What are the signs of arthritis in dogs?

Osteoarthritis (OA) affects more than 200,000 dogs a year in the UK. Dog owners may not recognise symptoms of OA until the disease is advanced and less amenable to treatment. This article discusses some of the common (and less common) signs to look out for.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint condition. It is common in all animals as they age but can be seen earlier in dogs due to developmental abnormalities. OA causes thinning of the cartilage surface in joints and poor-quality synovial fluid (the lubricant inside the joint). The joint capsule may thicken, and damage can occur to the tendons and ligaments which support the joint. Muscle pain is a secondary change which occurs as the dog changes the way it moves. As OA progresses, new bone can form around the joint.

Which dogs have a higher risk of Osteoarthritis?

Dogs over eight years old have a high risk of OA. Many breeds suffer from inherited joint problems which lead to earlier onset OA. These include many large breeds such as Labradors, Newfoundlands, Great Danes, and Golden Retrievers, which can inherit hip and elbow dysplasia. Small breeds have a different range of inherited joint problems including patella luxation. Breeds with dwarfism such as Dachshunds and Corgis also have a higher risk of early OA.

Older dogs Oscar and Lakja
Older dogs Oscar and Lakja

Puppies who are over or under-exercised can develop joint problems. This damage can occur when they are still with their breeder so puppies must be raised on non-slip surfaces and prevented from climbing stairs.

Neutered dogs and overweight dogs have a higher risk of OA and these risks may be related.

What are the signs of Osteoarthritis in dogs?

The most obvious sign of OA in dogs is lameness. But by the time lameness is obvious the disease can be very advanced. Earlier signs of OA include behaviour changes such as slowing down on walks, reluctance to play, sleeping more, and even aggression. Some behaviourists have identified pain in 70-80% of the cases that they see!

OA may be picked up earlier in dogs used for sports such as agility and obedience. Knocking poles down or difficulty with long sit-stays are subtle signs which competitive handlers may notice.

Sheepdog happy and barking
Misty the Sheepdog barking

Dogs may find it more difficult to get on the sofa, into the car, or up the stairs. Some dogs start to run in a ‘bunny hop’ style with both back legs together. Many dogs continue to run, jump, and play despite moderate to advanced arthritis. This is especially true of working breeds and competition dogs. Stiffness when getting up from rest is a very common sign of OA which is often ignored.

Avoiding the pain of OA will change how a dog moves. This can lead to some muscles becoming weak and losing size, while other muscles become larger. Dogs with hip and lower back problems often develop a triangular shape with big shoulders and narrow back end.

How is Osteoarthritis diagnosed by the vet?

The vet will ask lots of questions including how active they are, if they are stiff after a walk or after sleeping, their behaviour, and how long they have had signs for.

It can be helpful for the vet to watch a dog move in straight lines, in circles, and over simple obstacles.

The vet will make a physical examination where they palpate the muscles and move the joints to test for pain and flexibility. A definitive diagnosis requires radiographs (x-rays), but the vet may be confident enough to recommend treatments based on the history and examination alone.

Do you need further advice?

If you need any further advice, please contact the OSCAR Helpline Team on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email helpline@oscars.co.uk.

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