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Osteoarthritis (OA) in Dogs

What Is Osteoarthritis in Dogs?

Osteoarthritis (OA) in dogs is a degenerative ailment affecting the synovial joints, which are common joints like hips and knees. It stands as the most prevalent form of arthritis among canines, impacting roughly 25% of them. Unfortunately, OA is irreversible and brings about a progressive deterioration of the articular cartilage surfaces within the joints. This deterioration often leads to the formation of small bony fragments within the joint space and the development of fibrosis around the cartilage, causing pain and hindrance in limb function.

In many instances, osteoarthritis in dogs arises as a secondary condition stemming from diseases such as hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Various factors contribute to the development and progression of OA, including body weight, obesity, gender, exercise levels, and diet. These elements collectively play a crucial role in the onset and severity of osteoarthritis in our canine companions.

Symptoms and Types

Symptoms of osteoarthritis in dogs are typically noticeable to pet owners. The most common signs include:

  • Reduced interest in playing or exercising, accompanied by decreased overall energy levels.
  • Stiffness or lameness, often evident in challenges transitioning from sitting to standing.
  • Alterations in posture and gait.
  • Dogs may adopt strategies to alleviate pain, such as a bunny hop walk, sitting to extend away from painful areas, or displaying weakness or slouching while walking.


The causes of osteoarthritis in dogs are categorized as primary or secondary. Primary osteoarthritis often stems from idiopathic origins (unknown cause) or is linked to the aging process. Secondary osteoarthritis, on the other hand, occurs as a result of another underlying condition, such as:

  • Injury
  • Hip or elbow dysplasia
  • Cruciate tear
  • Patellar luxation

Age and weight are significant factors contributing to the development of osteoarthritis in dogs. Both primary and secondary osteoarthritis involve a series of changes that gradually deteriorate the health of the joint, including the articular cartilage, joint capsule, synovial membrane, subchondral bone, and ligaments.


Veterinarians diagnose osteoarthritis in dogs through a combination of physical examination and imaging techniques. Initially, they observe the dog’s gait patterns, which involve repetitive limb motions like walking, trotting, or running. During the physical examination, vets assess for swelling, effusion (excess fluid in the joint), and any limitations in joint mobility.

The vet checks for signs such as thickening around the joint, crepitus (friction of bone and cartilage), or muscle atrophy (differences in muscle size between similar joints). Sedation may be necessary to conduct the exam comfortably and prevent pain for the dog.

In addition to the physical exam, the vet may suggest:

  • Radiographs (X-ray)
  • Bloodwork, especially if medication is part of the treatment plan
  • Joint fluid analysis, to rule out infection or, in some cases, cancer
  • Imaging tests like CT or MRI scans
  • Force plate gait analysis, which measures the force between a paw and the ground during walking or standing
  • Endoscopy of the affected joints, using specialized thin tubing with a tiny camera and instruments to visualize and sometimes treat problem areas.


Veterinarians have various methods to slow down the progression of osteoarthritis (OA) and often employ multiple strategies to determine the most effective treatment for your dog.

Although over-the-counter medications and supplements may be recommended, it’s crucial to adhere closely to your vet’s instructions, as some medications can be harmful, while others have limited safety margins.

Commonly prescribed therapies include:

  • Supplements: Examples include omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine/chondroitin, and other natural anti-inflammatory products.
  • NSAIDs to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain: Drugs like carprofen, deracoxib, firocoxib, grapiprant, meloxicam, and others are commonly used. However, these medications can have side effects, and not all dogs can tolerate them. Your vet will determine the most suitable option for your dog.
  • Steroids: Examples include prednisone, methylprednisolone, and triamcinolone. Steroid medications carry numerous side effects and require careful management.
  • Other pain medications that complement NSAIDs or work through different mechanisms: These may include gabapentin (an anti-convulsant with analgesic properties), tramadol (a synthetic opiate-like agonist), and amantadine (an NMDA receptor antagonist that may reverse central pain sensitization).
  • Adequan: An injectable prescription product with anti-inflammatory effects. Many dogs find significant relief and experience minimal side effects when Adequan is incorporated into their pain management regimen.

Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, laser therapy, and physical rehabilitation, including hands-on techniques and therapeutic exercises, may also be beneficial for dogs with osteoarthritis. Additionally, chiropractic manipulation and stem cell therapy have shown promise for some dogs, supported by promising research and individual success stories.

In certain cases, surgery may be recommended to alleviate pain associated with inflammation.

Recovery and Management

To aid in the recovery and management of osteoarthritis in dogs, veterinarians may propose lifestyle adjustments. Weight loss and management are critical to alleviating inflammation and minimizing strain on the joints. Your vet might recommend a prescription diet coupled with consistent exercise, provided the dog can handle movement.

Should surgical intervention be advised by your vet, a comprehensive rehabilitation and physical therapy plan will be outlined. This typically involves rehabilitation sessions, physical therapy exercises, massages, swimming, and the use of an underwater treadmill.

Osteoarthritis in Dogs FAQs

What home remedy can I give my dog for OA?

  • Many dogs with osteoarthritis can benefit from weight loss or maintenance, high-quality dog food ingredients, supplements, regular physical therapy, and at-home massages. Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy, it’s important to collaborate with your veterinarian to develop a tailored plan for your individual pet.

How can I modify my home to help my dog with osteoarthritis?

  • Simple adjustments around the home can aid dogs with osteoarthritis in managing their condition. These include using carpet runners or dog boots for slippery areas, restricting access to stairs and swimming pools, and considering ramps or small stairs instead of allowing jumping onto beds or couches.

Does OA shorten a dog’s life?

  • Dogs with osteoarthritis may have a shortened lifespan compared to those without the condition. However, with appropriate intervention, many dogs with osteoarthritis can enjoy long and comfortable lives.

Should I walk my dog with osteoarthritis?

  • It’s best to consult your veterinarian regarding your specific situation. Many dogs can benefit from low-impact, regular exercise like walking. However, some dogs may require pain and inflammation control before starting exercise, or they may have circumstances that increase the risk of falls during walks.

What is the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in dogs?

  • Osteoarthritis is characterized by degenerative changes in the synovial joints, which may include inflammatory components. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, involves inflammatory changes but is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints.

What are the risk factors of osteoarthritis?

  • Obesity is a significant risk factor for osteoarthritis development due to the associated inflammatory effects and excessive strain on the joints. It’s advisable to discuss weight loss with your veterinarian in a structured and positive manner to set your dog up for success.
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