Why Is My Dog Breathing Heavy? 4 Common Causes

Golden Labradoodle dog outside in fall season

**If your dog is struggling to breathe, is weak and having difficulty standing, or if his tongue is blue or gray, please seek emergency veterinary care IMMEDIATELY as this may be a life-threatening emergency!**

One of the most common concerns of pet parents is related to their dog’s breathing. At AskVet, we frequently encounter questions such as, “why is my dog breathing heavy?”, “why is my dog panting so much?”, and even “my dog is making funny noises while he’s breathing!”.  

We’ll discuss some of the most common causes of changes in your dog’s breathing below. First, we’ll teach you how to count your dog’s respiratory rate per minute. This is important information to have if there are any concerns about your dog’s breathing. 

What is Your Dog’s Respiratory Rate?

When you take your pup in for a vet visit, you probably notice that the vet tech or doctor takes your dog’s vital signs. One of these vital signs is your dog’s respiratory rate, or breaths per minute. This is an essential step in a dog physical exam checklist.

The most accurate way to assess a dog’s respiratory rate is actually while they are sleeping! (This is impossible at the veterinary clinic for obvious reasons!) This way, any variation in breathing due to activity, level of alertness/excitement, or anxiety is eliminated and you obtain a true evaluation of whether your dog is breathing more quickly than normal. 

To take your dog’s respiratory rate, wait until they are sleeping (or very relaxed). Look at your dog’s ribcage rise and fall. Each rise and fall is counted as ONE breath. Now, use the stopwatch feature on your phone, or the second hand of a clock, to count how many rise-and-fall cycles are completed in sixty seconds—that is your dog’s respiratory rate! (You can also count for thirty seconds and multiply by two.)

Normal sleeping respiratory rates should be below 30 breaths per minute. If your dog is breathing more quickly than this, take a video of their breathing and chat with AskVet so a veterinarian can assess your dog further. Note: some dogs have normal sleeping respiratory rates as low as ten! 

Give you pet the personalized care. Get the app!

Noisy Breathing

Is your dog making noises like a snorty little piggie when she’s breathing? If your dog has a short face (like most Frenchies, English Bulldogs, Pugs, and Boston Terriers), and has been making noises like this her entire life, then this is likely due to something called “brachycephalic airway syndrome.” These pups are SO CUTE, but as a trade-off to that level of adorableness, we can see significant breathing problems!

Brachycephalic airway syndrome is a very common cause of noisy breathing. So, why does  your smushed-face pup snort and snore all of the time? The answer is simple: since all of the same anatomical structures in long-nosed dogs are compressed into a face that is one-third the length, all of that extra skin and soft tissue will create more turbulence of the air moving in and out of your dog’s mouth, nose, and throat. In some cases, surgery can be done to improve their breathing and open up those airways (and improve their quality of life). Your AskVet veterinarians are happy to discuss this syndrome with you and prepare you for a visit with your family veterinarian to discuss these options! 

However, if your dog has a long nose, or if your dog was always a quiet breather and now is suddenly making snort-type noises, then this can be a cause for immediate concern. Take a close look at your dog’s face. Is she having any milky white, green, or yellow discharge from her nostrils? If so, this may indicate a sinus infection, or a piece of grass stuck in her nose, or (very rarely, thank goodness) a mass in her sinuses. Sometimes dental problems will also cause noisy breathing and nasal discharge, since the roof of the mouth is also the floor of the nasal cavity. Your veterinarian can do a thorough physical exam and discuss what is likely to be going on with your pup, and if any treatments or further testing are needed. 

If your dog is making noise while he breathes and there is NO discharge from his nose, then he could have a mild upper respiratory infection (like kennel cough or allergies). These conditions are usually easily treated, and frequently occur with your dog constantly coughing and noisy breathing. 

Another possibility more often seen in larger-breed dogs is laryngeal paralysis. In this condition, small flaps of cartilage that form the voicebox will sometimes become weaker and droop as they age, preventing air from moving in and out like normal. 

Since increased airway turbulence and noisy breathing can reduce your pup’s ability to cool off when it’s hot outside or when they are exercising, it’s important to keep him quiet, cool, and calm until he can be evaluated by your veterinarian in person.

Breathing Too Fast

If you have noticed your dog breathing more quickly recently, it could be nothing to worry about! As you probably know, dogs release their body heat through panting and breathing quickly. Since they can’t sweat as efficiently as human beings, we can see our dogs breathing more quickly in warm weather (signs of heat stroke in dogs) and after exercise. If, however, you notice your puppy breathing more rapidly and there has been no recent change in temperature or recent exercise, then this may be the first clue that your dog needs your help. 

Heart Disease

If your dog has been diagnosed with a heart problem, any increases in his respiratory rate should be taken seriously. If his sleeping respiratory rate is above 30 breaths per minute (see above), then he should be evaluated by a veterinarian right away—even if that means taking him to an emergency clinic. Research has shown that a sleeping respiratory rate above 30 in a dog with heart disease is highly likely to indicate fluid build-up in the lungs, or congestive heart failure. Please chat in with an AskVet veterinarian to help you determine if an ER trip is necessary.

Lung Problems

As you can imagine, lung problems are another common cause of rapid breathing. Just like people, dogs can develop medical conditions such as bronchitis, pneumonia, fungal infections, parasitic infections, and (thankfully rarely!) even cancer in the lungs. Heartworm disease is another possible cause of heavy breathing, but monthly heartworm prevention can almost completely eliminate the risk of this disease. 

To look for any of these lung diseases, your veterinarian will likely start by taking radiographs (x-rays) of your dog’s chest to evaluate the heart and lungs. Bloodwork may be recommended as well to check for inflammation and certain types of infectious diseases that can affect the lungs. Sometimes, your veterinarian will recommend seeing a specialist for a look down your dog’s airways using a camera in order to diagnose the problem and collect cells to look at under the microscope. 

Problems Outside of the Lungs

Sometimes, a dog’s heart and lungs are perfectly healthy and they are still experiencing rapid breathing due to a medical problem. For example, your dog’s red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. If your dog doesn’t have enough of these red blood cells (a condition called anemia), her body will try to increase the amount of oxygen available by breathing quickly. 

