Osteoarthritis in dogs

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease, mainly caused to long-term overload and characterised by a progressive change in the cartilage and bone structure. This can eventually lead to joint deformation. Osteoarthritis in dogs and the associated wear and tear in the joints mean unpleasant pain for the dog.

Although osteoarthritis can affect any joint, the condition is particularly common in the hip, elbow, and hock joints. During the course of the disease, bony deposits develop along the edges of the cartilage and capsular attachments, and the lubricating properties of the synovium (joint fluid) deteriorate, meaning that the joint is abraded more and more and in the long run can even be completely destroyed.

Osteoarthritis often develops as a result of previous arthritis (joint inflammation) or joint malposition, as well as excessive stress at a young age, improper diet and obesity. Osteoarthritis itself is not hereditary, but there are genetic predispositions to diseases that can result in it developing. (e.g. joint malposition, overweight, osteochondrosis, etc.)

Which joint malpositions can occur?

Hip and elbow joint dysplasia are among the most common joint malpositions. It can affect all dogs of all breeds and sizes, although some breeds have a strong genetic predisposition to it. The cause is a special looseness of the joint. This means that the head of the joint is not lodged firmly enough in its socket. This means that the load on the socket and the head is incorrect and excessive wear takes place. This situation subsequently leads to degenerative changes, and osteoarthritis develops.

Which symptoms signify that osteoarthritis is present?

An unambiguous diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made on the basis of an X-ray, but it is suspected if the following symptoms occur: 

  • Visibly swollen joint
  • Biting/licking the painful site
  • Problems in getting up or lying down
  • Reluctance to move
  • Does not climb stairs or jump in the car so easily any more
  • Lameness (especially after long walks)
  • Position when lying down changed often to take strain off the painful joint
  • Reduced activity
  • Looks for warm and soft places to lie on

Can osteoarthritis be prevented?

Although there is no way to completely rule out osteoarthritis in an old dog, the risk can be minimised by means of a few measures.

With puppies and young dogs, special care must be taken not to exercise the animal too much. Of course, the dog benefits from age-appropriate exercise. Cycling, jogging, stop-and-go games (all games in which the dog brakes jerkily, like playing ball and throwing sticks) are however taboo. If possible, a puppy should not climb stairs and must be lifted out of the car. Since this is rather difficult with an 8-month-old Great Dane, for example, special boarding aids have been developed. These make it easier for the dog to get into the back of the car and thus avoid putting damaging strain on the joints.  

Healthy, well-balanced dog nutrition is as important as the correct body weight of the dog, because even relatively little excess weight inevitably leads to the joints being permanently overloaded. Apart from that, dog sports such as agility, Canicross or Discdogging must be handled responsibly and in accordance with breed and physique.

What are the treatment options?

Since the osteoarthritis itself is irreversible, treatment focuses primarily on alleviating symptoms and in the best-case scenario halts its progression.

Classical medicine mostly employs analgesic anti-inflammatories. Since these put strain on the dog's stomach and metabolism, they should be regarded as a permanent solution only in exceptional cases.

Apart from weight loss, physiotherapy can also be used to help the dog lead a pain-free life.

Does devil's claw help for osteoarthritis?

The roots of this medicinal plant native to Africa are dried and powdered, and have long been used to provide relief for osteoarthritis and joint disease.

The main active ingredients are iridoid glycosides (at least 2.2%), which have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. Devil's claw has a particularly high concentration of a special iridoid type, harpagoside (at least 1%), which in addition to being anti-inflammatory also has an analgesic effect.

The efficacy of devil's claw has been proven in several human clinical studies, while side effects were extremely rare. Side effects were limited to mild gastrointestinal complaints or mild headache, dizziness or hypersensitivity reactions in the skin. In a double-blind study in which more than 50 volunteers were exposed to 400 mg of an extract with an iridoid glycoside content of 1.5% for 3 weeks, there was a significant improvement in the subjective pain perception of the subjects after only 10 days, the results being better in mild to moderate cases of osteoarthritis than in severe cases.

And how can devil's claw help my dog?

Dogs that suffer from osteoarthritis have a clearly reduced urge to move, which impairs their quality of life significantly. Although long-term pain medication relieves the symptoms of osteoarthritis, in many cases it has significant side effects that mostly manifest in stomach problems such as gastritis or gastric ulcers.

Devil's claw, in contrast to classic non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, has the ability to stimulate the production of gastro-oesophageal messengers. This makes it possible to administer in the long term. Classic pain medication places great strain on the gastric mucosa.

What else can I do to help my dog?

Apart from administering appropriate medication or a suitable supplement, a number of measures can be taken to help the dog in this situation:

  • Provide a comfortable, easy-to-reach place to lie down
  • Use an orthopaedic dog bed
  • Adjust nutrition to your dog's specific needs
  • Adapt activity and type of workload to the situation

Apart from that dog owners must learn to read their dogs very well, because some dogs won't stop playing, even if they are in pain. The best is to make a dog with arthritis do head and nose work, and give him daily leisurely walks on as natural a surface as possible.   

Compiled by: Hanna Nowak on 19/06/2019


  • Treatment of osteoarthritic pain with herbal drugs (s.chrubasik/m.wink) Department of Pharmaceutical Biology University of Heidelberg

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