Signs of arthritis in dogs can start subtly. Even the most proactive pet parent may chalk symptoms up to normal aging or “slowing down.” But as the condition progresses, the symptoms progress too, and end-stage arthritis can be completely debilitating. Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby sheds light on the signs of arthritis in dogs—from early to late-stage arthritis—so you’re prepared to work with your vet and help your dog.
Is your senior dog slowing down? Many dog owners attribute this to normal aging and don’t think twice about it. But what if I told you that this change in behavior is one of the signs of arthritis in dogs?
If your internet search history includes, “how to tell if my dog has arthritis,” read on for my top ten signs of dog arthritis, and how arthritis can be diagnosed and managed.
What is arthritis in dogs?
We hear the word “arthritis” all the time, whether relating to humans or our pets. But what does the word really mean? The term encompasses pain, inflammation, and stiffness of the joints.
Arthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage that lubricates joints and allows them to move smoothly.
Arthritis is very common in dogs and worsens with age. According to the Veterinary Information Network, up to 25% of dogs will be diagnosed with arthritis in their lifetime, and as many as 60% have evidence of arthritis on X-rays.
There are two main forms of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition. Osteoarthritis (OA), also called degenerative joint disease (DJD), is the natural breakdown of cartilage in joints over time. Osteoarthritis can be primary (related to old age and typical wear and tear on joints) or secondary (related to a previous injury to a joint, birth deformity, or prior orthopedic surgery). This article will focus on osteoarthritis in dogs, although signs of OA and RA can overlap.
What are the signs of arthritis in dogs?
Signs of arthritis in dogs are often subtle and can even start in younger dogs. Initially, you may only notice that your dog is reluctant to get out of bed in the morning or go for long walks. An arthritic dog may have difficulty navigating stairs and jumping onto furniture. Maybe your Labrador Retriever is avoiding going for swims.
As arthritis progresses, your dog may be very stiff throughout the day, take short, choppy steps, and struggle to get up and down. End-stage arthritis can lead to the inability to stand at all.
Let’s take a deeper look at each of the top ten signs of arthritis in dogs so that you can be your dog’s early detection system.
Top 10 signs of arthritis in dogs
Because early signs of arthritis can be so subtle, it’s important that we as pet parents monitor our dogs for behavior and movement changes. Even with treatment, arthritis is a progressive condition, but early treatment can slow the progression.
Let’s take a look at 10 signs of arthritis in dogs to watch for.
1. Reluctance to move
Dogs with arthritis hurt. Moving stiff joints increases osteoarthritis pain. Arthritic dogs often move less as OA progresses.
You may notice your dog jumping on and off furniture less, hesitating before climbing into the car or becoming less enthusiastic about a game of fetch. This is usually the type of “slowing down” I hear about from pet parents that is often my first clue to start to look for arthritis somewhere.
2. Difficulty rising
Dogs with arthritis may be slow to rise after resting. Holding arthritic joints in one position during sleep can make it difficult to stretch them out when they first wake up.
This sign may be especially evident in large-breed dogs (who are already more prone to arthritis). With a larger body mass to raise, arthritic joints may have a harder time simply fighting gravity. If you notice your older dog rising more slowly after sleeping, arthritis may be the cause.
3. Stiffness after resting
One of the earliest and most subtle signs of arthritis is a dog who appears stiff after lying down for some time. Not only can it take more time to get up, but also once the dog is up he or she may have “creaky joints” for a bit.
Arthritic dogs appear stiff because they are! Just like people may feel a little sore or have stiff joints when first waking up, arthritic dogs may take a bit to “get going” after a rest. Pay close attention to how your dog moves after he or she first gets up from sleeping.
4. Difficulty going up and down stairs
Navigating stairs uses different muscles than walking on flat ground. It moves joints in different ways and may require more effort for dogs with osteoarthritis. Reluctance to go up stairs especially is often one of the early signs of arthritis in dogs’ back legs, because going up puts most of their weight on their back end.
If he or she is developing arthritis, your dog may take stairs more slowly/delicately, or avoid them altogether.
5. Change in stride
Arthritis limits the range of motion of affected joints. Because we often see arthritis in older dogs’ hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders, this reduced range of motion can change the way they walk and run. Arthritis in dogs may manifest as a short, choppy gait, a slower walk, and a smaller stride when running.
6. Exercise intolerance
What is “exercise intolerance?” I don’t mean that the dog is lazy; this is different from my desire to hit the snooze button when I set my alarm to work out in the morning. Exercise intolerance refers to a dog seeming reluctant to do daily activities he or she previously enjoyed.
Wanting to call it quits halfway through a normal walk, being less enthusiastic about swimming, or preferring an extra nap over a hike may be signs of joint pain. If Fido used to walk a mile every day and now is trying to turn toward home a half mile in, arthritis is topping my list of possible causes.
