Ooooh! My Aching Joints!

Posted by  on June 14, 2010

If your dog could talk, he might just be telling you his joints ache.  Although he can’t actually verbalize the problems he is having, he will give you some signs that he is experiencing pain in his joints, and you can then begin helping to make him more comfortable.


Symptoms of Joint Pain

As you examine a painful limb on a dog, you must remember that even the friendliest dog may lash out against someone who causes him pain.  Proceed very carefully when you are poking and prodding on his sore legs.

One of the primary indicators of joint pain is limping or favoring one or more limbs, particularly in the morning or after lying in one position for an extended period of time.  When you look at the leg more closely, you may find swelling and warmth around the joints, and if you move the fur aside, you may see some redness of the skin.

Types of joints

A joint is formed anyplace where two or more bones come together.  In a dog’s body there are three different types of joints:  fibrous, cartilaginous, and synovial.  The fibrous joints are totally immovable, such as the seams between the skull bones, and are the least likely to be afflicted with disease.  Cartilaginous joints, such as those found between the vertebrae of the spine, are only partially movable.  Synovial joints are totally movable, often in several directions, and are the most likely to develop problems.

Synovial joint structure and function

Synovial joints like the hip, knee, and ankle, are formed where the bones of the legs come together.  Between the ends of the bones is a layer of smooth cartilage which acts as a shock absorber when weight is borne on the leg.  The bones are held in place by ligaments running from one bone to the other, holding the joint in proper alignment.  Tendons, on the other hand, attach the muscles surrounding the joint to the bones, allowing the joint to move.  The entire joint is surrounded by the synovial membrane and bathed in synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant to keep the joint moving smoothly.

Short-term joint pain

Short term joint pain may be the result of a strain or sprain.  A strain occurs when one of the tendons or muscles around a joint is stretched too far, while a sprain is defined as the over-stretching of a ligament.  The pain from a strain or sprain may be just as intense as the pain from other joint problems, but it is generally short-lived.  You should see improvement in your dog’s gait in a few days and complete healing within a few weeks, depending on the age of your dog and his general health and fitness level.

Long-term joint pain

If your dog’s pain does not resolve within a few weeks or if it continues to worsen, you will need to consider some of the more serious causes of joint pain:  osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, infectious arthritis, and hip dysplasia.

The three forms of arthritis result from differing pathologies, but the end result is essentially the same:  a breakdown of the cartilage cushioning the joint, causing pain when the bones rub against each other.  Cartilage carries no pain nerves, so as long as it is present in the joint, the dog will not feel pain.  However, when the cartilage wears away, the dog feels pain from the pain nerves in the bones themselves.

In osteoarthritis, the cause of the cartilage breakdown is overuse, injury, or simply old age, while in rheumatoid arthritis, the cause of the cartilage breakdown is an overactive immune reaction.  Infectious arthritis results, as you may have guessed, from a bacterial infection of the tissues around the joint, and is the rarest of the three forms, typically cropping up after joint surgery.


Osteoarthritis, what is often referred to simply as arthritis, is the most common disease to cause long-term canine joint problems.  Often an indication simply of old age, the process of cartilage degeneration is hastened by trauma and obesity.  In addition, large breed dogs are more likely to develop degenerative joint diseases than are small breeds.  Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint, but is most common in the hips of a dog.  Learn more in our article devoted specifically canine arthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Occasionally, a dog’s immune system begins to see his own body proteins as foreigners.  The immune system will then begin to produce antibodies against what it sees as invaders.  The antibodies attach to the dog’s proteins and are then deposited in the dog’s joints, causing inflammation and pain.  The body then tries to get rid of the antibody-protein complexes, but ends up damaging the joint more than helping it.  The cartilage, and in severe cases even the bone itself, wears away as the disease progresses.

The key difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis is that rheumatoid will often attack several joints at once.  In addition, the dog may experience other symptoms from the antibody-protein complexes being deposited in other areas of the body.  This can cause kidney disease, enlarged lymph nodes, and tonsillitis.

To obtain a definitive diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, your vet will likely want to do X-rays of the affected joint(s) and may even want to biopsy the joint.  These tests are often expensive, so you may want to try to provide symptomatic relief for your dog even without a definite diagnosis of arthritis.

Hip dysplasia

Canine hip dysplasia is an inherited condition that results in the abnormal development of a dog’s hip joints.  A dog with the genetic make-up for hip dysplasia is born with normal hips, but develops problems, usually in both hips, by the age of 2 years.

A laxity in the hip joint places the head of the femur in the wrong place within the hip socket when the dog bears weight.  As the dog’s bones develop, the incorrect placement of the femoral head interferes with bone growth and hardening in the hip socket, causing inflammation, bone spurs, and a thickening of the synovial capsule.

By the time bone development is completed, the dog is usually lame and experiences crippling pain in both hips.  However, dogs who have strong musculature surrounding the hip joints may be spared much of the pain and infirmity associated with hip dysplasia.

Although any breed of dog can develop hip dysplasia, it is most common in larger breed dogs including German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Golden Retrievers, and Saint Bernards.

Finding a puppy without hip dysplasia

Because hip dysplasia has a genetic cause, care must be taken to inspect breeding pairs before selecting a puppy.  A breeder should be able to show you a certificate of hip health from the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) stating that the dog is free from any signs of hip dysplasia.  Prospective puppy purchasers should insist on seeing certification for both parents before placing a deposit on any dog.

However, OFA certification is not an absolute guarantee that your puppy will be free of hip dysplasia.  Even with both parents having perfectly healthy hips, 25% of the puppies they produce are at risk of having the genetic make-up to develop hip dysplasia.  Because of the complicated genetics involved in the disease, the disease could be masked in some generations, making it impossible to totally eliminate from the breeding pool.

Treatment of long-term canine joint problems

Regardless of the source of your dog’s hip pain, the treatment is virtually the same and is aimed at relieving pain to improve your dog’s quality of life.  None of these conditions is curable, so the next best thing is to lessen the impact on the dog.

First and foremost, as a dog guardian, you are responsible for keeping your dog at a healthy weight.  Obesity is a major contributor to joint pain.  In addition, as the dog gains weight, he is less likely to want to exercise, making him gain even more weight and experience even more pain.

The next step is to reduce the inflammation around the joint.  In simple cases, this can be accomplished with buffered aspirin, but more advanced cases may require prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.  Keeping your dog mobile will also help to prevent stiffness around the joints.  Walk your dog daily, starting out with short walks and being careful not to push him too fast or too far at first.  Gradually lengthen your walks and increase your speed to keep your dog’s joints flexible.

Provide your dog with a warm, dry place in which to sleep.  Cold and damp contribute to joint stiffness.  If you can, provide an orthopedic dog bed which will assist your dog in distributing his weight more evenly, sparing his joints while he sleeps.

Lastly, dietary supplements may help improve your dog’s joint health.  Glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and vitamin C have all been shown by various studies to help build cartilage and increase the lubrication between bones in the joints.