Arthritis in Dogs: Symptoms and Causes
Arthritis is a degenerative
condition that affects one or more joints. Most cases occur in dogs
with an inherited orthopedic disease such as osteochondrosis or hip
dysplasia, or those with a joint injury. Some cases of arthritis are related to an
immune-mediated joint disease or a joint infection.
Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease)
Osteoarthritis is a common disease that affects one out of five dogs during
their lifetime. The problem isn’t confined to older dogs. Hip dysplasia,
ruptured cruciate ligaments, patella luxation, joint trauma, and other joint
conditions can cause degenerative arthritis, even in young dogs. Large-breed
dogs are affected more often than small dogs. Heavy dogs are more likely to
experience symptoms because of the extra strain placed on ligaments and
Dogs with degenerative arthritis experience varying degrees of lameness,
stiffness, and joint pain, which is more apparent in the morning and after
getting up from a nap. They often exhibit irritability and behavioral changes
associated with increasing disability. Cold and damp surroundings increase pain
and stiffness. Degenerative arthritis is progressive, and in time makes the
dog’s life miserable.
The diagnosis is made by joint X-rays that show bone spurs at points where
the ligaments and the joint capsule attach to the bone. There may be varying
degrees of joint space narrowing and increased density of bone around the
Degenerative joint disease is incurable, but treatment can substantially
improve the dog’s life. Treatment involves physical therapy and weight control,
the use of analgesics and corticosteroids
to relieve pain and improve function, and the use of chondroprotective agents
to repair joint cartilage and prevent further damage. Acupuncture is another
therapy that has shown good results for arthritic dogs. All of these should be
used at the same time.
Acupuncture and physical therapy are alternative or additional ways to make
arthritic dogs comfortable.
In severe cases, surgical fusion of painful joints, such as the hock or
elbow, relieves pain and restores limb movement in some dogs.
Moderate exercise is beneficial because it maintains muscle mass and
preserves joint flexibility. Excessive exercise, however, is counterproductive.
Arthritic dogs should not be allowed to jump up and down and should never be
encouraged to stand up on their back legs. Dogs with pain and lameness should
be exercised on a leash or a harness. There are veterinary physical therapists
who can help design an exercise (and weight loss) program.
Swimming is an excellent exercise that improves muscle mass without
overstressing the joints. Exercise can be increased as the dog improves with
the use of medications.
Overweight dogs should be encouraged to lose weight. Being overweight
seriously complicates the treatment of osteoarthritis.
This is an unusual group of diseases in which antibodies are directed
against the dog’s own connective tissue, resulting in either an erosive or
nonerosive arthritis. In erosive arthritis, cartilage and joint surfaces are
destroyed. In nonerosive arthritis, there is inflammation but no tissue