Dog arthritis: causes, symptoms, and treatment

Aug 8, 2022

One in five dogs* will develop arthritis at some point in their lives, making it one of the most common health issues affecting canines. Arthritis is a degenerative joint disease that can cause pain, stiffness and reduced mobility. While there is no cure for arthritis, there are many treatments available that can help manage the condition and improve your dog’s quality of life. In this post, we discuss the different types of dog arthritis, as well as the symptoms and treatments available.

Unfortunately for today’s dogs, centuries of selective dog breeding have resulted in conditions that they didn’t experience until recently. Specifically, they didn’t suffer from congenital deformities of the skeleton and resulting arthritis and other painful joint conditions.

Osteoarthritis in dogs

“Osteo” means “bone” in Greek, and that’s the key to understanding this condition. Osteoarthritis is a chronic degenerative condition of the joints, meaning that it gets progressively worse unless there’s medical intervention. The primary characteristic of osteoarthritis in dogs is the loss of cushioning joint cartilage and lubricating synovial fluid. The reduced cartilage and fluid causes the bones to rub against each other rather than being buffered by the fluid. An audible creaking, cracking sound called “crepitus” may be detected as the bones grate against each other or gas bubbles pop within the joint. Untreated, this degeneration causes thickening of the joint capsule and new, unhealthy bone formation around the joint, called spurs or chips.

Causes of arthritis in dogs

Osteochondrosis in dogs

“Chondrosis” refers to a loss of cartilage, and this developmental disorder consists of the smooth, plush connective tissue in the joints thickening over time and eventually turning into bone. This abnormal formation can essentially “freeze” a joint, greatly reducing your dog’s mobility, and causing tremendous inflammation and pain.

Osteochondritis dissecans in dogs

A more specific variation of osteochondrosis is called osteochondritis dissecans is the inconsistent distribution of cartilage. Thick cartilage appears in some areas and is patchy in others. Because of this imbalance, weak areas can detach from the normal cartilage, creating a flap. When this flap eventually detaches completely, it floats around the joint, then osteoarthritis will usually set in.

Cranial cruciate ligament disease in dogs

A ligament is a tough, fibrous band of tissue that connects bones and cartilage. The cranial cruciate ligament is one of the most important stabilizers inside the canine knee (stifle) joint, the load-bearing middle joint in the back leg. It serves several purposes in your dog, including shock absorption, position sensing, and distribution of your dog’s weight.

Rupture of this ligament is usually the result of slow, subtle degeneration versus a sudden trauma to the healthy ligament. Numerous factors may cause the rupture including obesity, poor nutrition, genetics, skeletal configuration, thyroid disorders and breed.

Hip dysplasia in dogs

This genetic skeletal disorder contributes to arthritis in some dogs. Typically it affects medium and large breeds, especially the German Shepherd, Great Dane, Saint Bernard and Labrador Retriever.

Trouble usually begins early in puppyhood, when the ball-and-socket of the hip joint doesn’t develop properly. Rather than the ball fitting perfectly within the socket, it is partially out of the socket and moves in more directions than it should. Instead of a silky-smooth glide, the two components grind against each other. It’s painful, and ultimately can deform the joint and seriously impair your dog’s mobility. Many dogs with hip dysplasia will “bunny hop” frequently, since it’s less painful to move both rear legs forward at the same time than separately.

Elbow dysplasia in dogs

Elbow dysplasia is similar to hip dysplasia. This condition consists of multiple developmental abnormalities of the dog’s complex elbow joint, which contains three bones: the radius, ulna and humerus. When these three bones don’t fit together perfectly, inflammation due to improper motion causes permanent erosion of the bone, and loss of mobility for your dog.

Large and giant breed dogs are most vulnerable: German Shepherds, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. Several specific conditions are grouped within the general classification of elbow dysplasia, all relating to a poor fit of the joint, and loss of cushioning cartilage around the bones.

Patella luxation in dogs

When the kneecap moves side-to-side more than it should, it is called patellar luxation. This is a common problem, particularly for Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians and other small and toy breeds, although it can happen with any breed and size of dog.

In small dogs, the patella tends to shift inward, toward the other hind limb. This is called medial patellar luxation (MPL). Sometimes, the shift occurs in the opposite direction, meaning away from the other leg, and this is known as lateral patellar luxation (LPL), and is more often diagnosed in larger dogs.

With a luxating patella in particular, your dog may suddenly lift one hind limb and briefly “skip” before walking normally again. It is usually not painful, just annoying to the dog. It has the potential to become painful if the patella permanently remains out of its appropriate position or if bony changes develop in the joint.

Symptoms of joint distress in dogs

Orthopedic conditions in general may present a broad array of warning signs. Watch for the following symptoms of joint distress in your dog:

  • Limping, which may come and go
  • “Bunny-hopping”
  • “Skipping” on three legs
  • Difficulty getting up from a bed or couch
  • Reluctance to jump, climb stairs, or get into the car
  • Wincing or vocalizing (not with pleasure) when touched
  • Signs of depression or anxiety: no interest in walking, playing, eating, and/or grooming
  • Obsessive licking of a painful joint area
  • “Bow-legged” stance of the hind legs
  • Hunched, crouched lower back
  • Crepitus — cracking, popping noises from the knee or other joint

Note that when a skeletal/joint condition is present in one of your dog’s legs, the condition will often arise on the other side as well.

Diagnosing arthritis in dogs

Your vet may use a physical exam, X-ray, MRI or CT scan to determine the condition of your dog’s joints. Once the condition is established, you and your vet will discuss the findings and devise a management strategy. Treatment in some cases may include surgery (knee ligament repair, hip replacement) as an option, along with medication.

