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What Is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative disease of the synovial joints (common joints including hips and knees) and is the most frequent type of arthritis affecting dogs. This chronic disease occurs in roughly 25% of dogs and is irreversible.  

Dogs with osteoarthritis experience a progressive loss of the articular cartilage surfaces of their joints. They also can develop small bony pieces within the joint as well as fibrosis (connective tissue) around the cartilage of the joint, leading to pain and impairment of limb function. 
 
Most cases of osteoarthritis in dogs occur as secondary conditions to diseases such as hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Other contributing factors to OA include bodyweight, obesity, gender, exercise, and diet. 

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

A pet parent will usually notice signs of osteoarthritis in dogs. Most commonly, dogs will show: 

  • Decreased willingness to play or exercise, as well as decreased energy in overall activity. 

  • Stiffness or lameness, such as a difficulty moving from sitting to standing. 

  • A change in their posture and gait. 

Dogs may try to protect themselves from pain by developing a bunny hop walk, sit in a way to leave the painful area extended, or overall appear weak or slouching when walking.

Causes of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Osteoarthritis is classified as primary or secondary. Primary osteoarthritis tends to be idiopathic (unknown cause) or associated with aging. Secondary osteoarthritis refers to the condition occurring because of another condition, such as: 

  • Injury 

  • Hip or elbow dysplasia 

Age and weight play a factor in the development of osteoarthritis in dogs. Both primary and secondary osteoarthritis progress through a series of changes degrading the health of the joint, articular cartilage, joint capsule, synovial membrane, subchondral bone, and ligaments.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Osteoarthritis in dogs is diagnosed through physical exam and imaging tools. Typically, veterinarians start by observing the dog’s gait patterns. Gait patterns include repetitive limb motions such as walking, trotting, or running. During a physical exam, a vet will feel for swelling or effusion (excess fluid in the joint) and note any decreased range of motion of joints. 

Your vet will check for thickening around the joint, crepitus (rubbing and friction of bone and cartilage), or muscle atrophy (differences) in muscle size between similar joints. The exam may be done with your dog sedated to prevent pain.  

In addition to a physical exam, your vet may recommend: 

  • Radiographs (X ray) 

  • Bloodwork, if medication is to be prescribed 

  • Joint fluid analysis, to rule out infection or, in some cases, cancer 

  • Imaging tests, such as CT or MRI 

  • Force plate gait analysis, which measures the force exerted between a paw and the ground when walking or standing still 

  • Endoscopy of the affected joints, using a specialized thin tubing with a tiny camera and instruments that can visualize and sometimes treat problem areas 

Treatment of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Your veterinarian has many ways to slow the progression of OA and will often use multiple approaches to find what works best for your dog.  
 
Over-the-counter medications and supplements may be prescribed, but it is important to follow your vet’s guidance carefully, as some medications may be fatal, and others have a low safety margin.  

Commonly prescribed therapies include: 

  • Supplements: Such as omega 3 fatty acids, glucosamine/chondroitin, and other natural anti-inflammatory products.  
     

  • NSAIDs to decrease inflammation and pain: Common drugs include carprofen, deracoxib, firocoxib, grapiprant, meloxicam, and others. These drugs can have side effects and not all dogs can tolerate them. Your veterinarian will recommend the best choice for your dog. 
     

  • Steroids: Such as prednisone, methylprednisolone, and triamcinolone. Steroid medications can have many side effects and must be handled carefully. 
     

  • Other pain medications that work with NSAIDs or through a different approach: These include gabapentin (anti-convulsant drug with analgesic properties), tramadol (synthetic opiate like agonist), and amantadine (NMDA receptor antagonist that may reverse central pain sensitization). 
     

  • Adequan: An injectable prescription product that has anti-inflammatory effects. Many dogs experience significant comfort and minimal side effects with the use of Adequan as part of their pain reduction plan. 

Alternative therapies may be helpful for dogs with osteoarthritis. These include acupuncture, laser therapy, and physical rehabilitation including hands on techniques and therapeutic exercise. Chiropractic manipulation and stem cell therapy have also been helpful for some dogs. There has been some promising research and individual success stories regarding these therapies.   

In some cases, surgery may be suggested to limit pain associated with the inflammation.  

Recovery and Management of Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Your veterinarian may suggest lifestyle changes for a dog with OA. Weight loss and management is essential to reduce inflammation and stress on the joints. A vet may suggest a prescription diet along with regular exercise, when the dog is able to tolerate movement.   

If your vet recommends surgical intervention, a rehabilitation and physical plan will be prescribed. This often includes rehabilitation, physical therapy, massages, swimming and the underwater treadmill.

Osteoarthritis in Dogs FAQs

What home remedy can I give my dog for OA?

Many dogs with osteoarthritis will benefit from weight loss/maintenance, high quality dog food ingredients, supplements, regular physical therapy, and massages at home. There is no one remedy that works best for every dog so be sure to work with your veterinarian to come up with a plan that fits your individual pet.

How can I modify my home to help my dog with osteoarthritis?

Simple things around the home can help make it easier for your dog with osteoarthritis to manage. These include using carpet runners or dog boots for slick areas, limiting access to stairs and swimming pools, and considering ramps or small stairs rather than jumping to beds/couches.

Does OA shorten a dog’s life?

Dogs with osteoarthritis likely have a shortened life span compared to a dog without osteoarthritis. However, with intervention, many dogs that have osteoarthritis can live long, comfortable lives.

Should I walk my dog with osteoarthritis?

Discuss your specific situation with your veterinarian. Many dogs can benefit from low impact, regular exercise like walking. However, some dogs may need to control pain and inflammation prior to starting exercise or have specific circumstances that make walking a risk for falling.

What is the different between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in dogs?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the synovial joints that includes inflammatory changes. Rheumatoid arthritis also includes inflammatory changes but is a disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s joints.

What are risk factors of osteoarthritis?

Obesity is a risk factor for the development of osteoarthritis because of natural inflammatory effects and excessive strain on joints. Talk with your veterinarian about weight loss in a structured, positive way that sets your dog up for success.

References

  1. American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Osteoarthritis in Dogs.  

  1. Pavolovsky Gene DVM, VINcyclopedia of Diseases. Degenerative Joint Disease (Canine). 

  1. Brooks, Wendy DVM. “Medications for Degenerative Arthritis in Dogs and Cats.” Veterinary Partner, 10 Sept. 2001, veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&catId=154455&Id=4951467. 

  1. Riley, Elizabeth. “Physical Rehabilitation for Arthritis in Dogs.” Veterinary Partner, 8 Feb. 2021, veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&catId=102899&id=10076165&ind=238&objTypeID=1007. 

Featured Image: iStock.com/Kerkez

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