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What Is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?

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Intro Text
Osteoarthritis doesn't just occur in older dogs — it can happen in young dogs, too. Here are a few tips to help you understand what it is, what signs to look for, and what treatment might entail.
Two golden retrievers happily sitting on an open grass field.

While most of us think of osteoarthritis as a condition that we only see in senior dogs, it can actually be found in young and adult dogs because it's not just related to age. Often times, it has been smoldering, undetected by the pet owner and not noticeable until the disease has progressed.

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between joints breaks down, joint fluid thickens, and bone spurs develop. This is accompanied by inflammation, which brings pain and sensitivity. This can eventually lead to bone on bone contact within the joint and loss of function — not fun!

You'll most commonly find this happening in knees and hips — joints where two bones come together — but it can happen to any joint in your dog's body.

Causes of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Canine osteoarthritis is a multi-factorial disease that may be caused by a combination of:

  • Genetics
  • Obesity
  • Abnormal stress on joints
  • Old injuries
  • Trauma
  • Surgery
  • Infection

Dog Osteoarthritis Symptoms

If your dog is experiencing pain in a joint, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Limping
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Behavior that appears depressed, such as not eating as much, less activity and less interaction with you
  • Seems to be in pain, such as yelping or groaning when they try to move
  • Shaking or trembling in their legs
  • Swollen joints
  • Loss of muscle mass around affected joint

Osteoarthritis can occur in just one joint, so your dog may show these symptoms only in one leg.

Treatment for Osteoarthritis in Dogs

There's no quick fix for osteoarthritis. It's a degenerative disease and, unfortunately, joints don't get much blood flow. When something is damaged in our bodies (both humans and dogs), we depend on blood flow, as it supplies oxygen and healing factors.

Joints, on the other hand, depend on synovial fluid, which keeps them lubricated and moving smoothly. When a joint is affected by osteoarthritis, there can be less synovial fluid produced and the synovial fluid that is there can become filled with inflammatory debris and is no longer able to do its job effectively.

That being said, some interventions can slow down the progression of osteoarthritis and help your dog feel better.

Vets may recommend a combination of treatments and/or lifestyle changes such as:

  • Rest
  • Changing your dog's lifestyle: controlled exercise, using dog ramps to reduce jumping, etc.
  • Laser therapy
  • Weight loss
  • Exercise and rehab programs to strengthen muscles (swimming is especially great for this)

In addition, the core treatment that vets use to treat and manage osteoarthritis is called an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug). NSAIDs reduce inflammation in the joint(s), thus reducing pain and discomfort in your dog. Your dog may need to take them daily or only as needed, and they typically come in hard pill, though there are also meat-flavored soft chew versions available that can make administration easy for owners.

CAUTION: Federal law restricts this drug to use by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian. WARNINGS: Keep out of reach of children. Not for human use. Consult a physician in cases of accidental ingestion by humans. For use in dogs only. Do not use in cats. All dogs should undergo a thorough history and physical examination before initiation of NSAID therapy. Appropriate laboratory tests to establish hematological and serum biochemical baseline data prior to, and periodically during, administration of any NSAID should be considered.

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