Osteoarthritis in Dogs

Written by Shula Berg BVSc CertAVP(GSAS) GPAdvCert(SASTS) MRCVS
Clinically reviewed by Elizabeth McLennan-Green BVM&S CertAVP(SAM) MRCVS

Table of Contents

- Overview
- Symptoms
- Diagnosis
- Treatment
- Outlook

What is osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a disease-causing pain, inflammation and stiffness of the joints. Osteoarthritis specifically means joint inflammation not due to infection or an immune reaction (both very uncommon in pets). Arthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic pain and is estimated to affect 4 out of 5 older dogs. 

Arthritis, and the resultant discomfort, causes pets to limp on the affected limb/s. This eventually leads to loss of muscle, worsening the lameness. Our pets have four legs, which means they can often compensate well, however, changes in posture lead to increase discomfort elsewhere, such as the back and neck. 

Any pet can be affected by arthritis, including cats and rabbits. Some breeds are more likely to be affected, such as Labradors. Additionally, pets with existing joint problems (such as hip dysplasia), or who have suffered injuries (such as fractures affecting a joint), are more likely to suffer arthritis, and at an earlier age. 

What are the symptoms of Osteoarthritis in dogs?

Arthritis is one of the most over-looked conditions in our pets, with symptoms commonly attributed to “slowing down” or “getting older.” Changes often happen gradually, and affect more than one joint, so it is common that animals continue walking on all four limbs despite increasing pain and discomfort. Symptoms of arthritis can, therefore, be subtle, but include: 

  • Lameness 
  • Unwillingness to walk 
  • Difficulty getting comfortable 
  • Sleeping more than usual 
  • Changes in temperament or behaviour
  • Seeming lethargic or depressed
  • Licking the joints
  • Pacing at night
  • Weakness of the hind-limbs
  • Difficulty toileting
  • Changes to posture or appearance 

What tests are used to diagnose Osteoarthritis in dogs? 

Arthritis can be considered very likely based on a history of compatible symptoms and a clinical examination by a vet. Older dogs are prone to many other problems that can cause them to “slow down”, so it is important to rule these out before assuming a diagnosis of arthritis. In affected dogs, the joints may be stiff, sore or swollen on examination.

Imaging, such as radiography (x-rays) or CT, is the gold standard for diagnosis as this allows changes in the joint to be directly assessed. Occasionally, a sample of fluid is removed from the joints for analysis (called a “joint tap”). Sometimes anaesthesia is not advisable due to other health problems, so an assumed diagnosis is made based on consistent symptoms. In these cases, a positive response to treatment can also help confirm the diagnosis.

How is Osteoarthritis treated? 

There are many aspects to successfully treating arthritis. As a progressive disease it can only be managed, rather than cured, but good management aims to keep pets comfortable and mobile, and slow down progression. Generally, several management options are required to see an effective difference; while some treatments must be prescribed by a vet, you can also make many changes at home to help. 

Weight management

It is well demonstrated in both people and animals that obesity has a negative effect on arthritis. Not only does carrying extra weight increase pressure on the joints, but fat tissue releases inflammatory markers that increase joint inflammation. 

Home adaptations 

Covering slippery floors with a non-slip surface, limiting or preventing access to stairs, replacing worn beds with padded orthopaedic beds, and ensuring your pet rests somewhere away from cold drafts can make a surprising difference to your pet’s ability to manage day to day life comfortably. 

Exercise modulation 

Every dog is different, but generally multiple shorter walks are better tolerated than a single long walk. Consider the terrain (uneven ground can be harder to navigate with sore joints), and plan routes to end before your dog shows signs they are struggling. High intensity exercise, such as chasing a ball, should also be stopped. 

Complementary therapies 

These include physiotherapy, acupuncture, osteopathy, and laser therapy, amongst others. There is poor regulation of many of these practices, so always speak to your vet about whether they recommend a specific practitioner. Complementary therapy should never be administered without signed permission from your vet, as they are not all suitable for every pet. 


Supplements can be given as tablets or capsules, or are already included in a joint diet, such as Hill’s J/D. There are many conflicting reports about their effectivity, but overall, there is insufficient evidence to be certain of a benefit in veterinary patients. They are harmless if used properly but shouldn’t be relied upon as a sole therapy. 

Anti-inflammatory medication 

Eventually, most pets will benefit from anti-inflammatory therapy as these drugs are highly effective at controlling pain and inflammation. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most prescribed, but alternative veterinary and human medications can be used as well or instead. Medication should only ever be given as prescribed, and stopped if side effects are seen (such as gastrointestinal upset). Some pets respond well to a 2–4-week course of medication to control an acute flair of arthritis, whereas some will benefit from indefinite daily dosing.

If other management strategies are employed as well, you may feel your pet is comfortable long-term on a lower dose than initially prescribed. Pets needing long-term NSAID therapy should have blood tests performed at the point of continuing treatment beyond an initial course, then every 6-12 months to ensure there are no other problems that mean the drugs are no longer suitable. 

Other medications 

Various other medications are available to help manage arthritis. These are newer treatments, and different vets may recommend certain treatments based on their experiences. They include treatments that are injected straight into the joint (such as stem cells or platelet rich plasma) and a monoclonal antibody therapy that is injected under the skin monthly.


Most cases of arthritis don’t benefit from surgery. If there is an underlying condition present, such as cruciate ligament rupture or hip dysplasia, surgery may be an option. Your vet will be able to advise if this is appropriate for your pet. 

What is the outlook for dogs with Osteoarthritis? 

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, meaning once it is present it will never go away and will gradually get worse. If management techniques are followed as described, many pets will live comfortably with arthritis for several years. If changes are not implemented until disease is severe, or not implemented at all, quality of life will be affected much more rapidly. 

The Canine Arthritis Management's website has a wealth of information and resources about managing your dog’s arthritis and is well worth a look.


Please note that the content made available on this webpage is for general information purposes only. Whilst we try to ensure that at the time of writing all material is up to date and reflects industry standards, we make no representation, warranties or guarantees that the information made available is up to date, accurate or complete. Any reliance placed by yourselves is done so at your own risk.

Page last reviewed: 16th January 2024
Next review due: 16th January 2026