Canine Arthritis: Could Your Best Friend Be Suffering in Silence?

Canine arthritis is a common and debilitating disease that limits a dog’s ability to function and move without pain. According to, approximately 65 percent of dogs between the ages of seven and eleven years have some degree of arthritis, with a greater proportion occurring in larger, heavier dogs.

Why Dogs Get Arthritis

Arthritis has many causes. Injury to a joint, such as ligament ruptures or bone fractures, can cause arthritis. Hormonal conditions such as diabetes or Cushing’s disease, and infections such as Lyme disease can also cause or exacerbate arthritis.

Arthritis can result from developmental disorders such as hip and elbow dysplasia or osteochondritis, which is a problem with the cartilage lining the joints. These developmental disorders can be caused by a combination of genetics—i.e., passed down from mom or dad—and environment—i.e., imbalanced nutrition and excessive exercise at a young age.

While arthritis can also be caused by old-age wear and tear, it is usually a secondary disease with an underlying problem. If the underlying cause is not treated, arthritis develops slowly, and the symptoms gets worse over time.

Any dog who has ongoing lameness or stiffness may be suffering from arthritis, but large dogs (heavier than 60 pounds), working dogs, canine athletes, and obese dogs are all at higher risk for arthritis because more stress is applied to their joints as they move.

Signs and Symptoms

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A normal joint is made up of cartilage, bone, ligaments, tendons, and a joint capsule that encases all the structures and bathes them in a lubricating liquid called synovial fluid. In arthritis, each of these structures is affected: the cartilage breaks down; synovial fluid decreases leading to loss of lubrication; bone spurs develop; and ligaments and the joint capsule thicken and lose their blood supply, leading to irreversible changes that increase stiffness, decrease range of motion, and cause pain. Arthritis causes pain when the cartilage that coats the ends of bones in joints wears away, allowing the bones to rub and grind together. Arthritis is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time. Once damaged, cartilage is very difficult to heal because the blood supply to joint tissues is limited.

Arthritis causes varying amounts of pain, swelling, and stiffness. All joints are at risk of developing arthritis, from spinal vertebrae, to hips, to elbows and toes.

Dogs do not develop arthritis overnight; the early signs can be subtle and varied, causing you to miss a critical time period where treatment might arrest the progression of this disease. Be aware if your dog

  • No longer greets you at the door
  • Is stiff or slow to rise in the morning, gets better after moving around
  • Is stiff or limps after heavy exercise
  • Is stiff or limps when it is cold outside
  • Can’t/won’t jump into the car anymore
  • Has difficulty going up or down stairs
  • Is holding one foot up
  • Has swollen joints
  • Has a crunchy sensation you can feel when you touch a joint (elbow, knee, etc.) that is being flexed or extended (your doctor will call this “crepitus”)
  • Has muscle loss, especially in the back legs
  • Has decreased range of motion: can’t flex or bend a joint as far
  • Exhibits a general decrease in activity or exercise
  • Is reluctant to walk, run, climb, jump, or play
  • Has difficulty rising from a resting position, pulls self up with front legs
  • Lags behind on walks
  • Experiences sensitivity when touched
  • Yelps or whimpers without an apparent cause
  • Experiences changes in personality, such as acting aggressive or withdrawn
  • Flattens ears against their head
  • Licks the affected area
  • Has difficulty getting comfortable
  • Experiences changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Sits with one leg out to the side (especially with knee pain)
  • Bunny hopping or otherwise altered gait
  • Seems lazy, sleeps a lot
  • Doesn’t enjoy the same activities he or she once relished (walks, fetch, tug-of-war, etc.)

If your dog is showing any of these signs or a combination thereof, it is important to get him or her to a veterinarian ASAP. Arthritis can strike at any age, so don’t assume that a younger pet may not be experiencing an arthritic condition.

Canine Arthritis Treatment Options


Rest assured, if your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, there are many options available to help your best friend feel better. The trick is finding the right combination of therapies.

Your veterinarian will be your best guide in finding the right mix of treatments. These may include

  • Decreasing the compression forces felt on the joints through exercise moderation
  • Choosing the best supportive sleeping and resting surface
  • Weight reduction (if needed)
  • Maintaining or increasing joint mobility with therapeutic range-of-motion exercises
  • Maintaining muscle mass via good nutrition and weight-bearing exercises
  • A combination of nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, and adjunct therapies such as cold laser and/or acupuncture for pain control

Some dogs may benefit from surgical intervention, stem cell therapy, or cutting-edge treatments such as platelet-rich plasma as well.

Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the best combination of treatments to minimize pain, preserve quality of life, and maintain mobility in your dog. The goal of any and all therapy should be to minimize pain, slow the progression of disease if possible, and keep your pet as active as he or she wants to be.

Easing the Pain

Whether your dog’s arthritis is treated with surgery or is managed in another way, all dogs with arthritis can benefit from a supportive sleeping surface. Large dogs with arthritis in particular can benefit from a good dog bed with enough height to aid in rising and cushioning that doesn’t irritate already inflamed joints.

It isn’t always possible to prevent arthritis, but there are steps you can take to help safeguard your dog from this debilitating disease. Keep adult dogs at a lean body weight, feed appropriate nutrition, start joint supplements early, secure your dog a supportive sleeping surface, and treat underlying causes (cruciate ligament tears, fractures, etc.) as soon as possible.

Melissa Mazzeo

Author, editor, and best friend to Phoebe (pictured) and Finian, both rescued Chihuahua mixes.