Arthritis in Dogs – The Three Warning Signs

How do you know if Your Dog Has Arthritis?

Strictly speaking, dogs don’t have ‘symptoms’.  A symptom is subjective – it is only appreciated by the patient and in people, symptoms are what the person experiences about the illness, disease or injury.

Symptoms include pain or discomfort, fever, chills, cold, heat, vertigo, nausea, etc and they are usually why the patient seeks medical advice or attention. So, although it is reasonable to assume our dogs will experience these things as well, they do not communicate them. What we see in dogs with arthritis are signs such as stiffness, less energy on walks, lameness, spending more time in their basket and so on.

Veterinary clinicians tend to talk about clinical signs – the things we pick up on a clinical examination such as lameness, joint swelling, heat, and fluid around or in a joint.

We all know what we mean by symptoms and so I am going to use the terms ‘signs and symptoms’ in this article.

The Three Warning Signs in Dog Arthritis

1.Lameness and stiffness

These signs are variable and clinical arthritis in dogs usually starts as a mild stiffness after rest. The stiffness getting up is usually more severe if the rest period was preceded by vigorous activity. The first time you notice some subtle stiffness in your pet when they get up from the floor or out of their bed may be after a particularly vigorous or long walk the day before. As the condition progresses, the periods of stiffness and lameness will become more severe or more prolonged. So instead of being a little bit stiff for a few seconds when they get out of their basket or bed, your dog may be walking stiffly for a few minutes. In time the signs can progress to a more or less permanent lameness that is most intense after rest.

Osteoarthritis in the dog usually starts in a joint subsequent to another problem in that joint such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia or ligament damage. Therefore in quite a large proportion of patients there will have been a previous lameness that could have subsided months or years ago.

Does arthritis  in dogs always cause joint pain?

Osteoarthritis may or may not progress to a point where we become aware of it. If it does start to cause a problem for the patient, this is when it progresses to a point where the signs or symptoms of osteoarthritis are detected. It is at this point that veterinary help is usually sought and further tests are performed to diagnose the problem and assess how severe it is. We are likely to take steps at this stage to reduce signs and symptoms and take some preventative action, perhaps involving lifestyle modifications (see later). The aim of these interventions is to make your dog more comfortable and to gain the best possible quality of life for your pet.

2. Joint Swelling

In dogs with arthritis, over time the supporting soft tissues around the joint will become thicker. This increase in what is essentially scar tissue will make the joint stiffer, with a reduced range of motion. If the joint is visible then you may notice that it is bigger than the joint on the other side of the body. In many cases, osteoarthritis can affect both knees or both elbows in dogs, and so a discrepancy between the two sides may not be present.

3. Crepitus or grating in the joint

Crepitus is a noise or a vibration produced by rubbing irregular surfaces of bone or cartilage together. It is similar to the sensation you will get by rubbing your hair between your fingers. As osteoarthritis progresses, crepitus becomes a fairly consistent feature. However, it is important to realise that this is not a specific sign for osteoarthritis and mild crepitus may have no clinical significance. It is also not possible to judge how painful your dog’s arthritis is by the degree of crepitus in the joint. However, it would be fair to say that joints with severe, audible crepitus will usually be causing discomfort for your pet.

In summary, dog arthritis will usually cause a gradual onset stiffness and lameness. This is often most intense immediately after rest. If the affected joint can be seen, it may appear thickened. The joint may feel stiff with a reduced range of motion and crepitus may be heard or felt in the affected joint

Although these signs are typical of arthritis in dogs, they are not specific and can be present in other conditions that may require very different treatment. Diagnosis requires a thorough examination by a veterinary professional and a skilled clinical investigation.

To learn more about exactly how arthritis is diagnosed and treated, check out the Arthritis in Dogs video series at