There are many wonderful things we share with dogs—a social nature, an affinity for a comfortable couch, and 84% of our DNA. Among the not-so-great things we have in common: arthritis. The CDC estimates that about 23% of human adults have it, and the stats are similar for dogs.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 20 percent of adult (or “middle-aged”) dogs suffer from the disease, and by some estimates 90 percent of older dogs have arthritis in one or more joints.
Most simply, arthritis is a degenerative joint disease. While the disease takes many forms, the most common type of arthritis in dogs is canine osteoarthritis and it occurs when the smooth cartilage that cushions the bones of the joint wears away, causing bone-on-bone friction. That friction and inflammation of the cartilage can also cause bone growths (or spurs) to form around the joints. The end result is pain, and limited mobility. Too many dog owners are familiar with the telltale signs of the disease—difficulty moving or standing up, general stiffness, or a negative reaction when being handled or touched. Arthritic dogs may also have noticeable swelling, and pain caused by arthritis may cause them to habitually lick themselves as they seek relief.
What Causes Arthritis
There are many factors that can contribute to a dog’s likelihood of developing arthritis. Some of them include:
Breed and size: Technically there is no breed predilection for arthritis. However, there are certain breeds, including giant breeds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds, predisposed to conditions like hip and elbow dysplasia, and osteochondrosis (OCD) which cause secondary cause arthritis. OCD is a condition that affects young large breed rapidly growing dogs. It’s linked to over-feeding and excess dietary calcium and protein, so it’s important to feed puppies a balanced and high- quality diet.
Autoimmune disorders: Autoimmune diseases cause the immune system to attack the body’s own cells, and there are a number of autoimmune conditions that can cause joint inflammation in dogs. In Immune Mediated Polyarthritis (IMPA) this abnormal immune response manifests in inflammation of multiple joints (IMPA is known as rheumatoid arthritis in people). The condition can occur independently or in combination with other autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus.
Injury from trauma and repetitive movements: Some of the most common and significant orthopedic injuries in dogs are cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) tears (like an ACL tear in a human), patella luxations (aka, kneecap dislocations), and fractures. All of these injuries can predispose the joints to developing arthritis.
Infections that affect joints, like Lyme Disease: Painful, swollen joints and lameness are among the most common symptoms of Lyme in dogs.
Diet and weight: Extra weight places extra stress on joints and is a major contributor to arthritis. Excessive fat tissue also releases hormones that can contribute to pain. Diets with an imbalance of protein and carbs are also linked to the development of arthritis. It’s also important that a dog’s diet have the right calcium / phosphorus ratio.
One thing that doesn’t cause arthritis, per se, is simple old age. Many dog owners accept that arthritis is as much a part of the canine aging process as those grey chin hairs. But while the condition is prevalent in older dogs today, it’s not an inescapable destiny. According to Kristin Kirkby Shaw, DVM, MS, PhD, Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist, and founder of CARE (Canine Arthritis Resources and Education), humans (and possibly cats) develop what is called “primary arthritis”—that means that the joints start to generate due to wear and tear that comes with age. Dogs, however, “almost always develop ‘secondary arthritis,’ meaning that there is an abnormality of the joint, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, previous fracture at the joint, abnormal limb alignment, joint instability (ligament tear, including CCL), and the effects of excessively high impact,” she says. “So no, dog’s don’t just get arthritis with age; it is usually something that is starting to develop when they are younger, but the symptoms start to show more when they are older.”
The importance of early awareness
In addition to being ubiquitous, and painful, osteoarthritis is difficult to catch in its earlier stages; it’s often diagnosed when treatment options are mainly reducing pain and slowing the progress of the disease.
The first important step in guarding against arthritis is simply being aware of how prevalent it is, and keeping joint health, and potential joint problems, top of mind, says Lisa Lippman, DVM.
Dr. Lippman emphasizes the importance of early detection and advises keeping an eye out for any unusual behavior, no matter how seemingly benign. “Be aware of anything that’s not normal—if they’re not jumping up on the bed when they usually do, or if they’re reluctant to go out for walks, or if they’re having inappropriate eliminations because they may not want to take those extra steps to go outside,” she says. “It’s so important to really look into those signs because they can be really subtle. It can be something like sleeping a lot, or being what you’d call ‘lazy.’ If you’re not sure, or see any small changes, seek your vet’s guidance on what to look for.”
Dr. Kirkby Shaw echoes the importance of vigilance when it comes to early signs of abnormal behavior. She says that when it comes to detecting arthritis early, it’s a good idea to consult with your vet when your dog is young—as early as the first year of a pup’s life. “This is because, again, arthritis almost always develops secondary to developmental orthopedic disease, such as hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia,” she says. “Veterinarians can test for hip dysplasia with a simple manual test in puppies as young as 16 weeks of age. Elbow dysplasia often shows up in dogs around five to six months of age. Diagnosing a developmental orthopedic disease is the best way to start a proactive plan for decreasing arthritis.”
