Just like the humans they live with, dogs often develop arthritis as they age. The most common form is osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, in which cushioning cartilage within the joints becomes brittle and breaks down, resulting in painful inflammation that interferes with every canine activity.
How Long Can a Dog Live With Arthritis?
Arthritis isn’t fatal, so your dog won’t die of it. In fact, dogs with arthritis can live well into their teens, but they may lead restricted and pain-filled lives. Our challenge as caregivers is to help our best friends stay active for as long as possible. Become familiar with the risk factors and symptoms of arthritis so that you can anticipate, recognize, document, and treat the signs of arthritis before they incapacitate your dog.
Risk factors for osteoarthritis include the dog’s size (larger breeds and overweight dogs are more likely to develop joint pain), age (the risk increases over time), genetics (some breeds are associated with joint abnormalities such as hip dysplasia that lead to arthritis in Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherd Dogs), stress and trauma injuries, an inflammatory diet, diabetes, and diseases transmitted by tick bites.
Symptoms of arthritis in dogs vary from one patient to the next but as the illness progresses, most dogs experience:
- intermittent lameness
- “hopping” or three-legged gait
- stiffness after rest or after vigorous exercise
- abnormal stance when walking
- reluctance to rise or move
- depression or lack of interest
- joints that hurt when touched or swollen joints that are tender and warm to the touch
Veterinary Treatments for Dog Arthritis
A thorough veterinary examination is needed to rule out physical injuries or non-arthritic conditions that can cause pain, make a diagnosis, and suggest treatment options. Those are likely to include prescription pain-relieving, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as carprofen, firocoxib, meloxicam, grapiprant, or etodolac. These are the most effective treatments for arthritis, hands-down.
For severe, chronic arthritis, more and more vets are prescribing amantadine, an N-Methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonist that works in combination with other drugs to treat chronic pain (see “Amantadine: Now for Relief of Chronic Pain,” WDJ August 2022).
In addition, your veterinarian may recommend the following for dog arthritis relief:
- nutritional supplements
- hydrotherapy (swimming or the use of an underwater treadmill)
- chiropractic adjustments
- regular low-impact exercise
- laser treatments
How to Help a Dog With Arthritis at Home
There are quite a few things you can do at home to help your dog with their arthritis symptoms.
Help your dog lose weight. This sounds simple, but it is one of the most powerful things you can do to help her stay active because being overweight stresses the joints. Foods with high protein and moderate fat levels are better for overweight dogs than typical high-carbohydrate, low-protein weight-loss diets.
Keep your dog hydrated. Dehydration complicates joint problems, so it’s important to provide fresh water in clean bowls at all times. To encourage your dog to drink more water, add small amounts of bone broth or other flavorings.
Provide resting areas with extra padding. Dogs sleep more than people, an estimated 12 to 18 hours a day, and their beds make a difference. Some orthopedic mattresses consist of a memory foam base and a layer of gel memory foam, while others use an egg-crate-shaped orthopedic foam, support foam, or layers of shredded memory foam. Egg-crate memory foam helps keep sleeping dogs from overheating by increasing air circulation.
To be sure your dog’s orthopedic mattress will be a good fit, check the manufacturer’s measurement guidelines and buy the right size. In general, sturdy lightweight materials are easy to clean. For dogs with reduced mobility and possible in-house accidents, beds with waterproof liners and removable, machine washable covers simplify cleanup.
Provide traction. Slick floors, whether polished wood or shiny vinyl, pose health risks to dogs with arthritis. Use carpet or sisal grass runners in hallways or wherever your dog needs traction. Surround his food and water bowls with a rubber-backed rug so he can lower his head to eat or drink without his hind legs slipping out from under him.
Raise the bowl. If your dog has started hesitating at the food bowl or loses his balance as he eats, try a raised feeder. We’re not fans of raised bowls for all dogs, as they have been shown to increase the incidence of bloat, but a raised platform for feeding can help a very arthritic dog reach his food more comfortably.
Keep him moving! Make light but regular exercise part of your dog’s everyday routine. The less an arthritic dog moves, the more muscle mass is lost, and the less stable the joints become. Exercise rebuilds and maintains muscle strength, helps with weight reduction, and improves circulation to affected joints. The goal is to provide the benefits of exercise without overdoing it, as too much exercise can damage the joints, causing pain or injury. The key words here are “slow and steady.” Ask your veterinarian about physical activities that are appropriate for your dog.
Use a harness. Attaching a leash to your dog’s collar can stress the neck muscles and vertebrae. Instead, use a harness and reduce the risk of neck injury by attaching the leash to your dog’s chest or back.
Massage that dog! Arthritis is associated with a lack of lymph circulation, and an effective way to help improve your dog’s condition is with massage. See “10 ways to improve your dog’s lymph circulation,” WDJ January 2022.
Help him up. For dogs with advanced arthritis, climbing stairs or standing up after lying down can be painful. Dog-lift slings or harnesses remove pressure from painful joints by allowing handlers to physically lift the dog’s hindquarters. Ramps and steps help dogs jump into cars or onto the bed or sofa.
Keep him warm. Because cold temperatures can worsen arthritis pain, a sweater, jacket, or heated dog bed can help aching joints feel better in cold weather.
Helpful Supplements to Help a Dog With Arthritis
There are a number of supplements that you can give your dog in addition to the prescription pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory drugs that your veterinarian prescribes.
The most widely recommended supplements for dogs with arthritis are glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). Also known as mucopolysaccharides, these nutraceutical supplements include glucosamine sulfate, glucosamine HCl, and chondroitin sulfate. Sometimes the unprocessed sources of GAG supplements, such as beef cartilage and green-lipped mussels, are used.
