Telltale Signs of Arthritis in Dogs

Is your pooch less excited about exercise than usual? Are they missing that pep in their step when they hear you pick up the leash?

December 19th, 2019

Arthritis is a very common condition in humans and dogs alike.

In fact, 20% of all dogs have arthritis, and about 65% of dogs above the age of 7 have arthritis.

Yikes… that’s pretty disheartening to hear. We hate to see our dogs suffer.

A dog wearing a red Disney Christmas bandana posing in front of some red plants.

To view it from a more positive light, arthritis is a naturally developing condition caused by years of wear and tear on your dog’s joints.

So actually, all of us will get arthritis eventually, if we’re lucky to live long enough!

But let’s talk about the telltale signs of arthritis in dogs for a moment. Because like any other health condition, it’ll always pay off to discover problems early.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a good hunch as to whether or not your dog has arthritis.

What is Arthritis?

Simply put, arthritis is joint inflammation. How does that inflammation occur?

Bones are actually covered with a thin layer of smooth cartilage. Some joint fluid (called “synovial fluid”) keeps the cartilage lubricated whenever the joint is being used, so the bones can rub against each other smoothly.

Over time, however, the cartilage begins to deteriorate. This causes friction and pain in joints.

Arthritis most commonly targets a dog’s knees, hips, shoulders, and elbows. It is a chronic illness, and there is no known cure.

However, through proper weight control, exercise management, and medication, arthritis can be effectively managed.

Types of Arthritis in Dogs

Most sources agree that there are two main types of arthritis: osteoarthritis, and inflammatory joint disease.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the degeneration of cartilage in the joints as we discussed above. Because of this, it’s also known as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD).

OA is a common, progressive condition that occurs due to old age, injury, stress, or disease.

Diseases such as hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia fit under OA. Joint dysplasia is genetic, and involves malformation of the joint in addition to the symptoms of arthritis.

Inflammatory Joint Disease

Unlike osteoarthritis, inflammatory joint disease isn’t caused by cartilage breakdown. Rather, this form of arthritis comes from bacterial, fungal, or tick-borne diseases.

Here, it’s possible that multiple joints get simultaneously affected due to internal spread of the disease.

It can also be the result of an inherent immune system flaw.

Other Types of Arthritis in Dogs

There are three other rarer types of arthritis as mentioned in this article (8): metabolic (bleeding in joints), crystalloid (crystals forming in joints), and neoplastic (joint cancer).

The Telltale Signs of Arthritis in Dogs

Now that we know what we’re up against, let’s figure out if your dog has or is developing arthritis.

Again, because of just how prevalent arthritis is, this is a very valuable skill you can develop as a dog owner. Diagnosing arthritis early can help your pet live longer.

A dog standing, posing in front of a foggy lake.

Lethargy: “My Dog is Slowing Down”

Is your pooch less excited about exercise than usual?

Are they missing that pep in their step when they hear you pick up the leash?

Do they seem to prefer not going out altogether?

A dog that’s “slowing down” is a classic sign of arthritis. Heck, if it hurts to move, I’d dread being “dragged” out for exercise too!

Perhaps your dog is still willing to go for walks, but gets tired a lot faster than usual.

Do they suddenly sit or lay down in the middle of the sidewalk? Do you find yourself having to cut walks short?

A dog looking off to the side, sitting on a grassy patch filled with yellow leaves.

These are all telltale behavioral signs that your dog may have arthritis.

Limping and Lameness

Ah, here’s an obvious one. It’s pretty easy to notice a limping dog.

If your dog is teetering from side to side when they walk, it could be due to muscle strain and overuse… but arthritis is another possibility.

Arthritic dogs will limp frequently over long periods of time.

Your dog doesn’t have to be walking for you to notice something’s off. Even while standing or sitting still, your dog may exhibit lameness by shifting more of his weight to one side/limb.

In any case, limping and/or lameness is abnormal no matter what the root cause. Make sure to see a vet!

Stiffness, Especially Following Rest

Following the last point about limping, a common sign of arthritis is when a dog limps a lot more noticeably just after resting. This could be due to stiffness in the affected joints.

Dog owners also often report how the limping tends to get less severe as the day goes on, as if the joint needed “warming up.”

This makes sense, as movement increases blood circulation to the joints.

Pain or Irritability When Petted or Touched

We’re all used to the happy dog wagging his tail whenever he gets petted.

However, an arthritic dog tends to find petting more irritable.

They can bark, or even try to bite you when you try to touch them.

This could happen in any everyday activity that involves physically touching your pet, from brushing their fur to simply trying to put on their collar.

So if your pet’s feeling snappy, maybe they’re experiencing arthritis.

Irregular Posture

Apart from affecting the major joints, arthritis can also affect the back and neck. In such cases, hunching over is another common dog arthritis symptom.