If you have noticed other changes in your dog such as increased thirst and urination (how much water should my dog drink?), changes in her appetite, or any vomiting or diarrhea, then your pup’s rapid breathing may be related to a hormone problem. For example, diabetes and Cushing’s disease are common culprits of increased breathing! Your veterinarian may want to screen for these conditions by performing bloodwork and testing your dog’s urine.

Anxiety can cause excessive panting in dogs, too. Dogs experiencing signs of separation anxiety in dogs, storm and noise phobias, or who find themselves in a fearful situation will often pant during the event. They will usually return to normal when the event is over, but this can be a sign that your pup may benefit from some environmental or medication intervention.  

In other dogs, rapid breathing can actually indicate that your dog is in pain. We see this most commonly in older dogs who are starting to struggle with arthritis. In these patients, your dog’s veterinarian may prescribe a trial of pain medication to see if that improves her breathing problem. 

The Bottom Line

If you have noticed any changes  in your dog’s breathing—whether it is increased noise, or more rapid breathing—it’s important to have a veterinarian evaluate your canine companion. That way, appropriate treatment can be started as soon as possible and lead to increased comfort and quality of life—for both of you! To better monitor your dog’s health, take the time to read our guide on the dog physical exam checklist. This way you can become familiar with what is normal and what is not. 

Our AskVet veterinary experts are here 24/7 to help you determine how urgent your dog’s breathing problem is, discuss possible causes, and walk you through what testing and treatment your veterinarian may recommend.

Whether you have an immediate need or are looking to improve your pet’s overall wellbeing, just sign into your AskVet account and one of our friendly and knowledgeable veterinary experts will attend to your needs, no appointment required!


Written by:

Allison Ward, DVM

Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.

Why Is My Dog Coughing? Causes and Treatment

Young Fawn Mixed Breed Puppy Laying on Striped Bed

Have you noticed your dog coughing lately? Does it seem to happen at a certain time of day, or did it start suddenly after he came home from a boarding kennel “vacation”?

Coughing is one of the most common reasons for pet owners to seek veterinary care and advice. Before you start wondering, “Is my dog sick,”read on below for a discussion on the most common causes of canine cough!

**If your dog’s tongue is a blue, gray, or white color—or if he is weak, unable to stand, or not alert—then please seek emergency veterinary care IMMEDIATELY. These symptoms can indicate a life-threatening breathing emergency!***

Is My Dog Coughing, Gagging, or Choking?

Of course, we’re all familiar with how it sounds when a person starts coughing—but what does it sound like when your dog has a cough? To many pet owners, it sounds exactly “like there’s something stuck in his throat.”

Rest assured that, unless your dog is turning blue, struggling to get air, or even losing consciousness—it is HIGHLY UNLIKELY that there is something truly stuck back there!

Instead, dogs tend to have a very loud hacking, gagging cough. If they cough several times in a row, they might end the episode by spitting up some clear or white foamy fluid. (This part is called a “terminal retch” and is often mistaken for vomiting.) Spitting up at the end of a coughing episode may look alarming, but it is usually just an indicator of how severe the cough itself is—not necessarily how sick your pooch might be (Phew!).

As long as they go back to breathing normally after a coughing episode (see below for more information), then the problem is a cough—not something stuck. 

Read our guide on “Why is my dog breathing heavy” to learn more!

What Are the Most Common Causes of Dog Coughing?

Kennel Cough

The most common cause of coughing in dogs is called “kennel cough,” which is an umbrella term used to describe all of the bacterial and viral doggie colds that dogs can pass to each other—much like children in school or daycare! This common condition is associated with a dry, hacking cough.

Dogs coughing due to kennel cough are usually known to have been around other dogs in the two weeks prior to their first episode of coughing. This social contact with other dogs can take place at a dog park, doggie daycare, boarding facility, or even at the groomer’s—basically, prolonged exposure to any facility where other dogs are cared for.

If your pooch has been diagnosed with kennel cough, is an adult dog who is otherwise healthy, and has received the Bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine, then she will probably have a bad cough for several days to a week but feel pretty good otherwise. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics or a cough suppressant to help her get back to normal as quickly as possible.

Can Kennel Cough Turn Into Pneumonia?

In young puppies and unvaccinated or older dogs, kennel cough is more likely to worsen and start to affect your dog’s lungs. Infection in the lungs is known as pneumonia and is very serious.

Dogs with infection in the lungs will often have yellow, green, or white discharge from their nose, feel tired and lethargic, may have a decreased appetite, and breathe more quickly—even when they are sleeping.

Pneumonia can worsen and require intensive care, including IV fluids, antibiotics, and even oxygen therapy. If you have any concerns that your pup may have pneumonia, it is best to have her evaluated by a veterinarian ASAP.

Fortunately, the vast majority of dogs with kennel cough recover quickly. However, once your dog has recovered, it’s important to keep her away from her canine buddies for at least ten days since she’s probably still contagious to other dogs!

Tracheal Collapse

Another possible cause of canine cough is due to weakness and sagging of the firm cartilage rings that make up your dog’s windpipe. You may have heard the technical term for this condition: tracheal collapse. This condition appears to have at least some genetic basis. It is more common in toy breeds, such as Yorkies, Chihuahuas, Pugs, Malteses, and Bichons.

If your dog has a collapsing trachea, she may make the characteristic “goose-honk cough” sound when she gets excited (and air is moving in and out of her windpipe very quickly).

For example, you may notice that she coughs when someone comes home or is at the door or when she sees a friend while on a walk and starts panting excitedly. Sometimes the windpipe can collapse so severely that it causes an emergency—but most of the time, the cough goes away when your little girl calms down and relaxes.

How Is a Tracheal Collapse Diagnosed?

To diagnose tracheal collapse, veterinarians often recommend x-rays of the chest and neck. Because the collapse of your dog’s trachea is temporary (during the cough), we often don’t see it on our x-rays—since it is like taking a photo of a moving object! Instead, your veterinarian is looking for other causes of your dog’s cough.

