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Recognising the onset of arthritis in your pet

We’ve all heard of arthritis in humans but did you know animals can suffer from it too? Arthritis in dogs is a painful joint condition which is very commonly seen by vets.

It can cause a great deal of suffering, yet sadly, some pet owners believe that arthritis is just another symptom of ‘old age’ and delay seeking veterinary care. The good news is that there is now a range of arthritis treatments for dogs to ease pain and inflammation, minimise the risk of arthritis worsening and help slow its progression.

We all want our pets to live long, happy lives and all pet parents need to be aware of the early signs of arthritis. This article will highlight the importance of early detection and prevention for managing canine arthritis, discuss the exciting advances in arthritis treatment for dogs, and how to help a dog with arthritis at home.

If you are worried about your cat, please take a look at this article on arthritis in cats.

What is arthritis in dogs

Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a term that refers to inflammation of the joints. It occurs when there is degeneration of the smooth cartilage lining in the joints and can affect dogs of any age. Risk factors include (but are not limited to) size, old age, obesity, pre-existing orthopaedic issues (e.g., hip or elbow dysplasia) or any history of joint trauma. Arthritis can be extremely debilitating and make normal behaviour such as standing, walking and playing very painful.

As a result, dogs with arthritis may be reluctant to engage in activities they used to enjoy and may struggle to move about the house and garden. Rather than excuse this as just an inevitable part of ageing, there is now a lot that can be done to help manage this disease. If you think your dog may have arthritis, seek help from your vet – the sooner the better!

How to prevent arthritis in dogs

The risk of dogs getting arthritis can be minimised by following these steps:

  • Keep your dog’s weight in a healthy range for their breed (check the body condition scores online and speak to your vet for advice on your dog’s condition).
  • Maintain regular, low impact exercise suitable for your dog (swimming can be great, along with regular walking).
  • Ensure your pet is getting all essential nutrients from a healthy diet.
  • Consider including joint-specific supplements and any treatments/preventatives for arthritis approved by your vet, especially as your dog reaches middle age and beyond.

Identifying the early signs of arthritis

Dogs can’t tell us they’re in pain with words, so it’s up to us to watch for the signs and symptoms of arthritis. Early signs of arthritis can be subtle, so keep note of any of these changes and make an appointment for a check-up with your vet:

  • Stiffness rising after rest.
  • Reluctance to walk, run or play.
  • Difficulty climbing stairs or jumping into the car.
  • Limping and reduced mobility.
  • Pain when affected joints are touched.
  • Behavioural changes – seeming less willing to interact or play, licking at their toes or other joints.

How to help a dog with arthritis

If your dog appears to have any signs that are consistent with arthritis, please take them to your vet for a diagnosis and a discussion on how you can help your dog at home.

There are now a lot of options for helping dogs with arthritis. Generally, dog arthritis treatment requires a multi-modal approach. This may include:

  • Pain relief (tablets, chews or liquid).
  • Arthritis injections to increase joint fluid production which are given in an initial short course of weekly injections, then boosters as recommended by your vet.
  • Dog treats for arthritis support.
  • Joint support diets and supplements.
  • Hydrotherapy, massage or physiotherapy.
  • Sometimes surgery is recommended.

Your vet will help guide you on the best choice for your dog. A blood test may be recommended, so your vet can be sure your dog’s kidneys and liver are healthy before they prescribe certain pain relief options.

Lifestyle adjustments to slow the progression of arthritis

Some lifestyle adjustments to slow the progression of arthritis include:

  • Using ramps to help your dog climb in and out of the car, onto furniture or up and down stairs.
  • Gentle, regular exercise at a level that is appropriate for your dog.
  • Warm water baths, followed by thorough drying with towel/hair dryer.
  • Supportive and comfortable dog bedding, raised above the ground.
  • Keeping them warm, sheltered and out of drafts and extreme weather.
  • Trimming their nails (or having your vet/vet nurse do this) so your dog can grip the floor better when standing and walking.
  • Use of raised pet bowls, so less stretching is needed to eat and drink.
  • Gentle massage and soft brushing of the coat.
  • Warm dog coats in winter and bringing your dog into a warm home, especially in the cold, wet weather.

Diet and nutrition modifications

It may be possible to help ease arthritis simply by feeding some dogs a diet which supports healthy weight, mobility and joint health. Special diets are now available as dry or wet food enriched with nutrients such as glucosamine, chondroitin and Omega fatty acids.

Ask your vet whether a prescription joint support diet would be beneficial for your dog. When changing your dog’s diet, do it gradually over several days to avoid upsetting their digestive system.

Anti-inflammatory foods

Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect, and vet prescription joint care diets typically contain higher levels of these anti-inflammatory ingredients. Blueberries, flax seed, salmon and turmeric have all been mentioned as being helpful for dogs with arthritis.

Weight management to reduce joint stress

It is vital to keep your dog at a healthy weight to reduce extra stress on their joints. Many dogs are actually overweight, and your vet and vet nurse will be happy to provide guidance to help your dog safely and steadily reach their target weight.

Fitness and exercise tips

Along with keeping your dog at a healthy weight, make sure your dog receives:

  • Suitable low-impact exercise and gentle activities. To keep a less mobile older dog entertained, try offering a few healthy treats hidden in a snuffle mat, you can even make a snuffle mat at home!
  • Regular veterinary check-ups and early intervention of any health concern.
  • Continue with regular parasite prevention, vaccinations and dental care.

A new leash on life!

Don’t let your pet suffer in silence with arthritis – with the help of your vet, you can ease those doggy aches and pains and give your best friend a new leash on life!

For peace of mind to ensure you can provide your pet with veterinary care for unexpected illness or accidents, consider Pet Insurance. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the valuable work of the RSPCA.

Dr Catherine Tiplady bio image

Dr Catherine Tiplady

Dr Catherine Tiplady studied veterinary science at the University of Queensland. After graduation, Dr Catherine worked in veterinary practice whilst undertaking postgraduate research in Animal Welfare, gaining additional degrees in Bachelor of Applied Science (Animal Studies) (Hons 1) and a PhD. Dr Catherine has published widely in peer reviewed scientific journals and has also authored a book, ‘Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People’. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Catherine also has her own business performing gentle in-home pet euthanasia and provides veterinary care and desexing services for animal welfare charities. Dr Catherine brings her passion for animal welfare, love of writing and scientific training together to contribute quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance’s Pet Care blog.