Osteoarthritis in dogs: a comprehensive guide

Updated 18 April 2024
Read time: 16 mins
article author
Written by Corinne Homer

One of the most distressing parts of being a pooch parent is supporting your lovely dog through potential health conditions as they age. Osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease which deteriorates joints and affects mobility, is one of the most common ailments for dogs. 

So what is the likelihood your dog might get osteoarthritis, what are the symptoms of arthritis in dogs, and is there anything you can do to prevent it? If your dog does get osteoarthritis, how can you keep them as happy, healthy and mobile as possible?

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll answer all your questions around this tricky disorder so that you’ll feel prepared to help your dog through osteoarthritis, whatever happens.


Understanding osteoarthritis in dogs

Osteoarthritis (sometimes referred to as OA throughout this article) is a common condition for dogs, but it’s normal to be confused over what it means. Let’s start with a basic overview of the disease.


What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint condition. In simple terms, the cushioning of cartilage (the rubbery substance that joins two bones together and absorbs impact as a dog jumps, runs and moves) wears down over time, and isn’t repaired naturally in a dog’s body. Eventually, the cartilage is so damaged that the joint is no longer protected, and the ends of the bones rub together. This is very painful for the dog, and they may struggle to walk, get up and move around as easily.


Early detection is very important when it comes to your pooch having osteoarthritis, as symptoms get worse over time. The right treatment can significantly improve your dog’s comfort levels and mood and reduce pain, thus allowing more beneficial movement and a delay in the onset and severity of their symptoms.


Causes and risk factors of osteoarthritis

There are a few reasons why a dog might develop osteoarthritis, and some dogs are more at risk than others. Be sure you know about these risk factors for osteoarthritis (in both genetics and lifestyle) when you first come to look after a new pooch. 

  • Genetics / Susceptible breed A dog may develop OA because their parents did, or because they’re a breed that is prone to getting it (usually giant breeds). They may also be born with a physical quirk, or have developmental abnormalities which means the likelihood of developing OA is more common.
  • Injury trauma An injury that causes a distortion in a bone or joint, or an unusual gait, could eventually cause cartilage and bone to wear down prematurely, leading to OA symptoms.
  • Improper diet A balanced and nutritious diet is key to keeping the joints protected and bones strong. OA can come on sooner in life if a dog isn’t getting the right nutrition. Also, if your pooch eats a lot of fatty, sugary foods or human scraps, weight gain could indirectly lead to OA due to the excess pressure put on the joints.
  • Obesity As above, if your dog is obese or carries excess weight, they are more likely to develop OA without intervention to keep them lean. 
  • Other joint conditions OA can sometimes occur in parallel, or as a result of, other diseases that affect joints - such as Lyme disease, or hip or elbow dysplasia.
  • Age Often, OA is just a result of a dog’s body ageing and the joints wearing down. 

    Prevalence in dogs

    Osteoarthritis is one of the most prevalent health conditions for pooches of all ages. Even young dogs and puppies can develop osteoarthritis, and it’s estimated that up to 80% of dogs will start to show symptoms over the course of their lives. 


    Common breeds affected

    As mentioned, there are dog breeds that are more prone to developing joint pain and osteoarthritis. It tends to be bigger dog breeds, such as: 

  • German Shepherds
  • Rottweilers 
  • Great Danes
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Newfoundlands 
  • Saint Bernards 

  • If your pooch falls under any of these breed categories, it’s very important that they receive regular vet check-ups for osteoarthritis throughout their lifetime. That said, any dog breed can develop the condition; including those who carry excess weight, or working dogs who put heavy and persistent strain on their muscles and joints. 


    Osteoarthritis in puppies

    Even puppies can have osteoarthritis - particularly if their breed is prone to the disease. It can also happen if there’s been a defect in their growth or development, if they’ve suffered from an injury or infection, or if they have another kind of immunity malfunction such as Lyme disease (in which the body attacks the joints).