Conditions such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and enlargement of the heart can be seen on x-rays. A cough can also be one of the symptoms of heart murmur in dogs. If no other cause for your dog’s cough is found, then your dog may be diagnosed with tracheal collapse.

Tracheal collapse is a medical condition that will be present to some degree for the rest of your dog’s life. As your pup ages, the cough may get more frequent over time or cause episodes where your pooch really does have trouble getting enough air. In these cases, your veterinarian may prescribe cough suppressants.

Ask yourself, “Is my dog overweight?” The best way to minimize your dog’s tracheal collapse symptoms is to maintain a lean body weight, which reduces pressure on your dog’s airway.

Less Common Causes of Coughing

Of course, there are PLENTY of other reasons for dogs to cough—we just see these conditions less frequently! Your vet may attribute your dog’s cough to an enlarged heart (with or without heart failure), acid reflux (yes, just like people!), an air-quality issue (like from nearby wildfires), pneumonia, canine influenza, bronchitis, heartworm disease, a fungal infection, cancer (fortunately very rare!), and many, many other possibilities.

Let’s discuss a few of these further.


Mosquitos are responsible for transmitting the heartworm parasite. Larval heartworms enter an animal’s bloodstream, thanks to the bite of a mosquito.

After a few months of traveling through the bloodstream, they reach the heart, beginning to grow and produce larvae once they have matured. They have an average lifespan of seven years and reach a length of one foot after six months. If heartworms mate, they can produce microfilariae, which can prompt a dog’s immune system to attack their own organs.

Heartworm Prevention and Testing

Overall, heartworm prevention is the best option for this condition, and part of this plan might be testing. So how often should they be tested?

  • Dogs who have not previously received heartworm prevention measures and are over seven years old should undergo testing.
  • Regardless of age, all dogs should be tested annually. Your DVM may recommend an annual injection or monthly medication along with this test.
  • Puppies who are under seven months old can begin to receive preventative treatment. They should be tested six months after starting treatment, as well as six months after their first test.
  • Dogs who have missed a heartworm treatment should be tested to ensure that they are not infected with the virus.

Heartworm Symptoms

Now that you know what heartworm is and how to prevent it, you might wonder what symptoms to look out for. When your dog first contracts heartworm, it is likely that they will not show signs of infection. As the condition progresses, symptoms will become more apparent.

Here are the four main stages of heartworm:

  • Class One: No visible symptoms or a mild type of cough.
  • Class Two:Persistent cough and exercise intolerance.
  • Class Three: Weakened pulse, increased intolerance for exercise, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing.
  • Class Four: Cardiovascular collapse, referred to as caval syndrome, results in fatal organ failure in severe cases.

Canine Influenza

Canine influenzais an airborne respiratory disease caused by an airborne viral infection, but it can be spread through shared objects and environments that have become contaminated as well. Places where large numbers of dogs gather, such as dog parks, are just one example of a respiratory infection breeding ground.

Let’s discuss the most common symptoms you should be aware of:

What Are the Symptoms of Canine Influenza?

The symptoms of canine influenza are similar to those of the human influenza virus. Your dog may experience difficulty breathing, coughing, sneezing, fever, feelings of lethargy, as well as discharge from the nose and eyes. If you notice your dog exhibiting these symptoms, seek help from your vet.

How Do Vets Treat Canine Influenza?

While this disease has no cure, your vet can advise you on treatment that will support your dog as they recover. It is important to notify your vet prior to your appointment as canine influenza is highly contagious. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics as well as anti-inflammatory medications.

They might also inform you of quarantine procedures to prevent your dog from infecting other dogs and what disinfectant products you can use to disinfect your home.

What Are the Best Ways To Prevent Canine Influenza?

There are vaccines for this virus, but the most effective way to prevent your dog from contracting it is to avoid taking them to public places that have had recently reported cases. If you believe you have come into contact with a dog infected or exposed to it, it’s best to wash your clothes, arms, and hands thoroughly before touching your dog.

Canine Chronic Bronchitis

Canine Chronic Bronchitis is a long-term, incurable condition that may lead to permanent lung damage. T lasts for two months or longer.

It causes inflammation in the lungs, which could result in mucus or phlegm being released into your dog’s respiratory tract. Then, dogs might begin to cough, as it is a natural reflex to attempt to clear the airways from a foreign object.

Let’s discuss symptoms and the steps pet parents can take to manage this health condition.

Canine Chronic Bronchitis Treatment

This condition can permanently change your dog’s airway structure from prolonged inflammation due to the release of mucus. It is crucial to control airway inflammation by modifying your dog’s environment and using medications to slow further damage to the lungs and airways.

As long as you are monitoring the symptoms, your dog’s quality of life will not be drastically impacted. However, an early diagnosis can result in a better prognosis. Although bronchitis itself is not life-threatening, severe damage to lung tissue may lead to bronchiectasis; a condition that could make your dog receptive to recurrent pneumonia.

This is why having your veterinarian perform a physical exam is SO important if your dog comes down with a cough—they can narrow down this long list of possibilities. Your family can discuss whether x-rays, bloodwork, or other testing is recommended to figure out the reason for your pup’s cough.

Is My Dog’s Cough An Emergency?

To help assess whether your coughing dog is truly an emergency or if your pet is stable enough to wait for an available appointment with your family vet, chat with one of our AskVet veterinarians!

AskVet Tip: A brief video (twenty seconds or less) of your dog’s breathing and coughing can be especially helpful for these chats.

As always, your AskVet veterinarians are ready to field all of your questions about coughing in dogs and offer some recommendations for steps to take in their care. Getting your pup back to feeling their best is our top priority!