7. Licking, chewing, or biting the sore or inflamed joint
Licking a joint is an inconsistent and variable sign of arthritis in dogs. Some do it, but many don’t. So just because a dog is not licking or chewing on a joint doesn’t mean it isn’t painful. Also, some arthritic joints can be hard to reach, like the hips. But sometimes excessive licking or even fur color change from salivary staining over a joint can be a clue that that spot hurts.
It is important to note that excessive licking does not necessarily indicate pain. Licking, especially paw licking, is often a sign of allergies in dogs.
8. Whining or groaning
Some dogs will vocalize due to arthritis pain. I say some because not all dogs will, and I’ve heard a lot of people insist that their dog is not painful because he or she is not whining or crying. This is not true! I often tell these clients that I broke my arm years ago. I didn’t cry all day every day while it healed, but it sure hurt! A lack of vocalization does not mean a lack of pain.
Along those lines, all whining or crying in dogs does not come from pain. Dogs can vocalize from anxiety (including senior dog anxiety at night), stress, boredom, etc. Some dogs are just more vocal than others—looking at you, Huskies!
Dogs who whine or groan due to arthritis pain often do so with exertion—rising from lying down, going up or down stairs, jumping on or off furniture. It makes sense that dogs will be more likely to vocalize when doing things that hurt.
9. Sensitivity to touch
If something on my body hurts, I don’t want anyone to touch it. That makes sense, right?
Painful dogs are often guarded around the areas that hurt. Many dogs with hind limb arthritis are very sensitive to their rear ends being touched. Sometimes this sensitivity lessens with pain management, but sometimes it’s a learned response and dogs may still avoid certain places being touched even once we’ve relieved their arthritis pain.
This sign is very important to watch for because dogs with arthritis pain can be more likely to bite. Dogs do not naturally just become more grouchy with age; many of these “old and cranky” dogs are painful!
As a mom, I’m hypervigilant about this sign of arthritis, because often the victims of these bites are children. Kids aren’t always able to recognize or respect subtle signs of pain and aren’t always the best about affording dogs (or people) space.
These are not bad dogs, and these bites are not their fault. They hurt, someone is invading their space and touching painful parts of their body, and their cues telling people to back off are unnoticed or ignored. This is a perfect storm that could lead to a bite.
We want to make sure that we observe earlier signs of sensitivity to touch so it doesn’t progress to a situation where a dog feels his or her only option left is to bite.
10. Muscle atrophy in hips and back legs
The most common place I see osteoarthritis in dogs is in the hind legs. Arthritis is often associated with hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament injury, or other joint diseases affecting the hind limbs. When I examine dogs that I think may be suffering from arthritis, I always look at them from the back end. This allows me to notice any asymmetry between the muscles of the back legs, and to detect any muscle atrophy.
Feeling the muscles of the hind legs and testing range of motion during my physical exam is another way to look for signs of osteoarthritis.
Just like exercise helps to build muscle, disuse causes atrophy. When a dog has stiff, painful joints, he or she will move them less. Muscle mass is very much “use it or lose it.” When dogs move less—guarding themselves from arthritic pain—their muscles will shrink.
Muscle atrophy takes time. We generally see the other signs earlier in the progression of arthritis, so it’s very important to pay attention to those changes to catch OA early. Marked muscle wasting is generally a sign of advanced or end-stage arthritis in dogs.
What is end-stage arthritis in dogs?
Even with treatment, arthritis is a progressive disease. It will eventually get worse and can progress to advanced or end-stage arthritis.
Signs of end-stage arthritis in dogs
To some extent, signs of end-stage arthritis are just more pronounced or more frequent occurrences of the signs we already discussed. A dog may be stiff for longer after rising or may call it quits on a walk sooner. Since you likely live with your dog every day, it can be hard to notice subtle progression over time, but your vet can help make notes of where your dog is in the stages of arthritis.
More severe, end-stage arthritis also causes some additional signs. These may include:
- Limping—potentially not always on the same leg
- Shifting weight when standing—dogs with hind limb arthritis often put more of their weight on their front legs
- Difficulty posturing to pee or poop, sometimes potty accidents
- Severe difficulty or inability to rise from lying down
- Shuffling gait
- Falling when walking or standing
Like with many diseases, signs of end-stage arthritis can be variable and inconsistent. It’s very important to pay attention to your dog’s clinical signs and check in with your vet frequently for evaluations and treatment adjustments.
Unfortunately, severe arthritis can progress to the point that it impacts a pet’s quality of life. If a dog is unable to rise or walk without significant pain, the pet parent may need to consider when to euthanize a dog with arthritis.
How is arthritis in dogs diagnosed?
