How Arthritis Affects Your Dog and What to Do for It

I like to think my Labrador Retriever mix, Rio, is invincible. He loves hiking on trails, swimming in lakes, and generally frolicking outside. Even though he’s nearly 9 years old, I’ve been in denial that he’s a “senior.”

But a recent conversation with a veterinary technician gave me pause. He mentioned that dogs who start sleeping in the sun more often might be in pain, and that older dogs can benefit from bedding with more cushioning. Rio has become quite a sun worshiper, and his bed was getting worn from years of use. Did my dog need a thicker bed?

Sure enough, Rio immediately took to his new orthopedic bed. Even though I kept his old bed nearby just in case he missed it, he didn’t give it a second look. He seems much more comfortable now.

The experience reminded me that I need to pay attention to my dog’s behavior and let my veterinary team know if I notice any changes, particularly now that he’s (gulp) a senior. I certainly don’t want Rio to be in pain or discomfort if I can help it.

Signs Are Subtle

May is National Arthritis Awareness Month, a perfect time to be aware of the subtle signs that our pets might be in pain from conditions such as arthritis and to seek help when necessary.

This is important because animals can be adept at hiding painful conditions like arthritis, according to Kathryn Primm, DVM, owner of Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee.

“Arthritis is the medical term for inflamed joints,” she says. “We associate it with the aches and pains of aging, but actually it can and should be addressed.”

Dr. Primm said arthritis can appear at any age. It may result from an injury a pet owner was not even aware of, and most pets will experience some degree of arthritis as they age. She’s often surprised when people tell her that their pet has “no pain,” even though he or she may be limping.

“Pain is subjective to the observer, and some pets are very brave about pain. Seldom will chronic pain make pets vocalize,” she says.

What Arthritis Looks Like

Signs of arthritis depend on which joints are painful. For instance, Dr. Primm said dogs with arthritis in the hips or spine will sometimes be more reluctant to jump or climb up, whereas the ones with elbow issues don’t like to jump down or walk down stairs.

“Neck arthritis patients can range from very obvious, like crying out when touched, to very subtle, like looking up at owners with just their eyes and not lifting the whole head,” she said. “Sometimes owners won’t notice a thing until I start the dog on meds, and then they feel really guilty. Any change in a pet’s habits and favorite things should raise a red flag.”

How to Help Your Pet

Dr. Primm likes to follow a multimodal treatment plan customized to the “whole pet” to make dogs with arthritis more comfortable. Treatment can include the following:

  • Supplements and medications
  • Physical therapy and mobility exercises
  • Acupuncture
  • Laser therapy
  • Weight loss to decrease stress on joints

“Your vet can help you choose which of the options might be best for your pet,” she says.

For instance, Primm treated a Labrador Retriever named Maggie who was overweight and showing signs of osteoarthritis. She suggested a weight-loss program, a special joint diet, and medications as needed. The dog lost 25 pounds, and her family never let her become obese again.

“She lived happily for a very long life,” she says.

Talk to your veterinary team about steps to take at home to help make a dog with arthritis more comfortable. Dr. Primm said this could involve:

  • Soft, comfortable beds
  • Steps to help climb easily onto couches and into cars
  • Non-slip surfaces
  • Booties and nail covers that can help with traction on slick floors
  • Raised feeding dishes for dogs with arthritis in the neck

“If you can put yourself into your pet’s place and imagine what might help you, you can ask your veterinary team what is available,” she says. “We love to share ideas that help pets at home.”

Dr. Primm emphasized it’s important to know that aging itself is not a disease.

“If anyone tells you that your pet is ‘just getting old,’ do not listen,” she says. “If you have a healthcare team for your pets that you are an important part of, most issues can be made better or at least more comfortable!”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.