Dog Coughing: Causes and Treatment Options | American Kennel Club

Heartworm Disease | American Veterinary Medical Association

Dog Flu: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention for Canine Influenza | American Kennel Club

Heartworms In Dogs – Symptoms and Treatments | The Drake Center for Veterinary Care

Canine Chronic Bronchitis: An Update | NCBI

Signs and Symptoms of Cat Arthritis

Gray cat walking outside on a summer day

Written by: Allison Ward, DVM

If you are like most cat parents, you may not have ever heard that cats can develop arthritis! After all, cats are so flexible and athletic that we normally don’t think of our felines as having much difficulty getting around. However, arthritis in cats is becoming more frequently diagnosed, and more treatment modalities are available to help our furry friends live out their lives in maximum mobility and comfort (LINK to “Guide to Treating Arthritis in Cats”). Cat arthritis symptoms  vary greatly from those in dogs, and for any cat-lover, it’s essential to be aware of the warning signs that your cat may be developing this common ailment. 

What IS Arthritis, Anyway?

Most of us know that arthritis is a medical condition that causes joint pain, and is more common in humans as we get older. However, did you know that any animal can develop arthritis—including dogs, horses, and even CATS? 

Simply put, arthritis is inflammation and abnormal “wear and tear” on joint surfaces. Normal joints allow an animal to bend, flex, run, jump, and even curl up for a much-needed nap. There are several different types of joints in your cat’s body, but we’ll focus on the joints most likely to be affected by arthritis: the stifles (“knees”), hocks (“ankles”), hips, elbows, and carpi (“wrists”). Joints in your cat’s spine (neck and back) can also be affected by arthritis, even though the anatomy of these joints is slightly different than the others we’ll discuss.

Give your pet the personlaized care. Get the app!

Joint Components

For starters, let’s talk about the components of one of these joints. When you bend your knee, you can think of the knee joint as kind of a hinge connecting your thighbone to your shinbone. What’s in the middle of that hinge? A complicated structure consisting of tendons and ligaments—so-called soft tissues that act like cables connecting the parts of your leg and kneecap with each other. The hinge also contains a squishy fluid-filled sac called a bursa that is filled with joint fluid. The bursa acts as a shock absorber to distribute weight from standing, walking, running, and jumping so that the end of your thighbone doesn’t smash into the end of your shinbone! Of course, you also have a kneecap that glides over your knee as you bend and extend your leg—but your kneecap should never move from side-to-side. Spoiler alert: your cat’s knees (and other joints) have the same components!

Changes in Arthritis

When your cat walks, runs, jumps, or starts tearing through the house during their nighttime zoomies, stress is put on their joints. Over time, this stress leads to the microscopic breakdown of the joint surfaces. 

If any part of the joint is irritated from instability or too much “wear and tear,” the body sends cells to the joint in an attempt to repair the damage. This can result in inflammation of the joint cartilage, bone surface, bursa, and the lining of the bursa—and starts a never-ending cycle of attempted repair followed by inflammation and even more deterioration of normal tissue. Alas, the body’s attempt at self-repair often results in uneven and irregular surfaces within the joint, which cause even MORE inflammation, followed by MORE breakdown…you get the picture! With inflammation comes chronic PAIN—just like in humans. 

Once your cat is painful, he may alter the way he bears weight on one or more limbs—further stressing joint surfaces in ways that are not normal for the way they are designed by nature. This continues to add to the problem. One symptom of cat arthritis includes decreased activity levels, since understandably a cat with aching joints wants to stay off his feet—and this could also lead to weight gain. Weight gain also INCREASES the pressure on your cat’s joints, speeding up the process of arthritis and worsening their pain. 

You can see how feline arthritis can become a never-ending cycle once it starts—and imagine how greatly it impacts your cat’s quality of life! 

Causes of Arthritis in Cats

So, what causes the joint inflammation that begins the never-ending cycle of arthritis? Most of the time, this inflammation is related to aging itself, and can’t be prevented. (One study found that 90% of cats over the age of 12 have arthritic joint changes on x-rays!) Some cats are born with abnormally-shaped joints (called “dysplasia”) that set them up for the rapid development of arthritis, even from a young age. This type of joint malformation is more common in purebred cats, and is seen in almost ALL of purebred Scottish Fold cats. 

Other factors that increase the development and severity of arthritis are more within your control: obesity is a HUGE (pun intended!) risk factor for this condition, since excess weight increases the work your cat’s joints have to perform with every step. Keeping your cat at a healthy weight is good for their overall health as well as the health of their joints! Also, if your cat is unlucky enough to suffer an injury—such as a broken leg or torn ligament—then his body will continue to form scar tissue in that area over time, leading to arthritis in the affected joints. 

Other causes of arthritis pain are much, much less common (thank goodness!,) and include infections of the joint (usually from a whole-body infection that goes into the bloodstream to affect the joint), or the immune system getting confused and attacking the joint tissue (this is called immune-mediated arthritis). If your cat has been treated for either of these diseases in the past, then you can expect her to have more severe arthritis and at an earlier age.

Symptoms of Arthritis in Cats

Now that we’ve discussed HOW arthritis happens, let’s talk about why we should care and what you might see as a cat parent! We all know how cats love to hide their discomfort and pretend like everything is okay until they just aren’t able to pretend anymore. As a savvy cat lover, there are some telltale signs your cat is suffering from joint pain and that a vet visit is warranted.

Changes in Jumping Habits

At AskVet, we know that nobody knows your cat better than YOU! Undoubtedly, you know your cat’s favorite places to perch and have marveled at how easily he jumps up to and off of high surfaces—like countertops, windowsills, and the upper levels of his favorite cat tree.

As arthritis begins to develop, your kitty will still enjoy accessing his favorite places up high—but he may arrive at his destination with a layover instead of a direct flight (so to speak!). For example, if your cat has been jumping onto your countertop with ease for years, and is now hopping onto a chair before making a final leap onto the counter, then he is likely suffering some discomfort. If he normally jumps onto his favorite chair without a problem, but starts to hesitate before leaping, this is a sign that he is anticipating something unpleasant at the end of his jump—such as a painful landing due to aching joints.

Alternatively, when jumping down, cats with healthy pain-free joints don’t hesitate to leap after a brief look. Cats with arthritis will instead “pour” down countertops or other high surfaces by bracing one paw against the vertical surface first, and then gently easing themselves over the edge and down to the ground. This maneuver helps decrease the force of the “thump” when they land on the floor, and is commonly seen in cats with arthritis of the front legs (shoulders, elbows, carpi) or neck.