Preventing arthritis in dogs

The majority of dog arthritis cases are a result of your dog’s genetics. Many large breeds in particular are prone to these disorders, and an inherited condition is not currently preventable in the true medical sense.

Breed education

One precaution is educating yourself on different breeds and common hereditary and congenital conditions. Simply being aware of which disorders your dog may be predisposed to will help you look for symptoms of arthritis. Also, many skeletal disorders are a result of irresponsible breeding practices. Breeding dogs to have excessively long spines and abnormally short legs is an example of poor breeding choices. Discontinuing these practices will improve the health of dogs in general.

There are two registries that try to record and reduce congenital disorders in dogs: PennHip and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. You can check their websites for additional information about diseases to which your dog’s breed may be predisposed.

Developmental orthopedic disease

If you already have a puppy, and especially if it’s a large or giant breed, discuss proper nutrition with your vet. Large breed puppies may grow too fast with improper feeding. Excessive calories and nutrients can accelerate growth and create strain on the joints which results in painful conditions like arthritis. Feeding a food specially designed for large breed puppies through the first year of life is important.

The role of exercise and arthritis in dogs


Exercise is wonderful for many reasons. Moving the body burns calories, which is a key consideration for keeping canine obesity at bay. Running and jumping also tones the body and releases “feel good” endorphins (true for you, true for your dog). Exercise improves strength and agility which prevents injuries, and offers a great opportunity for you to bond with your pet. However, running your dog, including a puppy, on concrete is not recommended for bone and joint health – it’s just too hard on their joints.

Water sports

Many vets and dog trainers suggest exposing your dog to water and the joys of swimming early in life. If you are anticipating that your dog may develop arthritis or another joint issue later in life, swimming is fantastic therapy. As with humans, water supports body weight, making it easier to get an energizing cardio workout without harming the joints.

Frequency of exercise and dogs

As with humans, the weekend warrior approach to fitness generally results in injuries rather than sustainable fitness. Instead, opt for more frequent and less strenuous exercise. Comfortable workouts that make reasonable demands on the muscles, joints and bones and get hearts pumping are far more effective, safe, and enjoyable.

Tailor exercise to your dog’s build

Take care to tailor your dog’s exercise regimen to the breed, size, age and general condition of your dog. Consider the physical differences between a leggy Labrador Retriever and the stocky, muscular build of a Bulldog. Choose an exercise program that fits your dog.

Treatments for arthritis in dogs

Supplements for dogs with arthritis

Many supplements formulated for dogs make claims of supporting joint health and slowing down the loss of cartilage. Opinions vary as to their effectiveness, but in general, supplements won’t pose a problem to your dog’s health if used correctly. As always, consult with a veterinary professional before giving your dog any supplement or medication – even over-the-counter products. Common ingredients found in popular non-prescription dietary dog supplements formulated for joint health include:

  • Glucosamine
  • Chondroitin
  • Turmeric
  • Antioxidant omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA

Alternative treatments for dogs with arthritis

In addition to supplements consider complementary therapies:

  • Hydrotherapy
  • Massage
  • Laser therapy
  • Leg braces to support knee or elbow joints
  • Although the effectiveness of these treatments is variable, alternative approaches are non-invasive and safe for your dog.

Surgery for arthritic dogs

If your dog’s arthritis symptoms are extreme, surgery may be warranted. Some surgeries for arthritis can be performed by most veterinarians in practice, but some require referral to a veterinary surgical specialist. Your veterinarian will discuss the best options for your dog if they recommend surgery.

Medications for dogs with arthritis

Dogs with arthritis often benefit from medication. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) made specifically for dogs are used for both short and long-term pain management. They are less likely to cause gastrointestinal upset than aspirin. An injectable medication called polysulfated glycosaminoglycan can be used to reduce inflammation and increase joint lubrication. Joint supplements can help to improve joint health and relieve pain, although they are not a cure for arthritis. When choosing a medication for an arthritic dog, it is important to work with a veterinarian to find the best option for the individual dog.

How to make your arthritic dog comfortable at home

Once your dog is known to have an arthritic condition, take some steps to provide extra comfort at home. Consider modifying your home environment to increase your dog’s comfort. The following are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Beds: Invest in a super plush bed, with a heating element for cold weather and a cooling alternative for warm days.
  • Food and water: Elevate your dog’s food and water bowls for easier access and reduced strain.
  • Ramps and stairs: Provide a ramp or carpeted pet stairs for getting in and out of the car, up stairs, and onto the couch. Choose a ramp with a gradual incline and good traction.
  • Pet strollers: Consider a pet stroller if your dog is on the compact side. This allows you to bring your dog on more adventures and outings, even when mobility is compromised.
  • Trim nails: Be sure that your dog’s nails are kept short. Long claws can make walking uncomfortable.
  • Mats and rugs: Protect your dog from slippery surfaces. Place non-skid rugs on slick tile so your dog has good traction even if his gait is uncertain.
  • Modify potty routines: Accommodate your dog’s need to urinate. If your dog is not mobile enough to ask to go out in time, gate off an area for your dog to urinate on puppy pads.
  • Incorporate movement: Take your dog on frequent, short walks. Some movement and motion is actually good for joint health, even when your dog is experiencing a chronic arthritic condition. But always monitor your dog for signs of distress.
  • Patience and TLC: As always, treat your dog with the centering, unconditional love that our canine friends give us.

Arthritis in dogs is a common problem, but there are many treatment options to help improve your dog’s quality of life. If you think your dog might be suffering from arthritis, reach out to Airvet. We would be happy to discuss the different treatment options available and help you find the best solution for your furry friend. Haven’t downloaded the Airvet app yet? Download it now.


*Johnston, S.A. Osteoarthritis. Joint anatomy, physiology, and pathobiology. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. 1997. 27(4): 699–723.