Osteoarthritis in dogs: signs and treatment

Dr. Ailsa Rutherford
6 min readMay 16, 2022

Have you recently noticed your older canine companion sprouting some new gray hairs, or maybe they’ve been slowing down on your daily walk? Age is an all too common issue in humans and dogs as it’s an inevitable occurrence, but is there any way that you can help your dog’s aging joints and body?

If you’re looking for ways to combat osteoarthritis or you’re simply wondering what the signs and symptoms are for those dogs that may be suffering from joint pain, then keep reading to find out how you can put that pep back into your old dog’s step.

Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash

What is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?

Osteoarthritis, or OA, is the most common form of arthritis and affects over 25% of the geriatric canine population. OA is characterized by degeneration of the joint due to mechanical wear and tear, leading to a loss of joint cartilage and therefore increased friction causing inflammation, pain and lameness associated with that area. This process is referred to as degenerative joint disease (DJD), leading to osteoarthritis (OA).

If you want to get really technical, here is a breakdown of some of the science behind OA and how it affects your dog’s joints.

  • The ends of our bones have a specialized cushiony layer of articular cartilage that is protected by a second layer of membrane called the synovium. Inside the joints is an oily fluid called synovial fluid, which helps to minimize friction, thus reducing wear and tear.
  • Over time, through years of movement, the articular cartilage gets worn down. The fibrous tissue and ligaments that bind the joints together also become less flexible with age, which means the surfaces of the bones are moving in ways that can cause more wear and tear. As the cartilage wears down the surface is not as smooth, which leads to increased friction and subsequent inflammation and pain. This inflammation in turn further wears down the cartilage.
  • Articular cartilage has little capacity to regrow, so instead the body starts to try to repair the articular surface by laying down extra bone cells (osteocytes) to fill the areas where joint cartilage has been lost. This process is called remodeling.
  • The new bone is not as smooth as the original articular cartilage that was there, so the friction is increased, and this adds to the vicious cycle of inflammation, pain and further degeneration of the joint.

Osteoarthritis can also become a problem if a dog was born with a skeletal abnormality, such as hip or elbow dysplasia or luxating patellae (knee caps). In these cases, the joint was either abnormally shaped or there is too much laxity to the joint socket itself, leading to increased wear and tear earlier in life leading to debilitating OA.

What is the Difference Between Arthritis and Osteoarthritis in Dogs?

Arthritis means inflammation of the joint. Osteoarthritis is the particular type of arthritis caused by mechanical degeneration of the joint as a result of wear and tear or an abnormal or damaged joint.

It is very common for active and athletic dogs to suffer from osteoarthritis, especially in areas of the body that saw a lot of impact such as the knees, elbows and hips. Besides chronic wear and tear, there are other reasons why your dog may be suffering from osteoarthritis, such as their genetics, breed, weight, gender, exercise levels and their diet.

What are the Signs of Osteoarthritis In Dogs?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis can be subtle and sometimes non-specific. It is important to have a veterinarian perform a physical exam to interpret the condition of your dog’s joints and body. Most often, the signs associated with OA are:

  • Change in activity: limping, excessive licking over a joint, stiffness, inability to jump, decrease in overall activity.
  • Change in personality: clinginess, hiding or even acting aggressive can be signs of pain and osteoarthritis.
  • Change in physical appearance: osteoarthritis can cause swelling over the affected joint as well as a firmness, where the body has attempted to repair the area with tissue and bone formation. Muscles may also be wasting (atrophying) as they are less active due to pain.

How Can I Help My Senior Dogs Hip and Joint Pain?

As our dog’s body and joints age, we can always expect to see changes in their activity levels and exercise routine. However, it is important that you keep a regular activity schedule without overworking your geriatric dog’s stressed joints. Besides light exercise, there are a number of other options for controlling your dog’s pain and bringing them some relief from osteoarthritis.

  • An appropriate exercise routine: Light exercise is key. These older dogs aren’t going to be doing any impressive feats of athleticism, so just let them go on their leisurely walk and save the big stunts for the younger pups.
  • Weight control and management: Whether your dog was already on the heavy end of the veterinary Body Condition Score, or you want to keep them from gaining weight, it’s important to understand how negatively unnecessary pounds can affect their joints and their overall quality of life.
  • Rehabilitation: Rehab is an excellent resource for dogs that suffer from chronic joint pain and osteoarthritis. There is hydrotherapy, which involves gentle exercise through swimming, or even doggy massage! Don’t forget about the impressive medical benefits of cold laser therapy and even acupuncture or chiropractic care.
  • Pain control: Pain control can be managed by prescription medications such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and opioids. Pentosan Polysulphate injections may provide some pain relief as well as helping to protect and rebuild joint surfaces. Acupuncture can also be very helpful to manage pain.
  • Joint supplements: Joint supplements are a wonderful addition to any dog’s daily routine. Supplements containing Glucosamine and Chondroitin help to protect and rebuild your dog’s geriatric joints. Hemp seed oil can help by providing anti-inflammatory support.
  • Assistance around the home: There are many ways to improve your arthritic dog’s routine around the house. The first recommendation is to make sure that they have a bed that is orthopedic and provides plenty of cushion for their joints. Keep their bed away from parts of the home that are cold or drafty. Ramps are also a helpful way to assist your dog with getting up and down off of furniture or into a vehicle. Making floors non-slip by putting mats or rugs down where your dog walks. Raising food and water bowls so your dog doesn’t have to bend down too far.

How Hemp Seed Oil Can Improve Your Dog’s Mobility

Another option out there for joint pain is the use of hemp seed oil in dogs. How does hemp seed oil help? Well, it has an impressive secret weapon called GLA, or gamma-linolenic acid, which is a natural anti-inflammatory fatty acid. Hemp seed oil is one of the very few natural sources of GLA available!

For senior dogs or those suffering from chronic joint inflammation, GLA is essential. Deficiency in GLA leads to increased and ongoing inflammation and immune dysfunction. Dogs can usually get GLA through their diet by converting linoleic acid (LA) to GLA, but this conversion requires a specific enzyme (D6D) and five key nutrients (magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin B3 and vitamin B6), all of which are abundant in hemp seed oil.

Your pooch probably gets enough of these five nutrients from their food to support the GLA synthesis, but if there is any doubt or you would like extra support for your aging dog’s joints, then you could consider hemp seed oil as a daily dietary supplement.

Conclusion: Helping Your Senior Dog’s Osteoarthritis

As we all know, aging is an inevitable occurrence in life, but there are ways to make it better for us and our dogs. Looking into options on how you can improve your dog’s overall quality of life with moderate exercise, veterinary care and natural health supplements is key to supporting their joint health and vitality.

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Dr. Ailsa Rutherford

Senior practicing veterinarian. Member of the Australia and New Zealand College of Veterinary Surgeons in Emergency. Head of Animal Health at Buddy Pet P/L.