Arthritis is the most common health problem in older dogs. So if you own a dog, you will probably have to deal with it someday. Arthritis comes on in many ways, but the most common cause is the simple wear and tear your pet’s joints undergo over the years - they simply wear out. Veterinarians and physicians sometimes call arthritis, osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease.


A quick explanation of nature’s solution to motion is they are biological hinges – two slick, smooth surfaces coating the bones that form each joint. The ends of the bones that form all movable joints are formed of a cushiony layer of cartilage that is coated by a slick slippery membrane called the synovium. To reduce friction, the space in between is filled with an oily fluid; and the whole structure is bound together with a series of fibrous tissue and ligaments.


The secret to the long-term success of this wonderful apparatus is that its components are all living and capable of repair. But as we age, this repair process becomes less and less successful and makes errors. With years of repeated movement, several things begin to happen. The fibrous elastic sheets (fascia) and the ligaments begin to stretch, allowing the bones that form the joint to rattle slightly as they move. This in turn bruises and erodes the joints surfaces causing inflammation. And as these surfaces continue to move, the inflammation causes new bone to be laid down where it does not belong, causing pain, and bone to be reabsorbed from where it is critically needed. This is called remodeling and it is a vicious painful cycle. Taken all together, this is what arthritis is.


The problems that lead to arthritis begin early in your pet’s life. But because joints are tough and reparative, you probably will not notice pain or lameness in your pet during its younger years. When a particular joint is damage through accident, or born misaligned, it may not be able to repair itself. That is the arthritis of car and other accidents. When the pet was born with abnormally shaped bones or abnormally lax joints (dysplasia) , arthritis may appear in its youth. But neither of those causes are the subject of this article


Once arthritis is established in your pet, no matter what the cause, the treatment options available for your pet will be the same. There are ways you can postpone or avoid arthritis when you make a decision to purchase a dog. Arthritis occurs sooner in certain breeds. Larger breeds and breeds that are called dysplastic, develop arthritis sooner.  Arthritis also runs in families or lines of dogs. If the parents of your pet did not develop arthritis until a ripe old age, your pet probably won’t either.  If you avoid early age neutering of your pet, it is likely to remain leaner and less susceptible to arthritis later in life. If you allow your pup to grow too rapidly , it will also be prone to earlier onset of arthritis.


What Is Actually Happening In My Pet’s Joints That Is Causing Him Pain?


Usually, veterinarians and pets benefit from studies conducted in animals that were designed to understand and treat health problems in people. However, when it comes to arthritis treatment, most veterinary knowledge has come from studies done in humans. That is because you can tell your doctor much better when his treatment relieves you from pain and debility, than your dog can tell your veterinarian. That, and a lack of Federal funding, is why so few significant, independent studies of arthritis have been done in dogs.


Luckily for our pets, there appears to be no difference in the processes that contribute or slow arthritis in pets and their owners. That is why most of the references I use in this article link to studies done in humans. But even those studies often have perplexing, contradictory, results. The US government invested $531 million dollars in arthritis research in 2010.


What Are The First Signs Of Arthritis That I Will See In My Pet ?


The telltale sign of arthritis in older dogs is a reluctance to move about. As your dogs joints age , it will become more reluctant to run or play for long periods. It won’t bound up and down stairs like it used to and, on rising in the morning, it may be stiff and even limping. These changes almost always come on very gradually. It is easy to ignore or not notice them at first. Slowing down isn't only related to your pet's joints.  Large dogs, the ones that usually develop arthritis earlier, were bred to be very pain-resistant and stoic. So they won’t let you know that they are in pain until their arthritis problem is quite advanced.


As pets guard their sore joints, muscles and ligaments contract, decreasing the joint’s range of motion. You may notice that your pet no longer jumps up on sofas and chairs as it once did. One common symptom of age-related arthritis is that joints tend to be stiffer and more painful after periods of rest and that pain tends to work out during the day. By evening, your pet may be its old self again. Arthritis problems tend to be worse in overweight pets. Some of their panting after a long walk can be due to arthritis pain and not just the overheating and out-of-shape problems that obesity produce. Cold days and dampness tend to make the problem worse as well.


What Tests Will My Vet Suggest To Confirm An Arthritis Problem?


Your veterinarian has learned to be a very good judge of the subtle signs that dogs give to tell us that they are in pain. It may be just a worried look in their eyes when the veterinarian overly flexes their joints. Or you pet may withdraw its leg, or even growl or snap. You veterinarian will probably ask you to lead your pet around the examination room so he/she can observe its gait and locomotion. Over their career, vets get very good at that. The veterinarian may notice that the major muscle masses of your pet’s legs and spine have shrunken (atrophied) due to disuse. Your pet may wince when areas of it spine are palpated.


But the key tests your veterinarian will perform are x-rays. Depending on how subtle the changes are, it may take more than a single x-ray film. X-rays of advanced arthritic joints are very distinctive. If you look at the hip and spinal photos of Hannah, at the top of this page, you can understand the changes your vet will see. Most veterinarians will set these x-rays up in the exam room and point out to you the important bone changes that they are seeing.


Are There Things I can Do To Slow Arthritis In My Pet?


The answer is YES! The following is a list of things you can do to slow the onset of arthritis in your pet:


Diet And Nutrition


What your pet eats and how much it eats throughout its life will affect arthritis in its later years. If your pet is overweight, reducing its weight, slowly, to a healthy level is one of the most important things you can do to reduce its discomfort. Pets love to eat, that, and your company, are its chief pleasures in life. So if it has too much food in front of it, or if its food is not healthy, it will likely over eat.