    Prevention of osteoarthritis

    As mentioned above, there are certain factors that may increase the risk of your pooch getting osteoarthritis. If your dog is genetically predisposed, the risk of OA will be harder to curb, though there is lots of evidence that making targeted lifestyle choices can significantly slow the onset of symptoms - and even act as a preventative measure.


    Preventive measures

    Here are some ways you might try to prevent OA symptoms from coming on early in your pooch:

  • Nutrition for joint care A nutritious diet formulated for joint care can go a long way in helping protect the joints, keeping bones and muscles strong, and improving your dog’s mood and physical condition overall. Keeping your dog lean and physically fit will go a long way to staving off OA. Nutrition is also an important part of treatment, post-diagnosis - stay tuned for what constitutes a healthy diet for dogs’ joints.
  • Joint care supplements Lots of pooch parents use joint care supplements for dogs (such as glucosamine or fish oil) as a preventative measure, particularly if their dog breed is at risk.
  • Regular vet check-ups Seeing the vet regularly is essential - as early detection of OA is key to keeping symptoms at bay.  
  • Frequent exercise An active dog who gets lots of time outdoors will be a stronger, healthier dog for longer. This will also curb weight gain, which can be a risk for OA.
  • Physiotherapy If your pooch has an injury or joint dysfunction, pay attention to those joints through physiotherapy even before OA symptoms occur.
  • Everyday monitoring Keep a close eye on your dog’s wellbeing and behaviour, particularly around their gait, mobility, energy levels and any licking of joints or limbs. 

    A tri-coloured Jack Russell Dog jumping in the air against an aqua blue background

    Signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis

    So, you’ve recognised whether your dog might be prone to getting OA and you want to be able to spot the earliest signs. That’s the best attitude to have, as getting in early with treatment gives your pooch the best chance of staying pain-free and mobile for much longer.


    Recognising the signs

    As a pooch parent, you’ll likely notice when your dog isn’t acting quite like their usual energetic selves. Signs of OA will present in your dog in the following ways:

  • Slower getting to their feet 
  • Altered gait/slight difficulty walking
  • Reluctance to go for walks 
  • Stiff movements, slowness
  • Difficulty getting up stairs or jumping into car
  • Changes in behaviour/lower energy levels 
  • Obvious pain/discomfort 
  • Swelling joints 

  • Once you’ve noticed these symptoms in your pooch, note down how often they’ve occurred and arrange a check-up with the vet.


    Areas most affected

    Arthritis can occur throughout a dog’s body, but the joints responsible for the most movement are most commonly impacted by OA;  the knees, hips, shoulders, ankles and elbows. Sometimes the paws and spine can be affected, particularly in older dogs. If your pooch is a working dog, they may get OA in areas that see the most strain.


    Diagnosis of osteoarthritis in dogs

    Once you’ve taken your pooch to the vet, they will likely diagnose in one or more of the following ways…


    Veterinary diagnostic approaches


    Assessment and physical examination 

    Your vet will take into account any recent observations about your dog’s symptoms or predisposed risks. They will then give your pooch a full physical examination, feeling for potential swellings or sensitive areas, and observing your dog’s gait as they walk. 



    An x-ray can often show damage to cartilage or any areas where bones are significantly wearing down. 


    Fluid and blood tests 

    A vet might take a fluid sample from affected joints, or do some further blood tests. 


    They may also run a CT or MRI scan. All of these steps are to identify osteoarthritis and rule out any other possible diagnosis. 


    Can osteoarthritis be cured?

    Once diagnosed, osteoarthritis can’t be cured. It’s a degenerative condition, so it’s important to implement lifestyle changes as well as a specialist diet and medication to support your pooch and manage their pain as their symptoms progress.


    Treatment options

    Once your dog has received a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, many pooch parents opt for a mixture of conventional treatment and alternative therapies. The choice is yours alone, but definitely listen to your trusted vet’s advice before you try anything new.


    Conventional treatments

    The most commonly offered treatment will be medication and potentially surgery, to help keep your dog’s symptoms at bay and lessen the pain from their sore or debilitating joints.



