Managing arthritis in dogs

Arthritis can be very painful. But dogs hide pain well so it can be hard to see when dogs with arthritis are starting to feel sore. Also, it can be difficult to know how to help your arthritic dog if they are already obviously uncomfortable. Arthritis usually gets worse gradually over time. Dogs can develop arthritis in their toes, ankles, hips, wrists, elbows and shoulders, or spine or actually any joints, like humans.


This is Alfie, a ten year old Cavalier King Charles spaniel who has arthritis in his hind limbs. His owner reported he had been grunting a little when getting up after rest and slowing down on walks. He was one of my case studies and was a delight to massage.

Alfie had some very sore places around his stifles (knees) but he was very cooperative and allowed me to massage around the area without complaint.

Alfie during a canine massage session managing his arthritis

After his three initial sessions his owner reported that he was feeling more comfortable. Alfie was grunting less. And though still slow and steady, he was happier to go on longer walks again, which is a great outcome. Photo and information shared with kind permission from owner.


Signs of arthritis in dogs

If you notice that your dog is slowing down, or showing their age, they may already have quite significant arthritis (Osteoarthritis) in one or more joints. They may also be:

  • Stiff, especially when getting up from resting and/or on cold damp mornings.
  • Lame, or holding their body differently.
  • They may be reluctant to go on walks.
  • Slowing down on walks or struggling to jump in or out of the car.
  • You may notice changes to their behaviour, so they may be more withdrawn or grumpy.

Dogs are very good at hiding their pain and compensating for it by using their bodies differently. So the first time you become aware they are struggling may be when their compensating limbs can no longer cope.


Causes of arthritis in dogs

Arthritis can occur due to breed disposition and also the natural ageing process. It can be as a result of existing orthopaedic conditions, such as hip or elbow dysplasia. Prior injury, such as broken bones and even infections in joints are also potential causes.

The severity and/or speed of development can also be made worse by excessive repetitive activities. These activities could include lots of high energy ball throwing or lots of jumping in and out of high vehicles for example. It can also be made worse by slipping on the floors at home, or by being overweight. Excess weight and excess activity puts extra strain on the joints.

Arthritis in dogs is just the same as arthritis in humans. It is a degenerative joint disease where the cartilage where the bones meet within the joints starts to wear away. This causes inflammation in the joint, with associated pain and swelling. The cartilage no longer provides the cushioning that it used to. The ends of the bones eventually start to grate directly across each other. This can lead to more pain as the surfaces of the joint become roughened. In addition, the natural range of movement is reduced.

When arthritis affects a joint, your dog stops using it as well as it used to. They also shift their weight onto the less painful limbs. Their body will tighten up the muscles around the affected joint to try to prevent painful movement. The damaged joint is painful itself, but over time, because the muscles hold this stress, they become painful, due to myofascial pain and the formation of trigger points within the muscles.


How to prevent arthritis getting worse

A couple of things you can do to help your arthritic dog and slow down the development of arthritis is keeping your dog at a good weight and always consider moderation in activities. So enough regular exercise but not too much. Speak to your vet for advice on weight and  activity levels if you are not sure. Even with these precautions in place, arthritis will probably still develop, just at a slower pace.

I always try to balance the risk that I know is present with a desire to have fun with my dogs. Doing activities we all enjoy. So I do ask my dogs to do agility with me, and there is a risk with that because it is high impact and high energy. When they are running they are excited and not always as careful as they could be. But we have fun and we don’t go overboard. We don’t train the obstacles every day. Therefore I think it is worth that risk.

If you notice signs of arthritis, refer to your vet promptly so they can assess and diagnose your dog.

The vet will usually prescribe pain relief and/or anti-inflammatories if arthritis is confirmed. They might also recommend weight loss to help relieve the pressure on affected joints. Supplements may also be helpful. Your vet can advise on which are most suitable for your dog.

You can then consider which complementary therapies may also be suitable to help with managing arthritis in your dog. This could include massage, hydrotherapy, acupuncture or others. All these therapies require vet consent to proceed.


How does Massage help?

Canine Massage Therapy helps to resolve, decrease or manage areas of protective muscle splinting. This in turn can significantly reduce the dog’s pain. Massage cannot resolve or undo the arthritic changes which have already occurred. But it can help your arthritic dog by relieving increased pressure on the affected joint. This pressure occurs when the muscles crossing the joint become tight, shortened and inflexible. Massage will address any soft tissue imbalance and will also incorporate myofascial and trigger point release. These all add up to your dog feeling more comfortable overall.

As part of a massage treatment, the therapist identifies and addresses patterns of overcompensation. We always consider the whole of the dog’s body, not just the primary area of concern.

When massage is applied correctly, the issues in the soft tissues that are compensating for the arthritic joint(s) are addressed rather than masked.

Massaging an arthritic dog can result in improvements in their range of motion, movement and gait, provide pain relief and they will feel better overall. This results in an improvement in the dog’s range of motion, movement and gait, and will often result in a better mood too.

Massage for arthritis management in dogs

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Interested in finding out whether massage can help with managing arthritis in your dog?