Dog arthritis 101: symptoms, treatment, and prevention

September 27, 2023 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Side view of doctor in scrubs and protective face mask checking leg mobility of dog standing on examination table in animal hospital.

Can Dogs Get Arthritis?

Arthritis is simply another name for joint inflammation. Dogs are susceptible to many different types of arthritis, but by far the most common is osteoarthritis. We’ll be focusing on osteoarthritis in this article.

Are Some Dogs More Prone to Developing Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis involves both joint inflammation and degeneration, which is why it can also be called a degenerative joint disease. Anything that damages a joint can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis, including:

  • Prior joint injury or infection

  • Surgery on a joint

  • Abnormal joint development (hip or elbow dysplasia, for example)

  • Obesity

  • Chronic inflammation

  • Activities that lead to wear and tear on joints

  • A dog’s conformation

  • Size (big dogs are at higher risk than small dogs)

  • Genetics, which is closely related to a dog’s breed

  • Poor nutrition

Often, several risk factors that affect a dog over time are what eventually lead to arthritis. The influence of time is the reason why most dogs are diagnosed with arthritis when they are middle-aged or older. However, young dogs can also get arthritis, particularly when one or more of their risk factors is severe—a 1-year-old Labrador Retriever with bad hip dysplasia who is also overweight, for example.

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How to Tell if Your Dog Has Arthritis

Old mutt terrier dog lying down on the floor

Early on, the symptoms of arthritis can be subtle and easy to miss. Your dog may simply be a little slower and less eager to participate in their favorite activities. Pet parents often write this off as a normal aging change. But as time goes on, you may notice:

  • Pain

  • Limping

  • Licking at a sore area

  • Stiffness, particularly after lying down for a while

  • Reluctance to run, jump, or climb stairs

  • Grumpiness or aggression

  • Loss of muscle mass

  • Joint swelling

All of the symptoms of arthritis in dogs can also be seen with other health problems, including musculoskeletal injuries, wounds, joint infections, tick-borne diseases, neurologic problems, immune-mediated arthritis, and some types of cancer. Make an appointment with your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your dog’s health.

How to Help a Dog with Arthritis

Many dogs will develop some degree of osteoarthritis as they age. Estimates vary, but it’s generally thought thataround 25% of dogs will be diagnosed with arthritis at some point in their lives. However, a much higher percentage (67% in one study) have evidence of arthritis on X-rays. Seeing a veterinarian early in the course of the disease is important. This is when treatment to slow its progression is most effective.

X-ray film of dog lateral view with red highlight in hip and knee joint pain areas or joint dysplasia dog- Veterinary medicine- Veterinary anatomy Concept

The veterinarian will first perform a complete physical examination and then may take X-rays or recommend other tests. If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, the vet can then recommend an individualized treatment plan. Arthritis usually responds best to several different types of treatment given at the same time, but the right blend depends on the specifics of the case. Treatment options for dog arthritis can include:

  • Weight management

  • Prescription dog arthritis medications such as carprofen, deracoxib, meloxicam, etodolac, and firocoxib, all of which are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). Galliprant® is a newer type of NSAID that may be safer or more effective for some dogs.

  • Additional prescription pain relievers such as tramadol, gabapentin, and amantadine.

  • Nutritional supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), avocado soybean unsaponifiables (ASU), manganese, and methionine. In many cases, a therapeutic dog food for arthritis will already contain some of these supplements.

  • Polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (Adequan®) injections

  • Herbal remedies like Boswelia, green tea extract, or turmeric

  • Physical therapy that might include targeted exercises, treadmill work, hydrotherapy, low-level laser treatments, massage, and more.

  • Acupuncture

  • Regenerative therapies, including stem cells and platelet-rich plasma

  • Surgery

But the modifications you make in your dog’s life at home can be equally important. For example, a good dog bed for arthritis or raised food and water bowls can make a big difference, as can finding the right exercise routine that isn’t painful but will keep your dog strong and healthy.

Can Arthritis in Dogs be Cured?

Some types of dog arthritis can be cured (septic arthritis caused by a joint infection, for example), but osteoarthritis is a chronic and progressive disease that usually needs to be managed for the rest of a dog’s life. However, when arthritis is caught early and dogs quickly receive the treatment they need, the progression can be slowed, and many dogs can continue to be active and enjoy life.

How to Prevent Arthritis in Dogs

And there’s even better news! Pet parents can sometimes prevent arthritis in their dogs, or at least delay the onset of symptoms. Here are a few tips for preventing arthritis in dogs:

  • Weight management: Combine a good diet with appropriate exercise to keep your dog slim. A study published in 2006 showed that thinner dogs get arthritis much later in their lives than heavier dogs.

  • Decreasing inflammation: One of the reasons why thin dogs may have a delayed onset of arthritis is that body fat produces substances that increase inflammation. The more body fat that is present, the greater the inflammation. Preventing joint injuries and infections can also decrease inflammation.

  • Supplements: Dogs who are at high risk for arthritis (based on breed, genetics, size, or health history, for example) may benefit from joint supplements given as a preventive measure. Talk to your veterinarian for a specific recommendation, but products containing omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin for dogs are usually good options.

How Long Can a Dog Live With Arthritis?

Dogs can live with arthritis for a very long time. When appropriate treatment is started early in the course of the disease, many dogs will enjoy a good quality of life and eventually die from an unrelated health problem. However, there are times when arthritis progresses to the point where treatment is no longer effective. Signs of end-stage arthritis in dogs include:

  • Needing lots of help to stand or move around

  • Extreme muscle loss

  • Pressure sores

  • Constipation or incontinence (accidents in the house)

  • Poor appetite

  • Crying out in pain

  • Loss of interest in daily activities

  • Depression or aggression

Knowing when to euthanize a dog with arthritis is difficult, but it may be time if your dog is having more bad days than good days. Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions about your dog's health or well-being.

How Dog Insurance Can Help

Helping a dog with arthritis live a fulfilling life is very satisfying, but it can also be expensive! Thankfully, good dog insurance that covers veterinary examinations, diagnostic testing, medications, treatments, supplements, surgeries, and hospitalizations can help. Just make sure you purchase a policy before a chronic condition, like arthritis, develops. If you don’t, it will probably be considered a pre-existing condition and will be excluded from coverage.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.