Osteoarthritis is one of the most common health issues in dogs. You might see or hear it being called by other names such as “degenerative joint disease” or shortened “OA” or just plain “arthritis”.
It affects an estimated to affect 25%of dogs1 but unfortunately, signs of arthritis in dogs might be hard to see—especially the earlier signs—so you may only notice when the disease gets worse and changes in your dog’s behaviour become more obvious. Since arthritis causes pain, you should be aware of the signs so you can try to spot them as soon as possible and understand what to do if you think your dog may have this condition.
What is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a gradual deterioration in the structure of your dog's joints. The changes cause pain and mean that the joints don't move as well as they should. Over time, even normal everyday activities, such as walking, sitting down, or standing up, become challenging for your canine companion.
Joints are complex structures that are sensitive to damage. At the surface of the two (or more) bones making up a normal joint, there is a special type of slippery cartilage (articular cartilage) that allows the bones to glide past each other in opposite directions with minimal friction. The joint is stabilised by a series of tendons and ligaments, which are tough, bungee-like ropes that help keep the joint aligned and guide proper movement.
In a joint with osteoarthritis, the cartilage is damaged. This smooth bone coating starts to wear away and the surface no longer glides. The joint becomes inflamed and painful. If your dog doesn’t use the joint as much, the muscles and supporting structures of the joint become weaker. As your dog changes her body position to try to take weight off the painful joint, this can cause pain elsewhere.
Osteoarthritis gets worse over time and there is currently no cure. The pain from arthritis leads to a decrease and, eventually, loss of mobility. While there is no cure, vets have many strategies to help manage pain and inflammation, build strength, and support mobility, and pet parents can work with their vets to help.
Causes of Arthritis in Dogs
People associate the signs of arthritis with older dogs, but it’s actually a problem that often starts early in life. The most common causes of arthritis in dogs are joints that don’t develop normally and joint injury. Joint injuries can occur at any age, but young, energetic dogs are at risk.
Young dogs can develop arthritis due to the way that their bones and other structures fit together (conformation). In these dogs, joints are abnormal from birth and prone to damage, leading to early arthritis.
Injuries can lead to arthritis due to tearing of the tendons surrounding the joint, damage to the joint capsule, or damage to the bones of the joint. Anything that takes a joint out of perfect alignment leads to abnormal movement of the joint and wearing of the joint structures.
Risk Factors for Arthritis in Dogs
Other factors can increase your dog’s risk for arthritis, such as:
- Being overweight or obese– Excess body weight is thought to contribute to the development of arthritis because of the extra strain and stresses that it puts on the joint, potentially increasing the wear and tear. In addition, body fat can increase inflammation.
- Being a larger breed.
- Anything that increases strain and stresses on your dog’s joint, such as injury.
Some movement is required to keep your dog’s cartilage healthy and keep the supporting structures strong, so too little exercise can also put your dog at risk.
Signs of Arthritis in Dogs
Signs of arthritis in dogs can be difficult to spot. You might notice that she occasionally lags behind a little on walks. Your dog may be trying to avoid or minimize pain and discomfort. Dogs (especially young dogs) with a hip-sway or pronounced bottom wiggle when walking can also be early signs of pain caused by arthritis.
Arthritis pain may cause your dog to develop an occasional limp after an especially active day. Stiffness that improves as the day goes on is a hallmark symptom of moderate arthritis in dogs. Limping is an action to try to take weight off a painful part of the body. If your dog is limping, she is in pain.
As arthritis becomes severe, it limits your dog’s ability to move. Many everyday activities are incredibly difficult or even impossible. Dogs with severe arthritis may look anxious or tense. They may walk very slowly and only walk short distances, if at all.
Signs of arthritis in dogs may include:
- General stiffness, especially early in the day
- Stiff movements
- Moves more slowly
- Slow to rise
- Tires more easily
- Unable to jump or perform other high-impact activities
- Limping (occasional, frequent, or consistent)
- Reluctance to exercise
- Restless when standing
- Slow or unable to get into position to go to the bathroom
- Difficulty rising or moving on smooth surfaces
- Wounds on the top of the feet (especially rear)
- Uneven wearing of nails or paw pads
There can be other reasons for these changes, so make sure to speak to your vet.