Canine Arthritis – Why Treatments don’t work

The mistake that I see many dog owners make is that they are looking for a tablet, drug or supplement to cure a condition that currently cannot be cured. In most situations, arthritis in dogs can be managed successfully and your vet will guide you on when and if medication is necessary.

Don’t be looking for the herbal remedy or miracle supplement that will cure your pet’s arthritis before you have reviewed their weight and exercise regimes. By focusing on some relatively simple steps, it is highly likely that you will have a dramatic effect on your dog’s mobility and quality of life.

Back to basics! – Lifestyle modifications

Weight Control

It is essential that your dog gets down to an appropriate body weight. I can’t emphasise this enough. In people, it is not proven that being overweight will cause arthritis – it may be one factor that could contribute in some patients. However, being overweight will definitely make your symptoms worse and increase your dependency on medications to control pain.  These medications can have unwanted side effects. Likewise, if your pet is overweight, weight control is a vital part of successfully managing their arthritis. It is a simple (but not easy) strategy that is very likely to reduce joint pain in your dog and their dependency on medication.

I said not easy. In my experience, it is no easier to get your dog to lose weight than it is for you to do it for yourself. One of the major problems with getting a dog down to the correct weight is getting you, the pet owner to realize that your pet is overweight.

Dogs don’t show excess body weight like we do. Don’t be looking for a spare tire round their waist or a double chin! Please listen to your vet or veterinary nurse on this one. They will advise you on if your dog is overweight or not. They will do this by comparing your dog’s current weight (usually in kilograms) to an optimal range for their breed. They will also feel over your dog’s ribs to assess fat cover. They know what they are doing – please listen to them and take their advice on how to reduce your dog’s weight safely if indeed your pet is significantly overweight.

Osteoarthritis-Friendly Exercise

Keeping active is important to prevent joints becoming stiff. Certain types of exercise are better for arthritic dogs. For example, exercising on flat even ground as compared to hilly ground is going to be kinder to all the joints.

Exercise within the capability of your pet. This will be trial and error as osteoarthritis is a very variable condition and what is ok for one patient may not be suitable for another. Don’t exercise your arthritic dog to a level that aggravates their signs and symptoms. My general recommendation as a starting point is 15-20 minutes, once or twice daily mainly on the lead with some off lead running for part of the time.

Swimming is a great exercise for dogs with arthritis, as the load-bearing on the joints is reduced. What I am talking about here is perhaps best thought of as recreational swimming. Visit a local purpose-built dog swimming pool. Your vet will know where one is – there may even be one at their practice. Some facilities may have a water walker, which is a treadmill in a water tank. These facilities allow for safe, controlled exercise. Swimming and water walking gives your pet the opportunity to do a fat burning or cardio work out.

Some form of water-based activity like these can be of great benefit to the dog with arthritis caught up in the weight/pain cycle – they don’t exercise because it makes their joint pain worse. They tend to get fatter and heavier which then exacerbates the joint pain and so they are even less tolerant of exercise and the cycle continues in a negative direction.

Swimming combined with good dietary advice can help to turn this around. Again, discuss it with your vet and make sure they are keeping an eye on your arthritic dog, particularly in the early stages to ensure that the programme is having a beneficial effect and not making the situation worse.

A word of caution. If your pet is elderly, hasn’t been particularly active or has an additional known medical condition then take them for a general health check with your vet prior to commencing an exercise programme. Sometimes a short course or intermittent use of an anti-inflammatory drug will be required to settle joint discomfort and allow your dog to exercise more comfortably.

Once these measures are in place then, and only then, should we look at medication and supplements. Clearly, you can’t leave your dog in pain whilst they lose weight but the issues of body weight and exercise patterns should be addressed immediately and appropriate action taken. They form the foundation for successful long-term management of your pet’s arthritis.

You can find out more about effective medications and supplements for arthritis in dogs in the Free Veterinary Expert video series on Arthritis in Dogs at

Dr Andrew Coughlan, founder of the Veterinary Expert, is a specialist small animal orthopaedic surgeon. His aim is to help you to get the best possible treatment for your pets, and to facilitate optimal quality of life for pets with ongoing medical conditions.

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