The real heavy in arthritis risk: excess weight
While there’s no guarantee of preventing this disease, diet and weight management are critical factors in minimizing the risks of inflammation and arthritis.
“The number one, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt best way to reduce the progression and severity of arthritis is by maintaining a lean body condition,” says Dr. Kirkby Shaw, who believes that the incidence of arthritis in dogs is highly correlated to obesity, and is therefore probably closer to 50%, which is, approximately, the rate of canine obesity.
Overweight dogs have a much greater chance of developing joint disorders. Multiple studies have shown the link between being overweight and the increased risk and severity of arthritis. A widely cited lifetime study of Labrador Retrievers found that dogs who maintained a lean weight lived an average of two years longer than their (even slightly) overweight counterparts and had delayed onset of osteoarthritis. Another study showed that a reduction in body weight caused a significant decrease in lameness, even from a weight loss of about 6%.
And that’s another key point that’s easy to miss: “lean body condition” probably means leaner than you expect—Dr. Kirkby Shaw describes it as “on the skinny side of normal.” “The reason this is so important is that fat is the largest inflammatory source in the body,” says Dr. Kirkby Shaw. “So it isn’t just about having extra weight on the joints, fat cells themselves perpetuate the inflammatory process.” She also notes that many dogs that do have arthritis but are kept lean are still able to be active and may not need medication.
And whether the goal is weight loss or maintaining body condition, the most important factor is food intake—that is, not over-feeding. “It is very hard to exercise enough to make up for feeding too many high calorie treats or too much food in general,” says Dr. Kirkby Shaw.
Food quality is also important. It’s a good idea to consult your vet on any special dietary requirements, especially if there are any other conditions present, but high quality protein in the right proportion, and foods free of potentially harmful additives can be effective in staving off or minimizing inflammation. “Fresh food is important to help decrease inflammation,” says Dr. Lippman. “And fresh food is typically lower in carbs which helps keep weight off our patients.”
Supplementing healthy joints
Adding Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of whole fish (anchovies or sardines are ideal), or high quality fish oil supplements, can also help decrease inflammation. As the AKC notes, Omega-3s can help balance omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in over-abundance in processed foods and most grains. Fish oil contains high concentrations of the important components of omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). There’s been ample research demonstrating its efficacy in addressing joint health, including this study, which found that fish oil supplements given over three months improved pain, lameness, and joint disease in dogs with osteoarthritis. “I’ve had my own dog on Omega-3 fatty acid supplements since she was two years old,” says Dr Lippman. “It’s the only thing that’s proven for osteoarthritis. It’s highly anti-inflammatory for joint health- and good for heart health, for the skin, eyes, and for kidney health.”
Cannabidiol oil is a natural supplement and some vets we’ve consulted report using it to treat dogs with positive results. A new study from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine found that the treatment was safe and effective for dogs with osteoarthritis, with “dramatic beneficial effects in…more geriatric patients” (the study used ElleVet Sciences CBD and that company was involved in the study). With CBD, as with all supplements, make sure you’re getting the real deal. Pet supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA so many products make false claims about what’s actually in the bottle and recent reports have found some products contained “virtually no” CBD.
Glucosamine / Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are natural components of cartilage and synovial fluid. They play a role in cartilage synthesis, maintenance, and repair and are used to aid in arthritis-related pain. Ensure you’re getting the highest quality supplements—low quality supplements of this type can be ineffective or worse—and, as always, consult your vet on whether they’re right for your dog.
Overall, it’s important to remember that arthritis is manageable. And for dogs who are already showing symptoms of arthritis, or other ailments, treating pain early is important. “Pain relievers should not be saved just for older dogs,” says Dr. Kirkby Shaw. “Because if young dogs are suffering from pain, their pain pathways will remodel over time, turning into chronic, maladaptive pain which is very hard to treat. Owners of dogs with arthritis should work with a veterinarian that is interested in arthritis management and committed to a long term plan.”
Preventing arthritis is all about early detection. Watch for any signs of discomfort, limited mobility, or unusual behavior.
Diet and weight management are massively important factors in minimizing the risks of inflammation and arthritis.
Omega-3 supplements in the form of anchovies, sardines, and high-quality fish oil can keep your dog’s joints healthy, reduce inflammation, and improve the condition of dogs with osteoarthritis.
Work with your vet on prevention, and develop a plan for managing arthritis over time.
This article was vetted by a vet.
Reviewed by Alex Schechter, DVM, Founding Veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care.