Dog Joint Health: Pain, Osteoarthritis, and Other Joint Problems

WebMD veterinary expert answers commonly asked questions about joint problems in dogs.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM

Dogs' joints take a pounding, from running after tennis balls to jumping off the back deck. And for some dogs, that's a problem. More use means more injuries and can lead to joint-related problems such as ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears and osteoarthritis. WebMD talked with James L. “Jimi” Cook, the director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri-Columbia, about canine joint problems and what's new in their treatment.

Q: What causes osteoarthritis or joint problems in dogs?

A: The two major categories of joint problems are developmental and degenerative problems. With developmental problems, you have things like hip or elbow dysplasia, where the joint does not develop correctly in a number of different ways.

Degenerative problems cover a number of areas. But the most common, and the most common cause of arthritis in dogs, is cruciate ligament problems, where the ligament is degenerating over time and causing instability and secondary osteoarthritis.

Q: What are the signs of joint problems?

A: Most of the time, people notice that their dogs are doing less or having more difficulty with common activities. The dog now has problems getting up on the couch, or going up the stairs, or getting in the back of the SUV. With more athletic dogs, maybe they can't run as long with their owner, or they don't want to play as long at the dog park.

From there it progresses to overt lameness -- holding the limb up, or holding the limb funny. Those are the most common things we see. Rarely do we see overt pain as the first complaint. Usually it's a slower process.

Q: Are some breeds more prone to joint injuries?

A: In general, increased size and weight is always a predisposer of joint problems. So the poster children for both developmental and degenerative problems are going to be the bigger dogs.

But for certain things, there are very breed-specific problems. Newfoundlands have the highest prevalence of cruciate ligament disease of all breeds. Rottweilers have more knee and ankle problems. Bernese Mountain dogs commonly get elbow dysplasia.

Q: It seems more dogs now are having treatments for joint problems. Are there more problems, or are we simply treating them more often?

A: We have improved diagnostics and improved health care. People pay more attention to their dogs and seek care earlier and more often. And a portion of it is a breeding issue. Breeders are breeding for the traits they want. But that can breed in other traits that aren't so desirable, such as the orthopedic problems.

Q: What are the common treatments for osteoarthritis or joint problems?

A: It varies. We typically divide it into surgical and non-operative treatments. Surgical treatments can range from arthroscopic cleaning of a joint all the way up to total joint replacement.

On the non-surgical side, we look at several things. First and foremost, and the one that has the most effect on the non-surgical side, is weight management and body condition. We're trying to get the dogs to an ideal weight so we decrease the stresses on the joints. We also actually decrease the inflammation because fat is a source of inflammation in the joints.

With body condition, we're trying to get the dogs' strength built up. That's because the muscle mass and muscle function will help protect the joints and help the overall function as well.

Then there are various types of medications, foods, and food additives. For drugs, there are anti-inflammatories, analgesics, and pain relievers.

In foods, we now have companies making quality foods that are formulated for joint health. They already have some of the additives in there, like fish oils, which help decrease inflammation, and glucosamine/chondroitin.

Q: Is surgery always required, or are there other ways to treat joint injuries?

A: Physical therapy -- professional, scientifically based programs with a rehabilitationist -- is really exploding with dogs. Most academic centers and a lot of your big private practices will have certified rehabilitationists in their practices now. The therapy can include underwater treadmills, ultrasound therapy, and electric stimulation. All the stuff we think about with human PT, they're applying to horses and dogs as well.

Q: As a researcher, what advancements do you see coming that will help our dogs recover faster or heal more completely?

A: Rehab is really taking off, and there are a lot of studies under way to determine the best protocols for different problems.

The food companies are doing a lot of research on potential additives that can help with both inflammation and degradation or degeneration of joints.

On the surgical side, we're seeing a lot more minimally invasive procedures, such as the arthroscopic repairs and treatments and biological treatments, meaning different types of injections or replacements of tissues. We can grow a new joint replacement through tissue engineering now. Or we can take cartilage grafts from healthy cartilage, either from the same dog or from an organ donor dog.

Q: Should I limit my dog's activity if he has joint problems?

A: I would limit it until you get a good diagnosis and a plan with your veterinarian. If there's a problem that causes instability, you can do a lot more harm to the joints. But in the long run, we want to get activity back. So we have to figure out if we need surgery to do that or if it can be done with non-surgical methods.

Q: What can I do to help prevent joint injuries in my dog?

A: If you're buying a puppy, especially if you're buying a purebred puppy, check out the health problems in that breed, and check out that specific dog's lineage. Most of these things have some hereditary component. A good breeder will have all that information. Many will volunteer it. But you certainly have the right to ask. And you should ask, especially if you're interested in one of the larger breeds that are already associated with joint problems.

And if you don't care about breed, buy a mutt. With a mutt, you're going to have the best chance of not having those kinds of joint problems. The genetic diversity really seems to limit orthopedic problems overall.

The next step is keeping your dog at the right weight and in good body condition throughout its life. Good food, exercise, and keeping them lean and in good condition are key with any dog.

Have your veterinarian evaluate your dog's joints at least every year to see what's going on. A lot of these things we can prevent from becoming a big problem if we catch it early enough. We can work on strengthening the body and avoid surgery altogether.

Q: Are there any vitamins or additives I can give my dog to help with joint problems?

A: Yes. But you really want to consult with your veterinarian so you're sure you're spending your money on the right things. Studies have shown that some of the additives, like glucosamine/chondroitin, help when there's arthritis present. It's not a preventative; it's not going to cure the joint. But it's a good supplement when used with other parts of the non-surgical management or the post-operative management. It can slow down the progression of osteoarthritis.

Then there are things like fish oils, which actually are anti-inflammatory and generally have fewer side effects than medications. But only use those additives that have some science, some evidence behind them, showing that they work.