“GAGs are important because they actually protect the joint rather than just reduce symptoms by helping rebuild cartilage and restore synovial (joint) fluid,” explains canine health researcher Mary Straus at dogaware.com. “GAGs may also have some preventive effect on arthritis, though this is speculative.”
GAG supplements may be most effective given between meals, though they can be fed with food if needed. “Always start with high doses,” says Straus, “so you will be able to tell whether your dog responds. If you see improvement, reduce the dosage to see if the improvement can be maintained at a lower dose. If you don’t see any improvement within three to four weeks, try another supplement.”
S-adenosylmethione (SAMe, pronounced “SAM-ee”) is a pain-relieving compound found naturally in the body that helps regulate hormones and maintain cell membranes. Products containing 200 mg SAM-e are appropriate for most dogs weighing more than 15 pounds.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a naturally occurring sulfur produced by ocean planktons and which is also found in cow’s milk, meat, sea vegetables, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Sulfur deficiencies result in canine skin and coat problems, poor gastrointestinal and immune responses, joint pain, and arthritis. MSM supplements are sold as powders and capsules with a recommended dose for dogs of 50 to 100 mg per 10 pounds of body weight.
Salmon and other fish oils are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation, in contrast to the omega-6 fatty acids in polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Fish oils contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which block inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins and are converted by the body into powerful anti-inflammatory chemicals called resolvins.
Omega-3 supplements with 300 mg combined EPA and DHA are widely prescribed for dogs. Give up to 1 gelcap per 10 pounds of body weight daily or, if using a product containing 500 mg EPA/DHA, give 1 gelcap per 15 to 20 pounds of body weight daily. Adjust liquid fish oil dosages to 300 mg combined EPA/DHA per 10 pounds of body weight. Higher doses can interfere with platelets and increase bleeding as well as increase rather than reduce inflammation.
“You must supplement with vitamin E whenever you give polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs such as fish oils, as otherwise the body will be depleted of this vitamin,” says Straus. “Give a maximum of 7 international units (IUs) per pound of body weight for small dogs and 3 to 4 IUs per pound for large dogs. You can also give equivalent amounts less often. For example, a dog weighing 100 pounds might get as much as 400 IUs daily, while a 10-pound dog could be given a maximum of 200 IUs every three or four days.”
Pancreatin, bromelain, papain, amylase, protease, and other enzymes are familiar digestive aids that can be added to your dog’s dinner to improve the assimilation of nutrients. Clinical trials and anecdotal reports support the use of digestive enzymes with food, digestive enzymes without food between meals, and enteric-coated enzymes between meals for the treatment of arthritis.
Natural Remedies for Arthritis in Dogs
Can adding herbs to your stiff old dog’s dinner help him run, jump, and play like a puppy? Plants were the original pharmacy for humans and animals, and over thousands of years, cultures around the world developed remedies that remain in use today.
Search the medical literature or the websites of educational organizations like the American Botanical Council (herbalgram.com) and you’ll find many studies examining the effect of medicinal plants on humans with arthritis. But while canine arthritis is a popular veterinary research topic, only a few studies have examined plant-based therapies for dogs.
A 2004 Swiss examination of 29 dogs with degenerative osteoarthritis showed that a resin extract of Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) significantly reduced symptoms and increased mobility in more than 70% of the canine patients.
In 2014, a randomized placebo-controlled trial at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine tested 32 dogs diagnosed with arthritis by x-ray and orthopedic exams. The researchers developed combinations of devil’s claw root (Harpagophytum procumbens), Indian frankincense, and other herbs, and after eight weeks the strength of dogs receiving treatment improved to the equivalent of a kilo of extra strength per paw. None of the treated dogs saw their health decline, unlike 25.8% of the dogs who were given a placebo. In addition, the placebo dogs became less physically active while the treated dogs became significantly more active.
Popular herbal products for dogs with arthritis include those mentioned above plus cannabis (Cannabis sativa), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), turmeric (Curcuma longa), yucca (yucca schidigera), and various Chinese herbal blends. Most pet supply stores and natural food markets sell a variety of herbal products for pets and so do online retailers.
To discover which products work best for your dog, follow label directions and complete one course of treatment (typically four to six weeks) before starting another candidate treatment. Take notes about your dog’s arthritis symptoms, such as her willingness or ability to get in the car or jump up on the couch, or how long it takes her to get on her feet after a nap, before beginning a new remedy and again at weekly intervals.
Another good way to track the effectiveness of a new product is to take a video of your dog walking, turning, or playing before and after a course of treatment.
Evaluating The Options to Treat Your Dog’s Arthritis
With dozens of alternatives to choose from, it’s hard to decide what to try for your dog. In 2009 the journal veterinary record assessed the efficacy of therapies used in the management of canine osteoarthrosis based on 68 papers published in peer-reviewed journals. The studies found strong evidence for the efficacy of NSAIDs in treating osteoarthritis. There was moderate support for the efficacy of glycosaminoglycan polysulphate (the injectable drug Adequan), elk antler velvet, and a food containing green-lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus, a natural source of GAGs).
In contrast, the studies found weak or no evidence to support the use of many other treatments. None of the reports offered final answers about what works and what doesn’t, and all of them concluded that additional research is needed.
This review accurately reflects the lack of well-designed research examining the effectiveness of treatments for arthritis in dogs. As new products and procedures are developed, we who love our arthritic dogs will continue to experiment with treatments and combinations of treatments that help our dogs stay active and pain-free through old age.