    Your dog will likely be prescribed NSAIDs by your vet, which stand for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs. These are used to reduce the pain of inflammation in the joints, lower any fever present, and offer some much-needed pain relief to your pooch. In the UK they might be called Metacam, Loxicom or Rimadyl - though there are other brands available.



    If symptoms are severe, medication hasn’t been as effective as hoped, or there’s a specific spot in the body where osteoarthritis has taken hold, surgery can be an option. This could involve the insertion of a small camera to assess the cartilage damage (called an arthroscopy), removal of damaged tissue, flushing of the damaged joint - or in severe cases, even full joint replacement, such as in the hip or knee.


    Supplements and alternative therapies

    As well as conventional treatments, lots of dog owners opt for alternative therapies, such as herbal remedies and health supplements. This could include:


    Joint supplements

    Joint supplements for dogs are intended to soothe joint pain and rebuild cartilage, as well as boost mobility in the bone joints. They may contain ingredients such as fish oil, which is great for dogs due to its omega-3 and 6 essential fatty acids, collagen, glucosamine,  chondroitin sulphate, hyaluronic acid, MSM (methylsulphonylmethane) and vitamin c. Our Pooch & Mutt Joint Supplements contain all of these active ingredients!


    Chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine

    A powerful combination of chondroitin and glucosamine is often present in joint care supplements for dogs. The great thing about this power combo is they form the building blocks of cartilage. Though glucosamine occurs in the body, dogs naturally produce less as they age, which is one of the reasons cartilage starts to break down.


    Therefore, bolstering a dog’s diet with glucosamine-rich foods, or a supplement for dogs containing glucosamine and chondroitin, can help rebuild the shock-absorbing, cartilage cushioning that once kept your dog’s joints comfortable and strong. Here’s more info on how glucosamine can benefit a dog’s body.


    NOTE: Though you might consider using joint supplements for humans on your dog, it’s really important to opt for joint supplements for dogs. These will contain ingredients specifically formulated to benefit a dog’s body, so will be of lesser risk than a human version. 


    Physiotherapy for dogs

    Physio is another great route for dogs with osteoarthritis. A physiotherapist for dogs can help relieve pain by stretching out their affected joints, and keeping their bones moving safely. They can also offer guidance to use support devices (like ramps or specialist dog beds), or implement low impact exercise, such as swimming or an underwater treadmill, so your dog gets their daily movement without doing any extra damage to their joints.


    Our Pooch & Mutt Joint Supplements, with the pills tumbling out of the tub, against an aqua blue backdrop

    Managing osteoarthritis in dogs

    Once diagnosed, osteoarthritis will be with your pooch for the rest of their life - so it’s essential to manage the condition each day. This way your beloved dog will be comfortable, content, and active for longer, and severe symptoms will be delayed.


    Nutrition and weight management

    Osteoarthritis symptoms are worsened in dogs that suffer from obesity or excess weight, so doing everything you can to keep your dog lean and active will have huge benefits in the long run. You can do this by: 


  • Choosing a nutrition-focused dog food brand that uses lean proteins, fresh fruit and veggies and targeted nutrient content. We have an extensive range of dry and wet food, packed with goodness, to target specific health concerns.
  • Avoiding fatty foods, including human scraps and leftovers
  • Keeping your dog well hydrated
  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine
  • Adopting alternative, low impact exercises


    Nutrition for dogs with osteoarthritis

    Fill your dog’s diet with whole, organic ingredients that are full of joint-boosting nutrients. This could include - 


    • Oily fish such as salmon or mackerel, for omega-3 and 6 and fatty acids which soothe joints and boost wellbeing. 
    • Lean proteins like turkey or chicken, for muscle building and strength.
    • Turmeric, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Leafy greens and vegetables for a host of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. 
    • Glucosamine-rich shellfish, such as crab meat or green-lipped mussels. 
    • Joint and bone supplements for dogs - for accessible levels of glucosamine and other helpful ingredients that can be easily added to their regular dog food.
    • Fish oil, such as salmon oil for dogs, will provide a condensed shot of powerful, omega-rich fatty acids for boosted joints.

