Old Dog Looks Up At Owner

Arthritis: The basics

What does arthritis mean for my dog?

Dogs, like their owners, can develop arthritis in any of their joints. A common statistic is that 20% of dogs will develop arthritis, but most veterinarians believe that number is actually much higher.

Why is that? Arthritis can be challenging to diagnose early on, and the signs that our dogs are uncomfortable can be subtle if we don’t know what to look for.

Diagnosing and treating arthritis from the earliest stages is one of the best ways we can keep our dogs active, happy, and comfortable for as long as possible.

You can help your dog have a better quality of life by making some simple changes to their daily routine. In this article, we’ll cover what arthritis is, what causes it, and how veterinarians diagnose it. In other sections of CARE, you’ll learn about the different options available to help your dog enjoy a healthy, active life for as long as possible.

What is arthritis?

Illustration of healthy joint without arthritis
A healthy joint without arthritis

A joint is where two (or sometimes three or more) bones meet in the body; joints allow movement of the body in all of the ways we normally expect.

Arthritis, in the simplest terms, is inflammation of the joint with secondary changes that lead to pain and reduced joint movement.

Cartilage lines the end of the bone at the joint, and joint fluid fills the small space between the joints. In a normal joint, cartilage is smooth and slippery and allows the two bones to move back and forth without friction. Normal joint fluid is sticky and provides lubrication to the joint.

With arthritis, the cartilage gets thinner and starts to break down. This is what leads to a vicious cycle of inflammation, joint swelling, thickening of tissue around the joint, further wearing away of cartilage, and ultimately stiffness, muscle atrophy, and pain.

See the differences below?

Normal vs OA joint
Comparing a healthy joint to one that has arthritis


Types of arthritis that dogs get

There are several different types of arthritis, but the most common kind in dogs and cats is osteoarthritis (OA), also called degenerative joint disease (DJD), which develops secondary to:

  • Joint instability
  • Joint incongruity
  • Osteochondrosis (a cartilage flap; most common in the shoulder and elbow)
  • Trauma (example: a fracture that involves the joint)

How will my veterinarian diagnose arthritis in my dog?

The most common way to diagnose arthritis is with an x-ray (also called radiograph). X-rays indicate joint swelling or changes to the bone, such as thickening or bone spurs.

Depending on your dog, sedation might be needed to get a clear x-ray.

However, x-rays don’t show cartilage. The only way to check the condition of your dog’s cartilage is through surgery, either by inserting a small camera into the joint (arthroscopy) or by surgically opening the joint (arthrotomy).

These procedures require full anesthesia and may be both diagnostic and therapeutic, depending on the procedure performed.

Other diagnostic tools

If your dog has significant joint swelling, your veterinarian might recommend a joint tap to assess the joint fluid. This is usually recommended if your veterinarian suspects your dog might have an infection or an autoimmune condition.

To determine the underlying cause of arthritis, pain or lameness, your veterinarian might recommend doing a CT scan or an MRI. This better allows your veterinarian to assess the bone and surrounding tissues.

CT scans are usually recommended for issues with the elbow, tarsus (hock), and carpus (wrist), and MRIs are used more often for issues with the shoulders, stifles (knees) and back. Full anesthesia is required for both CT and MRI.

Can arthritis be cured?

Unfortunately, right now arthritis is an incurable disease in both animals and people. But there’s hope! There are many effective treatments that will help you and your veterinarian manage your dog’s arthritis for a long time.

There are both surgical and non-surgical treatments available that you should discuss with your veterinarian.

In some cases, surgery might be recommended at initial diagnosis if it may slow the progression of arthritis. This is often the case with cruciate ligament tears, which is similar to an ACL tear in a person.

For dogs that have hip or elbow dysplasia, your veterinarian will likely recommend a multi-pronged approach to treatment that could include:

  1. Pain management
  2. Weight loss and a nutritional plan
  3. Regular, low-impact exercise
  4. Omega 3 fatty acids
  5. Supplements to protect your dog’s cartilage
  6. Physical rehabilitation and therapeutic modalities
  7. Surgery
  8. Intra-articular injections
  9. Acupuncture and other complementary therapies

CARE will cover each of these topics in separate articles to help you manage your dog’s arthritis and keep them active and happy.