As arthritis progresses, you may notice your cat having difficulty “landing” jumps—instead of that cat-like grace, your cat may be jumping too short and end up scrambling to pull themselves up onto a high surface, or even falling when they try. When your cat tries to get up on the couch, instead of a graceful leap, you might see your cat put his front paws on the couch and try to rock or pull himself up. You may also notice your cat hanging out in their favorite high-up perches less frequently—since they are avoiding pain that comes when jumping—or choosing to spend more of their time in lower-level cat beds and other areas.

Changes in Walking

In general, it is uncommon to see a cat actually limp, or “favor” a leg, from arthritis. Instead, arthritic cats tend to move more slowly overall. You may notice that your cat seems stiff and walks with shorter strides when she first wakes up after a long nap, only to move more freely after a few minutes. If you have stairs in your house, you may notice that your cat is slower to navigate the stairs (either up or down), or she may pull herself up from stair to stair. She may avoid going up or down stairs completely, and instead “ask for help” by meowing to be picked up and carried on the stairs.

Other Changes in Cat Behavior

Cats can be tricky when they are trying to show us that something is wrong! When cats don’t feel well, they will show some non-specific symptoms. Sometimes, these symptoms are due to the throbbing joint pain of arthritis. If you notice any of the following changes in your cat, chat with an AskVet veterinarian or make an appointment at your family animal hospital to evaluate whether these symptoms may be related to arthritis, or something else:

–Less active than normal/not playing with favorite toys/shorter play sessions than normal

–Spending more time sleeping

–Hiding/spending time away from members of the household

–Hissing or growling when touched

–Loss of grooming behavior/unkempt hair coat (it can be painful to reach all of those important spots!)

–Loss of normal litter box habits (especially if the walls of the litter box are high, or access to the litter tray requires your cat to jump)

–Loss of appetite

–Increased vocalization

Although there are many medical reasons why your cat may be showing the above symptoms, any or all of these changes can ALSO be due to arthritis pain. It is important for every cat guardian to be aware of what is normal for an individual kitty, and contact a veterinarian as soon as possible if any changes are noted.

Our AskVet Veterinarians are available to discuss all of your pet’s needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Whether you have an immediate need or are looking to improve your pet’s overall wellbeing, just sign into your account, and one of our friendly and knowledgeable veterinary experts will attend to your needs, no appointment required!

Written by:

Allison Ward, DVM

Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.

Treatment of Arthritis in Cats

overweight cat in sunny room on the bed

Written by: Allison Ward

Perhaps you noticed your favorite feline moving more slowly than usual, having difficulty making or landing jumps onto their favorite places, or spending more time in sleeping spots on the ground instead of up high. You’ve taken her to your family veterinarian, who may have taken some x-rays of her joints, and your kitty has been diagnosed with arthritis. Now what? 

Most cat owners are unaware that arthritis is a VERY common disease in cats—especially older cats! Veterinarians and cat lovers are recognizing arthritis in kitties at a higher rate than ever before, likely because our pet cats now live longer than ever thanks to excellent wellness care throughout their life. Sadly, though, there’s only so much you (and your veterinarian) can do to prevent arthritis in the first place . On the good side? There are many options to relieve cat arthritis symptoms and help your cat live as long as possible with a pain-free and active life—even with arthritis! 

Weight Control

The number one MOST EFFECTIVE cat arthritis treatment is to make sure they are lean and with a healthy body condition! Wait, how can this be? 

Think about the amount of pressure on your cat’s joints while they are walking, running, and especially when they land from a jump. Even one extra pound of body weight can increase the pressure on her joints tremendously during all of these activities.  The opposite is also true: less weight equals less pressure, and therefore less pain.

If your cat is overweight at the time of their arthritis diagnosis, congratulations! Although it’s difficult to help a cat lose weight, you have a safe way to drastically improve your cat’s quality of life, and to reduce the need for the other therapies we’ll discuss in this article. 

Talk to your veterinarian for tips on how to get your cat to lose weight and create a personalized weight-loss program. Since increasing exercise (and thus calorie burn) in patients with arthritis is always challenging, your veterinarian may want to switch your cat’s diet to a prescription calorie-reduced formula to make the weight loss process more successful. Some of these foods have the added benefit of fatty acids and other beneficial joint supplements, too! 

Give your pet the personlaized care. Get the app!

Joint Supplements

You’ve most likely heard that joint supplements are effective for people trying to preserve the health of their joints and their mobility. The same is true for cats! Joint supplements work to preserve the smooth slippery fluid within your cat’s joints and the health of the soft cartilage shock-absorbing joint surfaces. These supplements are best started when your cat still has normal tissue to preserve and maintain. If your cat is a breed likely to develop arthritis (like Scottish Fold and Maine Coon cats), or has had a joint injury (including surgery) in the past—then starting joint supplements and continuing them for the rest of your cat’s life may be a good idea.  

Most of these long-term joint supplements are taken by mouth. They may come in tasty chewable treats, a liquid that you squirt on your cat’s food every day, or a capsule that you open and sprinkle the flavored powdery contents on your cat’s food. Some prescription diets formulated specifically to maximize joint health contain high levels of these joint supplements—reducing the number of steps you need to take each day!

If your cat already has arthritis, a special form of joint supplement is available in injectable form. This is called Adequan, and helps to preserve joint health and also actively reduce some of the pain and inflammation that comes from arthritis! Adequan is available by prescription only, and your veterinarian can teach you how to administer the injections at home. (We promise, it is easier than it sounds!) Injections are typically twice weekly to once a month, and are very safe for your precious purrbox. 

Pain Medication

Once a cat’s quality of life is being affected by arthritis, pain medication becomes essential to help him live his best life. Anti-inflammatory medications are often used in both dogs and cats for arthritis pain, but the way veterinarians use them for cats is a bit different! 