      Exercise and physical activity

      The conundrum when a dog has osteoarthritis is that their mobility is impacted - and as the condition worsens, they become reluctant to go for their usual walkies! This can be upsetting for dog owners, but keeping up with your dog’s daily exercise routine is a huge part of managing their condition.


      Alternative exercise

      Tweaking their exercise routine to put a focus on low impact movement is key for dogs with osteoarthritis…

      • Shorten walks, and take them more frequently, rather than going on long, strenuous hikes. 
      • Consider the terrain - flat grass, for example, is a much softer option than concrete or gravel. Inclines are fine so long as they’re gentle, and you take it slow. 
      • Increase gentle forms of exercise such as swimming, or an underwater treadmill to take pressure off aching joints. A physiotherapist can help you with this.
      • Be mindful of your dog’s energy levels - playtime should be relaxed, not too rough, and be sure your pooch can balance themselves.  


      A red-coloured retriever, licking their lips, against an aqua blue backdrop

        Home remedies and lifestyle adjustments

        When your beloved pooch has sore and aching joints and finds it harder to get around, there are plenty of ways you can make life more comfortable for them.


        Modifying your home for a dog with osteoarthritis

        Ramps Assistive devices such as ramps can help your pooch get in and out of the house, up and down steps, into a car and onto beds. 

        Comfortable sleeping setup Reduce stress for your dog by keeping your home warm and comfortable, with a sleeping area specifically set up to support your pooch’s aching joints.

        Slip-free flooring If you have laminate or wooden flooring, non-slip mats or strips of carpet can help your wobbly dog get around the house without struggle. 

        Lower feeding bowls and make other small tweaks so that your dog doesn’t have to strain themselves to reach things when they don’t have to.

        Supportive bodywear The petcare industry offers lots of wearable support for dogs with joint and mobility issues, such as leads and harnesses that lift the weight off a dog’s feet, and anti-slip booties so they can grip the ground more easily. 



        That just about covers it for this comprehensive guide, but here are some final answers to commonly asked questions about osteoarthritis in dogs…


        The difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis

        There are commonalities between rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA); they are both conditions of the joints degenerating over time, causing discomfort and mobility issues for a dog. The big difference is that RA is an autoimmune disease, in which a dysfunctioning immune system attacks the joints. 

        In comparison, OA is a degenerative disease that develops due to age, wear and tear of the joints or genetic disposition. It isn’t due to a malfunction in the immune system. 


        Impact of osteoarthritis on your dog’s life expectancy

        The effect of osteoarthritis on a dog’s longevity depends on how early it is detected and how well the condition is managed as it develops. If pooch parents take all advice surrounding lifestyle changes, medication, nutrition and regular vet check-ups, and truly love and care for their pooch each day, an arthritic dog should be able to live a long, happy and relatively comfortable life, without their time being shortened too much at all. 


        A diagnosis of osteoarthritis in your dog can be a scary and troubling time, but the condition is common - and it needn’t be the end of the world for you nor your beloved pooch. With some early preparation, a vet’s advice and some nutrition and lifestyle tweaks, many dog owners are able to manage this disease so that their dog’s mobility, physical wellbeing and spirits all remain in tip-top condition for much longer.


        If you’re keen to supplement your dog’s diet with natural, joint-boosting nutrients, there’s plenty to choose from in the Pooch & Mutt Joint Care range. This includes specialised nutrition as well as our dog supplements for joint care and omega-rich Salmon Oil for dogs



      • ‘Canine Osteoarthritis and Treatments: A Review’, 2015 - Veterinary Science Development.
      • ‘Randomised double-blind, positive-controlled trial to assess the efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of dogs with osteoarthritis’, 2006 - National Library of Medicine. 
      • ‘Systematic review of clinical trials of treatments for osteoarthritis in dogs’, 2007 - American Veterinary Medical Association.
      • ‘What is arthritis?’ - Canine Arthritis Management. 

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