Joint pain in dogs is something that is seen very commonly in veterinary practice. Almost every day vets see dogs that are stiff, lame, or have difficulty exercising.
Most people are familiar with age-related arthritis, but did you know that there are a variety of other disorders that can cause joint pain too?
We will explore these in more detail as well as some of the treatment options available for your pet, as well as the right time to say goodbye if their condition is affecting their quality of life.
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Types of joint pain in dogs
There are four main causes of joint pain in dogs, as follows:
A hereditary condition describes something that an animal is born with like spinal deformities or joint dysplasia. Both hip dysplasia (opens in new tab) and elbow dysplasia (opens in new tab) are seen in some dogs more than others, with large breeds like Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds being most affected.
The joint doesn’t develop properly in affected animals. This means the bones do not fit together perfectly causing abnormal rubbing and friction. This creates pain and inflammation in the joint and can lead to secondary changes like arthritis. The joint may also be more lax than normal causing the dog to be weak when exercising.
Acquired condition (trauma or contagious illness)
Joint pain can sometimes occur through an acquired condition like a fractured bone or a cranial cruciate ligament injury, or an illness like a tick-borne disease.
Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that can attach to your pet’s skin to feed on their blood. Ticks can carry harmful bacteria and blood parasites in their saliva and the longer it is attached the more likely the tick will transmit disease to your dog.
Removing a tick as soon as you see it is advised, or even better, ensure your pet has regular tick treatments to reduce the risk of them biting in the first place.
Autoimmune disease occurs when the body starts attacking its own cells, leading to pain and inflammation. Examples that affect joints include Immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA) (opens in new tab)and steroid-responsive meningitis arteritis.
Also known as degenerative joint disease, this develops as an animal ages. General wear and tear can cause joints to become sore, as well as specific age-related diseases such as osteoarthritis (referred to as just arthritis by many) and cancer.
According to one study (opens in new tab), osteoarthritis is the most diagnosed joint condition in veterinary practices. It can occur secondary to joint malformations (like hip and elbow dysplasia) or joint injuries (like cruciate ligament disease). But in some cases, there is no primary cause other than age and wear, though it is more commonly seen in overweight animals.
Symptoms of joint pain in dogs
The most symptoms of joint pain are as follows:
- Lameness could be continuous or intermittent
- Stiffness, especially after resting
- Pain, crying out
- Sleeping more
- More grumpy than usual
- Difficulty exercising or jumping up
- Fever may be seen in animals with autoimmune or tick-borne disease
Treating joint pain in dogs
The exact treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your pet’s illness. Many of the previously mentioned conditions benefit from pain relief, the most used being non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (opens in new tab).
These drugs provide pain relief but also help with inflammation. They can be used for short-term issues as well as longer-term complaints. Other painkillers that may be used in conjunction with these, which your vet can advise you on.
Infectious diseases or infections within joints will usually benefit from antibiotic treatment. Some conditions such as cruciate ligament injury or spinal disorders may do best with surgical intervention.
In many cases, complementary therapies such as hydrotherapy and physiotherapy can be effective at helping to build muscle mass and to gently exercise stiff joints.
What are the first signs of arthritis in dogs?
Most owners notice intermittent lameness or stiffness, especially after the dog has been resting. Some dogs may start to ‘slow down’ and not be quite so keen to exercise too.
What age do dogs get arthritis?
The age at which dogs get arthritis is very variable! Larger breeds or overweight dogs will tend to suffer earlier than smaller dogs. But if your dog has an underlying joint abnormality like hip dysplasia then he may develop arthritis much sooner than a normal dog.
What can I give my dog for arthritis?
Speak to your vet about treatment options for arthritis. You can give your dog joint supplements at home, but many will also benefit from prescription medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.
How to help a dog with arthritis and other joint pain disorders
Joint supplements are used in dogs to promote healthy cartilage, the buffer that helps provide cushioning in the joint. You can obtain these over the counter or online, but it’s worth speaking to your vet for recommendations.
Keeping your pet at a lean fit weight will also help greatly, this ensures excessive pressure is not being put on diseased joints. A good quality, complete pet food appropriate for their age and lifestyle will help, but some animals may benefit from a specific weight loss regime.
Try and help your pet by lifting them in and out of the car, or providing a ramp, if they are struggling to jump. A soft, comfortable bed is appreciated by these dogs too.
When to euthanize a dog with arthritis
Sadly, there are some circumstances where, despite everyone’s best efforts, your dog’s quality of life may be starting to suffer. To try and assess this, ask yourself the following questions: Are they still enjoying life? Are they still able to do the things that they like doing best? Are they having more bad days than good? Euthanasia may be the kindest option for some animals.
It might also be considered when owner finances prevent certain treatment options from being available. If an animal requires surgery or long-term medication, but an owner cannot afford this, then euthanasia will prevent suffering.
This is a tough call, but a realistic one especially as some incurable or long-term cases can be quite a financial strain on families. Of course, other avenues can be explored such as charity help or finance options, but these might not be available to everyone.
Joint pain can have many underlying causes in dogs, but the most common is osteoarthritis. Your vet will be able to help diagnose your dog’s joint complaint and suggest appropriate treatment to make them more comfortable. Don’t delay, earlier intervention leads to better outcomes and an improved quality of life for your pet!
Dr Rebecca MacMillan is a companion animal vet who has always had a passion for writing and client communication. She works in the South West and loves complex medical cases.
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