In general, veterinarians are more cautious about the long-term use of anti-inflammatory medications in our feline patients. While this class of medication (which includes Onsior and Meloxicam/Metacam) can make a dramatic improvement in the lives of many cats, and slow the progression of arthritis, restrictions on the prescription labeling for these drugs generally prohibit their daily long-term use. Instead, your veterinarian may recommend using one of these medications every other day, or several times a week, depending on your cat’s needs. Your veterinarian will likely want to perform blood work before and during long-term therapy with this class of medication. 

There are other pain medications available for cats whose kidneys are already struggling to function, or in cats for whom regular bloodwork monitoring isn’t possible, or in cats for whom anti-inflammatory drugs and joint supplements just aren’t enough to control their pain. These medications include gabapentin (which is wonderful for all types of chronic pain), buprenorphine, and Cerenia (maropitant). These medications can be used on an as-needed basis for arthritis flare-ups, or on a daily basis, depending on your kitty’s needs. 

AskVet Tip: As veterinarians, we are all too aware of how intimidating it is to give your 

cat medication—especially if it is a medication that she will potentially need every day 

for the rest of her life!  Fortunately, there are many options for cats who are difficult to medicate. Joint supplements often come in flavored treats. Your veterinarian can prescribe a special flavored liquid, chew/treat, or miniature tablet of their chosen pain medication through a special compounding pharmacy. You can also train your cat to associate medicine time with happy time! (Ask us how!)  Yes, it is possible for your cat to LOVE receiving her medications!

Other Treatment Modalities 

In addition to pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, there are other ways to manage your cat’s arthritis pain. Some veterinarians are specially trained in acupuncture, which has been proven to help feline pain in a similar way to how it helps humans! Not all veterinarians are trained in acupuncture, but your family veterinarian likely knows a colleague with this special skillset and can refer you and your kitty. 

Laser therapy, which consists of a focused beam of light to help inflammation within specific joints, can also be used on problem areas to increase your cat’s mobility and comfort. Many family veterinarians now offer this service, which is non-invasive and can be quite effective. 

Not all cats are amenable to rehabilitative therapy, but if you suspect your cat would tolerate or enjoy taking walks on a treadmill or going through flexibility and strength-training exercises with a rehabilitative therapist, ask your family veterinarian for a referral to a local colleague who performs these services. Just like in people, physical therapy can make a HUGE difference in cats with mobility problems!

Environmental Modification

At home, it’s important to recognize that your beloved feline needs a little extra help in reducing pressure on their joints and in accessing their favorite places. Here are a few ideas to maintain his physical and mental health: 

–Make sure he has a comfy bed to sleep on that is easy to climb into—there are many orthopedic pet beds on the market today! Just make sure the sides are nice and low.

–Assess your litterbox location(s): litterboxes for arthritic cats should be easily accessible on the floor and NOT require your cat to jump up in order to use the bathroom. If your litterbox has high sides that require your stiff kitty to climb in to relieve themselves, consider a shallow litter tray instead—or modify the entrance to his box by cutting an entry hole that only extends up to two inches above the floor. (Just make sure to smooth out any cut edges to prevent injury.)

–Use pet stairs or pet steps next to your bed, couch, or other favorite sleeping spot to make it easier for your cat to enjoy his favorite places with minimal joint stress and pain

–Consider placing a low chair, stool, or other surface near a favorite cat tree so that he can more easily gain access to the upper levels by jumping on that piece first! 

The Bottom Line

From simple things you can help your cat with at home (such as weight loss and improving accessibility to favorite places), to joint supplements, to daily medications—there are many ways to help your cat with arthritis pain! If you’d like to know more about any of these options, or to discuss whether your cat’s symptoms might be due to arthritis, chat in with our AskVet veterinarians 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. We are always here to help you and your pet! 


Written by:

Allison Ward, DVM

Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.

Treatments of Arthritis in Dogs

arthritis in dogs

Written by: Alexa Waltz

 Do you have a creaky joint or two that makes you think twice about making certain movements? Perhaps an old injury that prevents you from playing sports or freely climbing stairs? Believe it or not, you and your dog may have joint pain in common! Dogs are frequently affected by arthritis, especially as our best buddies get old! Just like us, they may start to slow down, move stiffly, and avoid some previously-loved activities.

To diagnose arthritis in dogs, your veterinarian will take into account what you see happening at home, run through some exam points and evaluate your pup’s joint movements, and order x-rays to check for common arthritic joint changes — possibly concluding with a diagnosis of arthritis. So, now that your precious pooch has been diagnosed with arthritis, what can be done?

As a review, there are several causes of arthritis in dogs but they all ultimately result in that smooth gliding joint surface becoming roughened, unstable, inflamed, and damaged. Arthritic joints also lose flexibility due to the inflammation, cartilage wear, and bony changes that happen with this disease. Why do our pups walk stiffly and hesitate to do certain movements when they have arthritis? The answer is simple: because it hurts!  

Unfortunately, once joint damage and long-term inflammation have set in, these changes are permanent and will likely continue to progress as time passes, resulting in more and more discomfort and limitation as your dog ages. Arthritis cannot be cured, but instead, we focus on management of the pain and slowing the progression of further degeneration. Maximizing your dog’s comfort and longevity are the goals of any arthritis management program! 

If your pup has already been diagnosed with arthritis, or if you merely suspect that she is an arthritis sufferer, here are the most common approaches that your veterinarian may recommend for addressing your dog’s issue. Keep in mind that your vet’s goals are twofold: SLOWING the progression of arthritic changes in your dog’s joints, and MANAGING her discomfort. By focusing on these two objectives, you and your veterinarian work together to provide your dog the highest quality of life for as long as possible! Often, vets will combine available options together to create a multifaceted treatment plan for your canine companion.

Weight Management and Nutrition

If your dog has been struggling with her weight, it’s time to really focus on losing those extra pounds! Hungry, overweight dogs can be considered quite cute, but unfortunately the extra pounds exert lots of unnecessary stress on joints. Obesity often contributes to the development and worsening of arthritis. Keeping dogs within their ideal weight range and maintaining a healthy body condition for the length of their lives can decrease the development of canine arthritis. If your dog happens to be chubby at the time the diagnosis of arthritis is made, losing weight can also help manage the discomfort and slow down arthritis progression, too!

