Arthritis, or osteoarthritis (OA), is a chronic degenerative joint disease. It gradually damages cartilage and bones, and triggers unusual bone growth. This causes joint problems, pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility.
It can be heartbreaking to watch a dog with OA suffer. They are often unable to play, run, or even walk outside to go potty. Osteoarthritis has a huge impact on a dog’s quality of life.
Luckily, there are treatments which can ease an arthritic dog’s pain. Some may even help prevent your dog’s OA from developing or worsening.
In addition, scientists have found a link between osteoarthritis and poor gut health. Because you can assess your dog’s gut health with at-home tests, and improve it using supplements, you may be able to reduce their risk of suffering from arthritis.
We’ll briefly cover what osteoarthritis is, what the risk factors are, and how it’s treated. Then we’ll dive into the latest research and what it means for your dog.
What Causes Osteoarthritis in Dogs?
There is no single cause of OA, and any dog can develop the condition. However, certain factors increase a dog’s risk, including:
⚖️ Excess body weight. Weight management is key to preventing arthritis for a few reasons. Firstly, extra weight puts pressure on joints. Secondly, obesity causes increased inflammation, which contributes to osteoarthritis. Thirdly, overweight dogs are more likely to have a disrupted gut microbiome, which new research suggests may be linked to OA (more on this in a bit).
🍲 Poor nutrition. High calorie diets and diets high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates prompt inflammation. A higher ratio of dietary omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is also known to be inflammatory. You can learn more about how to lower your dog’s inflammation through nutrition here.
🧬 Genetics. Certain breeds are predisposed to OA, and large and giant breeds (German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, etc.) are at particularly high risk.
🐕 Body structure. Abnormal joint development including hip dysplasia, and issues like luxating patellas, can contribute.
💊 Previous infections. Some illnesses, such as Lyme disease, can affect a dog’s joints and trigger arthritis.
🩹 Previous injuries. Fractures, joint injuries, and ligament tears may predispose dogs.
🎾 Activity history. Repetitive stress from sports like agility or flyball increase OA risk.
🧓 Age. While OA is not inevitable with age, older dogs are more likely to develop it.
Usually, arthritis manifests and advances as a result of many of these factors, not just a single one.
How Do I Know if My Dog Has Arthritis?
Detecting osteoarthritis early can be tricky. Symptoms often only appear when a joint is severely damaged. Many dogs are also hesitant to show pain, and conceal it until it’s really intense. Therefore, it’s important to monitor older dogs, especially those prone to OA.
Initial signs of arthritis to look out for include:
- Weight gain
- Reduced activity and energy
- Pain when touched or petted
- Changes in behavior or reactivity
- Muscle loss along limbs and spine
- Avoiding running, jumping, or playing
- Stiffness, limping, or trouble getting up
- Struggles with posture when pottying, or having accidents indoors
If you think your dog has OA, it’s important to get them checked out by a veterinarian. Your vet will conduct a thorough examination which may include using radiographs (x-rays), assessing your dog’s range of motion, and ruling out other conditions which cause similar symptoms.
How Is Osteoarthritis Treated in Dogs?
Although there is no cure for arthritis, there are many ways you can help your dog and reduce their suffering. “Managing weight and diet can be a good first step to slow down the development of OA,” advises AnimalBiome’s Director of Veterinary Relations, Dr. Tonya Cooksey.
For more severe arthritis, a variety of treatment approaches are usually used in conjunction to control pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance overall quality of life. Current options include joint supplements, pain medication, physical therapy, and (rarely) surgery.
Supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids are often the first line of defense. Supplements can improve joint health by:
- Reducing inflammation
- Improving joint function
- Slowing joint deterioration
The great thing about joint supplements is that they’re safe for safe long-term use — so they can be given early on and throughout arthritis progression.
“Since there is no prevention for OA as patients age, it is best to be proactive rather than reactive when the pet is younger,” suggests Dr. Tonya Cooksey. For this reason, many owners whose dogs are at high risk of arthritis choose to introduce joint supplements at a young age, even if no symptoms are present.
Controlling inflammation via diet is key to both treating osteoarthritis and preventing its progression. While glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids can help significantly, there are additional ways to lower inflammation.
For example, certain joint supplements can support beneficial gut bacteria that produce anti-inflammatory compounds, like these DoggyBiome™ Hip & Joint Shield Chews.
Managing pain in arthritic dogs is crucial for their comfort. The most common pain medications for OA include:
- Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as Galliprant. These help to both manage pain and bring down inflammation. However, long term NSAID use can have negative side effects, especially in dogs with compromised liver or kidney function. Your veterinarian may incorporate regular blood work to monitor your dog’s wellbeing during extended use.
- Gabapentin. This medication is often used for chronic, nerve-related pain, which can develop with OA. Gabapentin is commonly used along with Galliprant to manage arthritis pain, but it can also be prescribed as a standalone for older dogs who cannot tolerate NSAIDs.
- Corticosteroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as prednisone. These are less commonly used for OA, but are also prescribed as alternatives to NSAIDs.
- Adequan injections, which help to protect cartilage and reduce inflammation. Adequan is most effective when used early on in OA treatment to slow the progression of the disease. However, it may also decrease lameness, pain, and inflammation in dogs with later stage arthritis.
Never give your dog any medication from your own medicine cabinet, even if they have a limp or appear to be in pain. Always consult your veterinarian, who will guide you in the safe administration of appropriate medication.
Alternative Therapies for Osteoarthritis
Therapies like medical acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, and massage can improve lameness and decrease pain in affected joints. These therapies are often combined with other treatments to increase mobility and aid weight loss.
Hydrotherapy, which uses underwater treadmills, can be especially useful for overweight pets with OA. Exercise helps arthritic dogs reach a healthy weight, but normal activities are very painful for them. Hydrotherapy can offer a safe exercise solution.
In severe cases, surgery can provide relief from OA pain. Procedures like total hip replacements and femoral head/neck ostectomy (FHO) do offer positive outcomes. Joint arthrodesis (fusion) is another option, and rarely, elbow or knee replacements might be considered.
How Can I Help My Dog With Arthritis?
You can offer comfort to your dog with osteoarthritis in simple ways, including:
- Utilizing non-slip flooring
- Providing soft, cushioned bedding
- Using elevated food and water bowls at elbow height
- Adhering to prescribed feeding and medication guidelines
- Incorporating a ramp or steps for vehicle and furniture access
In addition to providing some relief with pain medications and supplements to support joint health, looking after your dog’s gut health is one of the best ways to help them. Scientists have shown that poor gut health is linked to a variety of diseases including arthritis. Here’s how you can use the latest research to help your dog.
Because arthritis is a multifaceted disease with no cure, assessing your dog’s risk of developing it is key. So too is knowing which preventative measures are available for you to take — whether your dog has been diagnosed with arthritis or not.
One of these measures is ensuring your dog’s gut health is optimal.
A new paper published in 2020 found that dogs whose gut microbes were out of balance (a state known as dysbiosis) had a higher incidence of osteoarthritis. Researchers believe that gut dysbiosis contributes to the joint and bone deterioration seen in OA by spreading inflammation throughout the body.
This is done by simply sending a small stool sample to a lab, where scientists will identify specific harmful and beneficial bacteria. They then provide customized recommendations so you can make informed choices for your dog’s health.
Osteoarthritis in dogs is a painful, complicated disease with no cure. However, there are many treatment and prevention options available, and for the first time, a link between OA and gut health has been confirmed.