of the roughly 80 million pet dogs in the United States are diagnosed with some form of arthritis. For dogs older than seven years, the likelihood of suffering from arthritis increases to over 65%. In other words, more than half of all senior dogs have arthritis.⁶
Causes leading to canine arthritis are diverse. While some of the causes are specific to a certain type of arthritis, others are contributors to arthritis in general.
Possible Contributing Factors and Causes of Arthritis in Dogs
- Hereditary and genetic predisposition play an important role. This can be related to the pedigree of a specific dog, or to an entire breed. Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Labradors are for example known to be predisposed for septic arthritis.
- Joint instabilities like hip or knee dysplasia and patellar luxation, can cause excess wear of the cartilage and over time lead to arthritis.
- Autoimmune disorders, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, can also cause inflammation of one or more joints, ultimately leading to lameness and arthritis.
- A compromised immune system because of cancer, vaccine administration, etc. may be unable to appropriately fight infections. Infections affecting the joints of your canine may cause permanent damage, leading to arthritis.
- Joint damage and arthritis are twice as likely to occur in dogs that are diagnosed with diabetes.
- Joint infections and injuries to ligaments or cartilage are also possible causes of arthritis.
- Larger dogs are more likely to develop arthritis than smaller dogs.
- Overweight or obese dogs are in general tending to develop arthritis more often than their fit counterparts.
- Typical canine nutrition in the United States is high in omega-6 fatty acids and deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, grains and corn are typical fillers used in dog food. This dietary composition supports inflammation and can therefore contribute to arthritis.
- Rapid growth as a puppy, typically caused by over-nutrition, may lead to skeletal disorders. These can over the lifetime of your canine companion result in joint damage and arthritis. Especially large and giant breeds are at risk.
- Dog sports and excessive jumping might in extreme cases result over time in abnormal wear of cartilage, leading to chronic joint pain and arthritis.
- Additionally, the likelihood of a pet developing arthritis grows with age.
Should your dog fall into any of the above categories, please pay special attention to them for showing possible signs of arthritis.
How do I Know if my Dog has Arthritis?
Arthritis can be hard to detect in its early stages. Often, symptoms only become visible when your canine companion starts to develop discomfort. Unfortunately, at this point, the joints are often already damaged, and the bone surfaces are starting to wear away.
Signs of Arthritis in Dogs
- You may see your dog limping or favoring one or more of their legs, depending on which legs and which joints are arthritic. In some cases, the limp may seem worse when your dog first rises and become less noticeable as he or she “warms up” by moving around.
- Your dog might become slower to rise after lying down, or find moving and jumping increasingly difficult. They may also become reluctant to do things that were previously fun or easy for them to accomplish. For instance, chasing a ball in the backyard, getting into and out of the car or having difficulty going up and down stairs. This could also display in form of “accidents” in the house.
- Arthritic changes can occur not only in the legs but also in the various parts of the spine. These spinal issues may result in a sore neck, an abnormal posture with a “hunch” in the back, or lameness of one or both hind legs.
- Your canine companion may lose stamina and tire more easily. This could mean that walks become shorter and more painful for your pet. Your dog may spend more time sleeping and/or resting.
- Arthritic animals may also exhibit changes in personality and become irritable. They may snap and/or bite when approached or handled, particularly if the petting or handling takes place in a manner that increases their pain. This could also display in form of unexpected aggression towards other dogs.
- Arthritic pets often develop muscle atrophy due to inactivity and decreased use of the muscles. A dog with atrophied muscles in their legs will have a leg which looks thinner than a normal leg.
- Dogs affected with arthritis may also begin to lick at, chew or bite at body areas that are painful. This may even reach the point of causing inflamed skin and hair loss over affected areas.
- Arthritic canines may also display changes in weight in form of noticeable gains or losses in body mass.
- Fever, enlarged lymph nodes or hot and/or swollen joints may also be signs of arthritis.
If you notice any signs of arthritis in your dog, see your veterinarian immediately to get your pet thoroughly examined.
Arthritis Treatment for Dogs
The correct treatment of canine arthritis depends on the exact type of the disease your dog is suffering from. Other factors influencing the treatment include the symptoms and progression of the disease, as well as the overall health situation and the age of your dog.
In one type of arthritis a combination of surgery, pain medication and joint-protecting agents may form key elements of the treatment. In another type, the treatment may be primarily centered around reducing the self-destructive activity of the immune system of your dog. In again another type of arthritis, the very opposite treatment, a strengthening of the immune system in combination with giving antibiotics, may form the foundation for a successful treatment.
As you can see, a correct diagnosis is paramount for the right treatment of arthritis in your dog.
The Importance of Diet and Weight Management for Arthritic Dogs
In all cases of arthritis, the right diet, appropriate exercise and weight management form crucial additional elements of a treatment plan. Excess pounds put more stress on joints. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight will aid in mobility and pain management, as well as minimize further damage.