When determining what to do if your dog is overweight, your vet may recommend a weight loss plan using a lower calorie diet and discuss a low-impact exercise regimen that will work for your dog’s current physical ability and condition. Also, remember that extra treats may be adding to the pounds too, so do your best to limit those! Lower calorie treats can help keep weight loss fun, too.

Also, check with your AskVet veterinarian that you are feeding an appropriate diet for your dog’s age and condition. Senior dogs (8+ years for large breed, and 10+ small breed) often benefit from a diet designed specifically to manage common age-related changes, like arthritis!

Give you pet the personalized care. Get the app!

Anti-inflammatories and Pain Medication

One of the first medications that your arthritic dog may receive is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (“NSAID”). You may recognize these names for common NSAIDS prescribed for dogs by veterinarians: Carprofen/Rimadyl, Metacam/Meloxicam, Galliprant, Deramaxx, Previcox, Onsior, etc. Depending on your dog’s pain level, these medications may be given on an as-needed basis just for the flare-ups or on especially active days (like trips to the dog park). They may also be given every day on a regular schedule if your pup’s arthritis is advanced enough to cause daily mobility struggles. These medications work to decrease both your dog’s  pain as well as target the inflammation in the joint itself. If you are helping your dog lose weight, these medications can also aid in making them comfortable for longer sessions of exercise and calorie-burning. 

These NSAIDS can be very helpful and improve your pup’s quality of life for an extended period of time! The benefits of this class of drugs are twofold: they slow down joint damage by reducing inflammation, and provide pain relief for your dog. With long-term usage, your veterinarian may want to perform blood testing every 6-12 months to be sure the kidney and liver are happy and functioning well while metabolizing this medication.

AskVet Tip: Pet parents often ask if human over-the-counter NSAIDS, and anti-inflammatories are safe and effective in dogs … and unfortunately the answer is NO! Human medications like Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Naproxen, etc should not be used in dogs and can cause severe gastrointestinal and kidney disease. Unfortunately, human over-the-counter medication is neither safe nor effective for dogs. If given, these drugs can also greatly affect the treatments your vet can use … so stay away from human medications and seek a vet exam first if you feel your pup needs treatment!

Other medications, such as amantadine and gabapentin, may also be prescribed if chronic nerve pain is contributing to your pup’sarthritis discomfort. Gabapentin and amantadine can safely be given alongside an NSAID. Mild sedation from these medications may be noted in your dog, so be on the lookout and report any noticeable negative changes and unwanted side effects to your vet. These medications do NOT act to slow the progression of arthritis, but they help your dog move more freely by controlling their pain and discomfort.

AskVet Tip: When your dog is prescribed any medication, do your best to follow the directions for use on the drug label, store the bottle in a safe place high from curious-counter-surfing dogs and their 2 and 4-legged siblings, and do not share medications between dogs in the home. It is also important to check with your veterinarian before giving multiple medications at the same time to be sure the combination is safe. Combining some medications can cause severe health problems (for example an NSAID and steroid, like prednisone, given together can cause severe stomach and intestinal ulcerations, and mixing 2 different NSAIDS simultaneously can cause intestinal and kidney damage).

Joint Supplements and Nutraceuticals

To complement your dog’s prescription medication and to address the pain and inflammation that accompanies arthritis from as many angles as possible, your veterinarian will likely recommend starting a joint supplement or nutraceutical too!

AskVet Tip: What is a “nutraceutical” you ask? Nutraceuticals include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and extracts that are considered to have health benefits. They are not reviewed or approved by the FDA, but some research has shown certain ingredients to be helpful in supporting damaged and arthritic joints. These supplements may help support the existing joint cartilage by slowing the breakdown of joint tissue, providing the basic components for rebuilding healthy cells, and preventing joint degradation. They can also provide some anti-inflammatory effects of their own, too. Your veterinarian will likely have their favorite joint support supplement products to recommend, that have likely been tested for efficacy, nutritional content, absorption, and bioavailability by an independent lab.

Some animals will show great benefit from nutraceuticals and others may not exhibit much of a change, but it is worth a try! Some of these supplements are oral, like Glucosamine Chondroitin, and some are formulated to be injected into the muscle, like Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycans (“Adequan”). Also, dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids (“fish oil”) are recommended as they can help reduce joint inflammation too.

In our quest for discovery of better treatments for arthritis, ongoing research is always in process. Products like green-lipped mussel supplements, MSM, vitamin-E, and CBD are still under investigation as to their efficacy and safety for animals.

AskVet Tip: While a pet owner may be tempted to use their own joint 

supplements for their older dogs, consult your veterinarian first! The optimal ratios of 

glucosamine to chondroitin, and of certain fatty acid chain lengths, is DIFFERENT in dogs 

than for people–so before you reach into your own medicine cabinet, ask your veterinarian about dog-specific supplements.

Physical Therapy/Rehabilitation and Acupuncture

In addition to medications and supplements, your vet may recommend physical therapy and other treatment modalities to preserve your dog’s muscle mass and the range of motion of those precious joints. These approaches can help keep our arthritic sore dogs more comfortable, and sometimes result in regaining some strength and mobility, too! 

Low-impact exercise like swimming and physical therapy with an underwater treadmill can provide some gentle resistance to help strengthen muscles, lose weight, and increase joint motion. Balance and range of motion exercises can help support stretching, flexibility, and increase muscle strength too. Some veterinarians are certified in rehabilitation, and so check this resource to find locations for rehab centers near you http://www.rehabvets.org/!

Acupuncture is another treatment option that some pets will greatly benefit from. Acupuncture consists of inserting tiny needles at specific points on the body that may result in a physiologic response to decrease muscle spasms, soothe pain, and increase circulation. Not all veterinarians are trained in acupuncture, as it is a special certification process. Your vet likely knows of a local colleague who provides acupuncture consultations if you would like to try that route. 