Rather than rob your pet of it’s pleasure, feed it a lower caloric diet. Many are available commercially and you can make wonderful ones at home. You will find more on home cooked diets here. If you don’t have the time or inclination to prepare them, at least add low caloric items like cooked cabbage, greens and carrots to your pet’s current diet to keep it satisfied while dieting.


All major pet food manufacturers offer “Senior” brands of food. They tend to be lower in calories, higher in fiber, with added glucosamine, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. None have been adequately tested to see if they actually help older dogs, but they are all nutritious.




Canine athletes, such as sled dogs and working greyhounds, just like human athletes, tend to develop arthritis earlier in life. But a moderate amount of daily exercise, like taking walks and interactive play-time, is thought to delay arthritis. There is no dog data or studies, but there are human studies that can be applied to dogs. (ref)


Good Nail And Foot Care


 It's important that you keep your pets toenails clipped properly so its normal walking and running gait is not distorted. Over grown toenails are a lot like uncomfortable and poorly designed shoes that can also lead to arthritis in humans. They place abnormal stress on the joints and ligaments of the feet. There are rosin sprays that you can apply to your pet’s foot pads to help it walk more confidently.  Never remove too much toenail at a time. Trim them off in multiple sessions over a period of weeks until they just touch the floor when your pet is standing.


Traditional Radio-Therapy Treatments


The same type of radiation used to treat cancer has been shown to "quiet " the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis in pets and humans when given in low doses. But you have to travel far from my home in South Texas to find this option. Although veterinarians in the United States rarely if ever suggest radiotherapy to combat arthritic problems in pets, it is commonly used for that purpose in dogs in Europe.  At the doses that are generally administered, many veterinarians there feel that its benefits outweigh its possible risks. In Europe, radiation treatment for human arthritis is an older accepted therapy as well (ref 1) (ref 2) (ref 3)  , and it has been used in pets on that continent since at least the 1970s (ref). Recent experimental studies in rodents confirm that these beneficial effects of radiation on swelling, pain and inflammation are real. (ref)  Facilities I know of that offer this therapy include the Tierspital in Zurich   (Dr. Bley) and the Veterinary Oncology Center in Bologna (ref).


Dealing With Incontinence And Bed Wetting


Older pets, often find it hard to get up to go outside to relieve themselves. In some cases in females, the problem is related to flabbiness of the sphincter muscles of their lower urinary tract. In other female dogs, chronic urinary tract infections are the cause. Still others are over-drinking due to kidney deterioration, some are diabetic, and some are just feeling the effects of diminished brain function (senility, canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome). Your veterinarian has treatments available to minimize or eliminate these health problems in your pet. Special pet bed liners are also available to prevent urine scald in your pet.


Extra Padding For Comfort and Traction


Your pets balance and coordination are not what they once were. Old dogs do better on carpet or other soft surfaces. Not only are they more confident when they walk on padded surfaces, they are also less likely to form calluses and pressure-point sores so common in the elderly. The only drawback is that these pets, particularly female ones, are also often incontinent. So be sure there is a waterproof membrane below the carpet and that it can be removed for cleaning or replacement occasionally. Open cell foam pads are softer than closed cell products. But it is almost impossible to re sanitize open cell foams.


More Convenient Dish And Water Bowl Placement


Senior pets are often more comfortable eating and drinking from elevated containers. A low step stool works well for this because their rubber coating keeps the bowls from slipping around. Older, large breeds are more susceptible to gastric bloat. So feeding your elderly pet multiple small meals, rather than one or two large ones, is a wise idea.


A Warm Cozy Bed


All elderly pets appreciate a warm bed. Safe heating pads are available to ease the aches and pains that come with arthritis. I prefer electric mats that are encased in water proof plastic and have a chew-proof cord. Purchase one that can not rise above 102F. Make entry and exit from your pet's bed as easy as possible with at least one low side. Be cautious if your pet can not move away from the pad, should it get too hot. Puppies and elderly dogs are more susceptible to heavy flea infestations because their immobility assures that they are always conveniently available to the fleas. Fleas can get out of hand rapidly in both the very old and the very young. If there is a possibility of a flea problem, be sure bed liners can be easily run through a dryer cycle and use one of the modern topical products to control fleas on your pet.


Nutritional Supplements


There are many great canine supplements on the market which have ingredients that can slow the progression of arthritis. Ingredients like Glucosamine and Chondroitin have been proven to help ease joint pain and actually help the joint more effectively repair itself. These ingredients are often extracted from natural animal compounds through a synthetic process. However, there are some supplements like HardyPet Joint formula that use oyster shell and shark cartilage to provide Glucosamine and Chondroitin to provide the natural forms without synthetic processing.


HardyPet Joint also includes several anti-inflammatory ingredients like Cat's Claw from the rainforests of Brazil, Papain which is made from the papaya tree, and the essential amino acid Phenylalanine. These compounds provide natural relief of joint pain for your dog and calms joints so that the repair compounds can do their job.


Seeing our beloved pets begin to slow down and lose mobility over time is heartbreaking, but there is something every dog owner can do. Managing your dog's weight, making sure their sleeping area is comfortable, and using a high quality supplement with ingredients will prolong the onset of arthritis and long as possible. These simple steps will improve the life of your pet and, in turn, your entire family.


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