Healthy Food for Arthritic Dogs
It’s important to feed an anti-inflammatory diet, as your dog is suffering from inflammatory pain. The food you feed will either worsen the pain or help reducing it. Foods either heal or harm. Feeding a grain-free, low-carb diet is important, as well as incorporating an abundance of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits. It is recommended to avoid feeding vegetables in the nightshade family like potatoes, tomatoes, or peppers as these foods are pro-inflammatory.
A word of caution: More and more pet food manufacturers are offering an increasing number of so-called “therapeutic” or “prescription” diets for dogs with specific conditions, including arthritis. In most cases these diets are made of the same poor quality, feed-grade ingredients as their regular pet food. Many integrative veterinarians caution that these highly processed diets are rather contributing to the illnesses of dogs, than helping to cure them.⁷
Ideally, a balanced fresh food diet made of human-grade ingredients is best for canine arthritis patients.
In addition to feeding a healthy diet, it is important that your dog gets the right amount of food. The goal should be that your canine companion has a lean body condition. This means that you should see a well-defined waistline when you view the dog from above. You should see a tucked-up abdomen when you view the dog from the side. Finally, you should be able to easily feel (not see) the ribs on the sides of the chest just behind the shoulder blades.
Can I Still Give Treats to my Dog?
Saying good-bye to unhealthy, calorie-rich treats like cookies, sausages or peanut butter does not mean that you will not be able to spoil your dog any more. Actually, the opposite is true. Using treats as rewards is great way to motivate your dog during exercise, at physical therapy or while being examined by your veterinarian. Just make sure that the treats you give are healthy.
Healthy and Lean Treats for Dogs on a Diet
- Chicken jerky for dogs
- Turkey jerky for dogs
- Beef jerky for dogs
- Beef heart dog treats
- Dehydrated beef heart for dogs
- Dehydrated beef liver for dogs
- Dehydrated cod skins
When buying any dog jerky, make sure that the treats are singe-ingredient, without any additives or preservatives. Never give jerky intended for human consumption to your dog, as these jerkies are typically heavily spiced.
Natural Supplements for Dogs With Arthritis
Several nutritional supplements are recognized to support the treatment of arthritis in dogs. While their benefits are without question, it is important to note that no nutritional supplement will correct structural damage to your pet's joints. If there are calcium deposits, scar tissue, missing or torn cartilage, or changes to the bones at the joint surface, these abnormalities will remain present and will continue to affect your dog regardless of nutritional intake.
What Supplements Should I add to the Diet of my Dog?
The three key supplements recommended to support the treatment of canine arthritis are glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and omega-3 fatty acids.⁸
Glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance found in connective tissue and cartilage. Studies have shown that glucosamine may slow down or even inhibit the breakdown of cartilage associated with osteoarthritis. Additionally, it provides mild anti-inflammatory effects.
Like glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate is also naturally occurring in cartilage. Chondroitin sulfate inhibits destructive enzymes in joint fluid and cartilage. Additionally, like glucosamine, it contributes to the formation of healthy cartilage.
Both glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are widely available as food supplements.
If you prefer to give your dog natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin rather than pills, you may want to consider chicken feet, chicken necks or turkey necks. These poultry parts can provide your pet with the required amounts of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate in their most natural form.⁹ ¹⁰
Omega-3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory characteristics that are known to have wide-ranging positive effects on the health of dogs.¹¹ Multiple studies involving dogs with osteoarthritis have shown that the supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids has significant positive effects on their condition.¹² ¹³
Omega-3 supplements for dogs are widely available in form of fish or krill oils. Alternatively to oils, you could also add fish rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids to the diet of your dog. Our recommendation are raw or dehydrated anchovies.
When Should I Start to Supplement the Diet of my Dog?
Dogs receiving supplemental glucosamine, chondroitin sulphate and omega-3 fatty acids already from a young age onward, have displayed less inflammation and lameness. Therefore it makes sense to start supplementing the diet of your dog as a puppy.¹⁴
Please always consult your veterinarian before adding any over the counter supplements to the diet of your dog.
Exercise and Physical Rehabilitation for Dogs With Arthritis
In addition to a healthy diet, it is vital that you continue to exercise your dog with caution and within the levels possible. Proper exercise keeps the joints supple and the muscles around the damaged joint in good condition. Stronger and flexible muscles provide better support to the troubled joints.
Depending on the specific situation of your dog, physical rehabilitation might also form an important element of the treatment. Physical rehabilitation is a discipline that translates physical therapy techniques from human medicine for application to canine patients. These techniques include (but are not limited to) therapeutic exercise, joint mobilization, and hydrotherapy using an underwater treadmill.
Does your dog have arthritis, or have you ever owned an arthritic canine? How have you dealt with the situation? We’d love to hear your experiences!
¹³ Mehlera SJ, Maya LR, King C, et al: A Prospective, Randomized, Double Blind, Placebo-Controlled Evaluation of the Effects of Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid on the Clinical Signs and Erythrocyte Membrane Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Concentrations in Dogs with Osteoarthritis; Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids; 2016; Volume 109, Pages 1–7.