Realization might come the day your dog needs help to get into the car, or when he can’t get up the stairs or slips in the kitchen. You might realize it when your former retrieving fool sadly watches his ball sail to the far end of the field and lies down instead of chasing it. Canine arthritis can sneak up on you, but when it arrives, it can greatly impact your dog’s life if left untreated.

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a painful, progressively destructive and debilitating disorder. Initially, damage to the joint cartilage reduces its ability to cushion and causes the death of cartilage-producing cells. This starts a cycle of continuing damage, impairment and increasing pain. According to the Arthritis Foundation, one in every five adult dogs in the U.S. is affected, and arthritis is one of the most common sources of chronic pain that veterinarians treat. It typically happens due to abnormal stress on the joints, physical abnormalities, injuries, age-related wear on the joints, developmental disorders or congenital problems such as hip or elbow dysplasia.

The sooner you realize something is wrong with your furry friend, the sooner you’ll be able to develop a plan to keep him pain free, so recognize the warning signs of DJD. These include favoring a limb; difficulty sitting or standing; sleeping more; stiffness or soreness; hesitancy to run, jump or climb stairs; difficulty getting onto furniture or into the car; weight gain; decreased activity or interest in play; attitude or behavior changes or overall being less alert.

If your dog seems to have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, take him to your veterinarian for an evaluation. Your vet will give him a physical exam and possibly do some x-rays. Don’t assume that because your dog is a puppy he can’t be impacted by DJD. Even if he doesn’t have arthritis, similar conditions could be affecting him. My rescued lab Molly was diagnosed with hip and elbow dysplasia at just 4 months of age.

If your dog is diagnosed with DJD, you and your vet need to work together to develop an effective treatment plan. Often, you’ll need to incorporate several different treatment tactics.

Diet and exercise are critical elements in helping your arthritic dog. Dogs suffering from DJD should be kept on the trim side. A few extra pounds can greatly increase the stress on your dog’s joints and make him much less comfortable. Daily exercise in the form of walking or, if possible, swimming, helps your dog maintain muscle mass and flexibility, and can help keep your dog at the proper weight. You can also allow your dog to perform his favorite activities, but monitor how much he’s doing. My sweet Gemma loved to retrieve until her last days, despite the arthritis in her back. We allowed her short daily sessions of chasing her bumper or ball, but we didn’t throw it far and stopped after two or three tosses.

Gentle massage or manipulation of sore joints and their surrounding muscles can make your dog more comfortable and flexible. Ask your vet or canine massage therapist to show you what to do. While there is no clinical evidence to prove it will help, anecdotal reports say acupuncture may be beneficial.

Take steps to make life easier for your dog. If you have uncarpeted floors, put down area rugs to give your dog a stable walking surface. Build or buy ramps to help your dog up staircases, onto furniture and into the car, and provide loving physical assistance when needed. Make sure there are plenty of dog beds around as well, so your pal always has a soft place to sleep.

Consider using over-the-counter supplements. Pills or foods containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, green-lipped mussel powder and MSM have all been shown to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis in dogs. Be aware that they can take weeks to months to work however, and sometimes they don’t work at all.

Your vet may prescribe medication for your dog, such as NSAIDs or Corticosteroids, that can be used alone or in conjunction with supplements. Talk with your vet to be sure you understand the side effects that may occur from drug usage, and make a knowledgeable decision for your dog. Surgery may also be indicated for some conditions

With your help, your dog can live happily and comfortably after a DJD diagnosis. He’s counting on you to take care of him, so don’t let him down.


Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.