Your vet will use a combination of information from you, physical exam findings, and diagnostic tests to determine whether your dog has arthritis, and how severe it is.
What to expect at the vet: Diagnosing arthritis in dogs
First and foremost your vet will take a history—a valuable part of every medical appointment, but especially critical when the patients can’t speak for themselves. Your veterinarian will ask you questions such as:
- How long has the problem been going on?
- What symptoms have you observed in your dog?
- Have you tried any treatments? If so, what was the outcome?
- When are your dog’s symptoms at their best? Worst?
- Has your dog experienced any injuries—current or past?
Next, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination (PE). This will include a “nose-to-tail” hands-on evaluation. Typically, this will include taking your dog’s weight and getting your dog’s vital signs. The veterinarian will check your dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, and lymph nodes, listen to the heart and lungs, and palpate the abdomen.
Your vet may then focus specifically on your dog’s limbs and joints. This involves feeling the muscles of the legs and back, pressing on certain areas to check for pain, and testing range of motion of the joints. Although any joint in the body can become arthritic, the most common location for arthritis in dogs is in the hips and hind legs.
Often, symptoms of arthritis in dogs’ hind legs will include some degree of muscle wasting around the hips and back legs. This can be subtle in the early stages of canine arthritis, so it takes a trained eye to see it.
Your vet will look for a change in gait
A gait exam should be next. I often take my client and patient into the hallway or out to the parking lot for this. I tell them to pretend they are at Westminster as I observe the dog walk and trot. In this way, I can assess for subtle changes in gait to help localize pain.
The physical exam and history are step one. Diagnostics generally come next.
Arthritis in dogs: X-rays and more testing
Diagnostic tests, like X-rays, are an important piece of the puzzle in diagnosing arthritis and ruling out other causes of pain or lameness. Your veterinarian may test for tick-borne disease in dogs, which can manifest in painful joints and limping. Blood tests can also be important to check organ function before starting treatment for arthritis in dogs.
Arthritis often manifests in the dog’s hips
One of the most common places for dogs to develop arthritis is in the hips, often as a result of hip dysplasia in dogs. In the X-ray below, you can see a dog’s hip joints. The hips are a “ball and socket” joint where the femurs connect to the pelvis.
Some of the common changes we see on X-rays of dogs with hip arthritis include:
- Osteophytes and enthesophytes (bone spurs)
- Flattening of the femoral head
- Thickened femoral neck
- Subluxation (partial dislocation) of the femoral head (the “ball” in the ball and socket joint)
Can arthritis in dogs be cured?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis, so long-term treatment goals aim to improve your dog’s mobility and manage joint pain. Your veterinarian will offer solutions that best fit your dog’s needs. A multi-modal approach to relieving arthritis pain in dogs may include:
- Medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Joint supplements for dogs, such as glucosamine and chondroitin
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Physical therapy exercises
- Laser therapy
- Adequan injections
- Stem cell therapy
Other important factors for managing arthritis involve environmental/lifestyle changes. Possibly the most important key to improving joint health is to make sure to maintain a healthy weight. The more weight a dog is carrying, the more stress is placed on the joints. This added stress increases wear and tear on already vulnerable joints.
Dogs who experience difficulty rising due to arthritis can also benefit from help with traction. ToeGrips® dog nail grips are great for giving arthritic dogs a little boost getting up and around on slippery floors.
Can you use over-the-counter meds for arthritic dogs?
The good news is that there are many approaches to arthritis management to make your beloved canine more comfortable and mobile! However, medicating your dog with over-the-counter pain medications is not recommended for these three reasons:
- Despite what you may find on Google, many of the OTC medications we take for pain—such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and aspirin—can be dangerous or even lethal for your dog. Even for OTC meds that are safe for dogs, the doses are not always the same as those for humans. Your vet is your best resource for knowing what OTC meds you can give to your dear dog.
- Some OTC pain medications can interact with other OTC or prescription medications. Many of these interactions require a “washout period” of being off of one drug for some time before starting another. I can’t tell you the number of times my treatment options for my patients have been limited because well-meaning pet parents gave OTC anti-inflammatories before coming to see me. This is frustrating for me and my clients and can mean less effective treatment for my patient, so it’s best to hold off on medications until talking to your vet.
- While I don’t want my patients to suffer in pain, that initial pain is very helpful for me to make a diagnosis. If pain is masked by OTC pain medications, I may be unable to evaluate that pain on a physical exam.
Keep an eye out for the signs of arthritis
You know your dog best. If you notice some subtle signs of arthritis, make an appointment for your vet to take a look at your pooch. Paying attention to small changes can make a big difference in arthritis management. The earlier we catch it and start therapy, the more we can slow the progression and give our dear dogs long, happy, pain-free lives.
Have you seen signs of arthritis in dogs?
Please comment below. We can all learn from each other.