Everything You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Osteoarthritis

What is Osteoarthritis in Pets?

Osteoarthritis (OA), also referred to as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) is a progressive worsening inflammation of a joint caused by cartilage deterioration. As a pet’s cartilage breaks down the joint moves less smoothly and begins to affect range of motion. Injury, repetitive stress, age and disease can all contribute to the condition. Any joint in a pet’s body can develop osteoarthritis, however it most commonly affects the joints in the legs and spine.

Stages of OA

There are four stages of Osteoarthritis. Each stage of OA is categorized based off the amount of pain and severity of the arthritis and it’s impact on a dog’s mobility.

dog leg brace

Pre-Osteoarthritis: Stage 1: Growing dogs and younger dogs show occasional signs of pain, typically lasting a few seconds or minutes.

Mild Osteoarthritis: Stage 2: Young adult dogs who show signs lasting a few hours, pets at this stage may show less interest in walks and signs are often spotted during Veterinary exams.

Moderate Osteoarthritis: Stage 3: Adult dogs who begin to resist exercise and start to struggle with daily activities. Signs of the disease include limping, struggling on stairs and having difficulty standing.

Severe Osteoarthritis: Stage 4: Older dogs who can no longer walk, joint pain is almost constant at this stage. Signs of the disease are clear and apparent at all times.

In the most advanced stages of osteoarthritis a dog will be dealing with crippling pain and pets will be unable to walk without assistance.

What Pets are at Risk of Developing Osteoarthritis?

Your dog does not have to be old to be diagnosed with OA. Osteoarthritis, like other Degenerative Joint Diseases, can affect dogs and cats of all ages even the very young. Although both cats and dogs can develop OA, the condition is more prevalent in larger dog breeds like German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden.

Osteoarthritis in Dogs

OA is the most common form of arthritis in dogs and is estimated to affect one in five dogs. Most osteoarthritis cases develop from an earlier injury or joint disease. However, age and genetics can also be a factor. Although most common in senior dogs, arthritis can impact dogs of any age. In some cases, signs of arthritis can appear in dogs as young as one year old. 80% of dogs will show signs of arthritis by age 8.

Dogs are very good at expressing themselves when they’re in pain. Changes in expression, behavior and posture can all be indicators that your dog isn’t feeling well. If you’re concerned that your pet has OA, pay attention to changes in your pet’s posture and movement These indicators, along with regular Vet visits are key to keeping your dog healthy.

Indicators of OA in Dogs

The first signs of arthritis in dogs may appear slowly. Arthritis is a degenerative condition that worsens over time, some of the earliest signs of osteoarthritis may not show until a dog is older.

St Bernard wheelchair for painful joints
  • Unusual limb positioning while sleeping
  • Difficulty getting comfortable
  • Joint stiffness
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability and changes in behavior
  • Limping or stiff gait
  • Slow to rise or struggling to stand up
  • Whimpering when touched
  • Reluctance to walk or play
  • Loss of muscle mass over legs and spine

Osteoarthritis in Cats

Cats typically experience osteoarthritis bilaterally or on both sides. In felines, OA most commonly occurs in hips, stifle, tarsus, elbow, upper and lower spine. Since cats rarely limp or show signs of pain, behavioral changes are key to osteoarthritis diagnosis.

Feline OA Indicators

feline mobility loss solution
  • Stiffness
  • Jerky movements or a less fluid gait when walking
  • Decrease in activity levels (especially at night)
  • Jumping less often
  • Not jumping as high
  • Increased resistance to being picked up or pat

Treating and Slowing Down OA Progression

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but there are ways to manage your dog’s symptoms and slow down the disease’s progression. Early treatment can help to slow the progression of osteoarthritis. By making a few changes in your pet’s life it’s possible to minimize symptoms and improve your pet’s quality of life. Most pets with OA will benefit from a ‘multimodal approach’ meaning that their best treatment plan may include different therapies, medications, or diet/exercise plans. Since each case is different, always speak to your Pet Care Professional about what treatment plan is best for your pet.

Weight Management

Watching your pet’s weight through diet and exercise can help to manage pain and improve mobility. When exercising, it’s important not to push your pet too hard which can place additional stress on the joints and potentially cause more injury. Your dog’s activity and exercise needs will vary depending on the severity of their osteoarthritis. In later stages, exercise sessions should be shortened and lower impact exercises like hydrotherapy are beneficial.

Providing Joint Support

Keeping your pet’s affected joints supported properly can help to alleviate joint pain and avoid future injury.

Dog back brace for arthritis back pain

Support the lower leg with a splint, it’s beneficial to use an adjustable splint whose width can be increased or decreased to accommodate changes in swelling.

Pets with spinal arthritis benefit from wearing a back brace, this supports the joint while also limiting range of motion to avoid further damage an injured spine.

For pets with hip dysplasia and hip pain, the lift, compression and support of wearing a hip brace can be greatly beneficial.

Pain Medication for Dog Joint Pain

Your Vet will help to determine if your pet needs pain medication for their osteoarthritis pain based on the OA stage and progression. NSAIDs are the most commonly prescribed OA pain medication and also help to control inflammation. NSAIDs are pivotal to controlling a dog’s arthritis joint pain and swollen joints.

Physical Rehabilitation

Keeping your pet active promotes building muscle around the joint which provides additional joint stability. Regular structured exercise can help to keep an arthritic dog active for longer and keep their joints healthy. Rehabilitation exercises with a rehab professional help your pet to do this safely.

  • Acupuncture
  • Cryotherapy
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Underwater treadmill
  • Laser Therapy

In more advanced cases and later stages where mobility has become more limited the addition of mobility aids, like a wheelchair, may be needed.

Be aware that treating your pet’s osteoarthritis pain takes time. Osteoarthritis care takes time, and the treatment plan will change as the condition progresses. Any changes you notice in your pet’s condition, such as behavior, mobility or signs of pain should be shared with your Vet immediately (even in between appointments).


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