Arthritis is the most common joint disease in dogs, affecting approximately 20% of adult animals. Obesity, ageing and breed contribute to a higher likelihood of joint diseases in pets. This article explains the possible causes, symptoms and treatments.

Causes of joint diseases

There are a number of possible causes for the development of arthritis in animals. Infectious arthritis is inflammation of the joints caused by a bacterial infection. Pathogens can enter the animal’s body through an open wound or, similar to Lyme disease infection, from a tick bite or other vermin.

In many cases, arthritis in dogs has a non-infectious cause, such as an immune system disorder. The animal’s immune system produces messenger substances, which then lead to inflammation and pain in the joints. Obesity also causes chronic and degenerative joint diseases. Owners must act soon to ensure their pet loses weight.

Explanation of terms: What does arthritis mean?

The term arthritis encompasses a wide variety of inflammatory conditions in one or more joints. Osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease are among the most commonly diagnosed forms of arthritis in dogs. It is important to respond quickly and take the animal to the vet at the first signs, such as lameness or altered posture.

Possible signs of pain or joint problems in an animal:

  • Licking the affected area
  • Lameness or altered posture
  • Swollen and warm joints
  • Restricted movement
  • Stiffness or weakness
  • Infectious arthritis can also cause fevers
  • Reduced vitality and activity
  • The dog seems tired and worn out, or is sensitive to touch
  • Character changes (many animals become aggressive when in pain)

Larger dog breeds in particular, such as German shepherd, labrador retriever or mastiff are more likely to develop osteoarthritis because they tend to have inherited defects, such as elbow dysplasia (ED), hip dysplasia (HD) or patellar luxation. The bones of large dog breeds carry more weight than in small or miniature breeds. Osteoarthritis is generally recognized in medicine as a structural disease associated with the loss of articular cartilage, which affects the joints. These structural changes have been found to be brought about by changes in gene expression.

To relieve the symptoms, it is important to be mindful of the composition of your pet’s food and to exercise them gently and moderately. Many commercially manufactured foods, especially those designed specifically for osteoarthritis, contain grains, gluten and other ingredients which can worsen inflammation and prevent symptoms from improving. Also, diet foods often contain a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that can cause inflammation.

A veterinary nurse holds up a small dog's paw with a bandage wrapped around it.
To alleviate joint problems, owners must ensure their pets are correctly fed and exercised gently.

Arthritis is also treated with long-term non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It is helpful to give such treatments (under the supervision of a vet) in the event of extreme flare-ups and spikes in pain. Note that long-term use of these drugs damages the liver, kidneys and bone marrow. To minimise the use of medication, some functional substances can be used or supplemented on a natural basis for osteoarthritis.

Fish oil is one of the most important remedies for arthritis. It contains important and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, as well as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are an effective alternative and support for joint diseases.

Functional substances that can be helpful in the treatment of osteoarthritis:

  • Green lipped mussel extract
  • Glucosamine & chondroitin sulphate
  • Spirulina:
  • Enzymes
  • Vitamins A, C, E and K
  • Herbs: Willow bark (not for cats), devil’s claw, meadowsweet (not for cats), ginger, nettle, horsetail (only a little and for a short time in cats), St. John’s wort
  • Curcumin
  • Grape seed extract
  • MSM
  • Propolis
  • Homeopathic complex remedies (available in pharmacies)

The effects of substances:

  • Willow bark, devil’s claw, meadowsweet, ginger, nettle and St. John’s wort relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Greater burdock, sorrel root and sarsaparilla cleanse the blood.
  • Celery seed, yarrow, nettle and greater burdock eliminate the waste products of inflammation by stimulating urination.
  • Rosehip powder counters inflammation in the joints and stops the destruction of cartilage.

If administering medicinal herbs, it is important first to consult a vet. In some cases, certain herbs in combination with medication can have the opposite effect and reduce the benefit or even harm the animal. One example is willow bark, which in combination with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can sometimes lead to stomach ulcers and bleeding.

Certain herbs, such as devil’s claw or willow bark must not be given to pregnant animals. You must also consider whether the animal has allergies to herbs, impaired cardiac function, stomach ulcers or other complaints before giving them medicinal herbs. If you don’t have extensive knowledge in these areas, always seek professional advice.

Other treatments that can relieve pain in joint disorders:

  • Physiotherapy
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Light therapy

Overall, it is important to observe your animal and focus on the right feed composition, so that you can recognise signs of disease early and prevent poor outcomes.