In general, any irregular posture your dog should raise a red flag.

Other awkward postures include holding their head at odd angles, or sitting while eating and drinking.

More Accidents

Is your dog having one too many oopsies?

Irregular posture can extend to difficulty urinating and defecating, leading to more accidents in the house.

Difficulty Getting Up or Laying Down

Is your dog slow to rise up from a resting position? Or are they more careful when they go from a stand or sit into a lay down?

Is the problem even worse when the floor is slippery?

Certain less subtle signs could include circling repeatedly around before laying down, or remaining standing for long periods of time and refusing to sit or lay down.

Moving Vertically is More Difficult Too

Maybe your superstar dog used to jump hurdles and catch frisbees out of the air like it was a piece of cake. Now, they’re not even willing to hop onto the couch for some evening cuddles.

Arthritic dogs will have more difficulty with activities that involve vertical movement. This includes jumping (in and out of a car, for example), as well as going up and down stairs.

Constantly Licking Affected Joints

Yeah, your dog knows when something is up with her joints.

Often, a dog will lick an affected joint repeatedly to try and relieve the pain themselves.

A dog licking her nose, sitting in front of the Seattle Space Needle.

Even if you can’t catch your dog in the act of licking, they still leave evidence! For example, if the area is moist, you can be sure it’s probably from licking.

Repeated licking can also cause hair loss in the area and crusting on the skin surface.

Physical Changes in Affected Joints: Weight Gain, Muscle Loss

This one may not show itself until the arthritis has become more severe.

Some of the most common effects of arthritis are weight gain and muscle loss as a result of reduced exercise.

There is a term, muscle wasting, used to describe the shrinking of muscles (atrophy) next to an affected joint.

Physical changes also include joint swelling.

My Dog Just Ain’t Doin’ Right.

Fun fact: When vets take notes, they often write “ADR,” which stands for “Ain’t Doing Right.”

According to this article from VetStreet, it’s official vet shorthand for a pet that’s just not acting like themselves.

As your dog’s owner, you know when your dog ain’t doing right.

Maybe they’ve lost their appetite or interest in their favorite treats. Perhaps they’ve become restless or are starting to sleep much more than usual.

It’s good to bring up any behavioral changes in your dog during your next vet visit.

A dog wearing a Mickey Mouse harness, looking over her shoulder.

Predisposed Factors

Finally, let’s talk about some factors that can increase your dog’s risk for arthritis.

If your dog fits any of the following predisposed factors, keep a watchful eye for any arthritis symptoms!

  • Large breeds: German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Golden Retrievers or any large breed in general is considered more at risk for arthritis, just due to their sheer size.
  • Obesity: an overweight dog will have more stress on their joints.
  • Poor nutrition: Certain foods can cause inflammation; others should be avoided in a healthy dog diet in general. Controversial ingredients commonly found in dog food include grains, corn, and other artificial additives.
  • Age: What age do dogs typically get arthritis? Technically, any dog can, but it starts being a real issue in middle-aged to senior dogs (aged 5 and up). Early arthritis is certainly possible, especially in predisposed breeds.
  • Genetics: For example, certain breeds such as Labrador Retrievers are more susceptible to hip dysplasia than others.
  • Energy Level: Highly active dogs that require lots of exercise are slightly more at risk, especially those that are also larger breeds, such as Samoyeds.

Injury/Stress from Athletic Activities: If your dog engaged or currently engages in athletic activities such as agility, flyball, or dock diving, this makes your dog more predisposed to arthritis.

At The Vet: Possible Diagnosis Methods

If you’ve noticed a couple of the symptoms above and suspect your dog has arthritis, don’t wait! Go see a vet now.

After you bring up your concerns, there are a couple ways vets typically confirm diagnosis.

They’ll probably start with a physical examination. This means feeling out the joint, assessing its range of motion, and looking for any painful reactions from your dog.

An X-Ray to observe the joint can rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms.

A number of more specific tests may be conducted depending on your pet’s history. For example, antibody/antigen tests may be used to see if your pet has been affected by tick-borne diseases.

This makes it all the more important that you share everything you know about your pet’s health history with your vet when discussing possible arthritis.

An infographic describing some common signs of arthritis in dogs.

Conclusion

Hopefully now, you have a better idea of whether or not your dog has arthritis. If you felt like your dog was in line with at least one of the symptoms above, schedule a vet visit pronto.

Arthritis can range from mild to severe, and catching it when it is still manageable can make for a more comfortable recovery for your pet.

Soon, we’ll write an article detailing treatment processes and preventative steps you can take to delay arthritis as long as possible, if you’ve got a young puppy.

Be sure to follow along @yunathelab on Instagram and TikTok for more updates!

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