Arthritis in Senior Dogs: It Can Be a Real Pain

Arthritis is an inevitability for senior dogs. We explain how it develops, the symptoms, treatment measures, and natural and alternative therapies for dogs.


If you’re a senior dog owner, then you probably already suspect or know that your furry friend has some level of arthritis. The difficult truth is… if a dog lives long enough, arthritis is eventually going to affect them and their ability to move, get comfortable, and do the things they love most. The good news is that if we understand why arthritis develops, then we can help prevent or slow the process. The earlier signs of arthritis are recognized in a senior dog, the better chance we have to do something about it that can extend their quality of life and longevity.

Why Does Arthritis Develop?

Healthy joints contain the right amount of cartilage and joint fluid to allow for smooth movement and cushioning. In veterinary terms, arthritis is a degenerative condition of the joints characterized by the loss of cartilage, osteophyte formation, and periarticular fibrosis. This means that during the aging process, the cartilage wears away leading to abnormal rubbing of the joints, which then leads to bony change or build up (osteophytes) and a general loss of smooth movement within the joints. Unfortunately, this becomes a vicious cycle. As more cartilage is lost, more abnormal bone is formed, and more rubbing occurs, so the cycle continues and arthritis worsens. The abnormal wear, loss of cushion, and bony changes lead to pain and decreased mobility in our senior canine friends.

Arthritis mainly occurs in senior dogs, and there is no set time for when it will begin to develop. If your dog has had an injury or congenital abnormality of the musculoskeletal system, such as hip dysplasia, arthritis may begin earlier in life. Fortunately, there are options for supporting and conserving the cartilage that we will cover later in this article.

How Do I Know If My Dog Has Arthritis?

Arthritis is the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs. So, most of the signs you are looking for will indicate pain or discomfort. In addition, many dogs with arthritis will begin to experience muscle atrophy (loss or wasting of muscle tissue), which results in weakness. Just like humans, dogs feel and show their pain differently. In some cases, discomfort is obvious, while in others, the dog may be stoic and show only subtle signs. It is our job as senior dog owners to notice the signs so that we can share them with our veterinarian and take action.

Obvious signs that your dog is experiencing pain include:

  • Limping

  • Stiffness in the limbs

  • Difficulty getting up and down

  • Crying or whining

  • Refusal to go for walks

  • Inability to walk normally

  • Dragging of the feet

  • Flinching when certain areas of the body are touched

More subtle signs of discomfort include:

  • Changes in thirst and appetite

  • Slowing down at the end of walks

  • Getting up more frequently in the night

  • Inability to stretch out

  • Sleeping more during the day

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What Can Be Done to Help My Senior Dog?

If you notice that your senior dog may be less comfortable or in pain, you need to visit your veterinarian so that they can be properly evaluated. During the appointment, your vet will ask questions about your dog’s symptoms and daily activity. They will also want to know what changes you are seeing at home to help determine your dog’s need for treatment.

One of the best things you can do is to take notes related to your dog’s condition or keep a short behavioral journal to share with the vet. The veterinarian will watch your dog move, perform a thorough physical exam to check for pain, and may recommend diagnostic testing like a blood screening or radiograph (x-ray).

The more information the vet can gather about your senior dog’s state of comfort and health, the more accurate and effective they can be with their recommendations for your dog’s care. Your vet will provide you with the pain control and/or joint support options they feel are most helpful (and safe), and together you will create a plan to keep your dog comfortable and slow the progression of the arthritis.

Natural and Alternative Options to Slow Progression of Arthritis and Reduce Pain

A number of natural options can be utilized to help preserve the joints in our canine friends and reduce arthritis pain. While there is no “miracle pill” to stop arthritis completely, drawing from a combination of joint support supplements can slow the progression of disease and help to alleviate pain.  Some of the most researched and readily available options include glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, Omega-3 fatty acids, curcumins, and CBD.

Talk with your veterinarian about which of these options and specific products is best for your dog. In addition to supplements, alternative medical care options such as acupuncture, chiropractic techniques, and massage can improve circulation to the joints, facilitate movement, and reduce pain.

It can be overwhelming when our senior friends are in pain or “slowing down,” but if you take the time to research and discuss a joint support plan with your veterinarian, you can give your dog a chance at living their best senior life.

Preparing for your dog’s golden years in advance with Hereditary add-on coverage from AKC Pet Insurance (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company) is another great way to keep them happy and healthy. To customize a pet insurance policy, check out our enroll tool for a quote or talk to our sales team at 1-866-725-2747.

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Every Dog and Cat Deserves the Pet Insurance of Champions

Get prize-winning care for your pets.

Nell Ostermeier DVM, CVA, FAAVA

Nell Ostermeier is an Integrative Veterinarian, Motivator, Lecturer, and Consultant.


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