In addition, some veterinarians offer other therapeutic modalities to help their patients with arthritis such ase therapeutic laser (providing pain relief and stimulating tissue growth and remodeling), transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (“TENS”, stimulate nerves), and extracorporeal shockwave therapy (improve healing, decrease pain). Ongoing research and development for these types of treatments are always in process.

At home, there is always the tried-and-true cryotherapy (cold compress) and thermotherapy (warm compress) option, too! Placing a cold compress over a painful area for 15 minutes is meant to decrease inflammation after acute injury or flare-up, and will decrease blood flow as well as temporarily numb pain. Using a warm compress can help to reduce muscle spasms, increase blood flow and also provide a soothing sensation.


Surgery can be considered both as a means of preventing certain types of arthritis and a “treatment”! On the prevention side, immediately addressing certain injuries and joint conditions with surgery can create a more stable joint, minimizing the damaging inflammation that could result in arthritis if the joint is left unstable for a long period of time. Injuries like a cranial cruciate ligament rupture, meniscus tear, medial luxating patella, and some types of joint fractures should be surgically stabilized in the short-term for better long-term results. How do you know if your pup has these? Injuries involving joints as well as persistent limping with no improvement should be evaluated by your veterinarian. They will determine if surgery is recommended in order to fend off the development of arthritis. 

Some dogs will be born with badly shaped and malformed joints, like hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia. Another condition called “osteochondritis dessicans” may result in early cartilage damage in some dogs, especially rapidly growing large breed puppies. Some of these conditions have surgical treatment options as well, with the goals of helping the joint to become a healthier shape while the bones are still forming, and giving the joint cartilage the best chance at normalcy.

In the “treatment” realm,surgery may also be recommended in severe cases of arthritis as a salvage procedure for dogs that are good candidates. For example, in dogs with chronic pain from hip dysplasia and the severe arthritis that can follow, a “Femoral Head and Neck Osteotomy” (FHO) will trim off the ball of the hip joint and just allow the hip muscles to operate the leg movement and support the body, resulting in better mobility and less pain! Some patients are also good candidates for a full hip replacement surgery, although the cost can be limiting for many pet parents. Joint fusions for certain severely arthritic joints (the carpus/wrist, and tarsus/ankle) can also relieve some pain.

Depending on your dog’s condition and response to their treatment plan, your veterinarian can discuss the possibility of surgery having any benefit in the management of arthritis progression, and pain. 

Environmental Modifications

There are some adaptations to try at home to make the space you share with your arthritic pup more accessible and comfortable. Since impact and movement can often exacerbate the arthritis pain and lead to more joint degeneration, limiting some of the high-impact activities like jumping and climbing are recommended. Your dog also may have experienced some muscle atrophy and weakness associated with arthritis too; all things to consider when looking to adapt their environment and make it more arthritis-friendly.

Here are a few more helpful suggestions to support your arthritic pup:

  Supply a ramp for walking in and out of the car and a set of padded doggy stairs to get up and down from furniture

  Add more throw rugs over slippery floors for a non-skid floor surface

  Invest in some dog booties, paw pad applicators, or anti-slip toe grips to help provide better floor grip and more stable standing

– Supply amply-sized soft bedding for your pup to sleep on in their favorite areas of the house

  Limit movement between levels of the home (and rooms if necessary) with baby gates so your dog is not tempted to faithfully bound up the stairs after you

  Unfortunately, joint braces do not help as well in dogs like they do people, but consult your vet should they recommend an option for your pup

  Any dog that can walk should, but doggie strollers and wagons can help some severely limited dogs to get that much-needed mental stimulation outside of the house! Be sure to let them get out of the stroller routinely and cruise around to sniff. Keeping their brain healthy is just as important!

  And of course, be compliant with recommendations for exercise and weight loss and adjust food, activity, and play


Is it possible to help a dog avoid the pain and limitations of arthritis altogether? Yes! If you are puppy-shopping and looking into a specific breed that may commonly fall victim to arthritis (Labs, Goldens, German Shepherds, etc), search for a breeder responsibly testing breeding pairs and looking to improve the health of the breed! When it comes to feeding your new puppy, be sure to feed an appropriate and high-quality nutrition formulated specifically for growth. Work on maintaining an optimal body condition through proper diet and exercise for the length of your dog’s life. Consult with your vet for the use of nutraceuticals and supplements as a protective measure in some breeds that are predisposed to joint issues, or if your pup has been diagnosed with hip or elbow dysplasia, or cartilage issues as a youngster. Sometimes though, even with all of these safeguards, as they grow older the signs of arthritis may still creep in but perhaps to a lesser and more manageable degree.

Comfort is the Goal

Arthritis can severely limit your dog’s comfort and happiness, and unfortunately cannot be reversed once it is present. Using a multimodal approach that combines various elements of the above options will result in reaching a steady plane of comfort for the longest time possible! Every dog will respond differently, so each case will be treated individually. Recheck appointments and yearly vet exams are valuable too, as your pup’s needs may change periodically as arthritis progresses or even shows improvement! Patience and compliance at home are key to helping support your best buddy in keeping them as comfortable as possible for the length of their lives!

Our AskVet Veterinarians are available to discuss all of your pet’s needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Whether you have an immediate need or are looking to improve your pet’s overall wellbeing, just sign into your account and one of our friendly and knowledgeable veterinary experts will attend to your needs, no appointment required!


Written by:

Alexa Waltz, DVM

Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!


Signs and Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs

beagle standing on the walkway in public park with sunlight

Written by: ​​Alexa Waltz

 Have you noticed your best buddy walking stiffly, moving slower when rising out of bed, or hesitating to run and jump lately? They could be feeling the effects of canine arthritis, a very common problem causing discomfort and joint pain in dogs.

What Exactly ARE Joints, Anyways?

In order to understand why and how arthritis is a problem in your pet, it’s necessary to first understand how their body works! Joints act like hinges, linking together rigid bones and the corresponding muscles, which allows dogs to move around at will. When your pup tears across the yard after a squirrel, leaps off the couch, and even plops down to curl up for a nap, you can credit their healthy joints for his flexibility and ability to absorb all of those physical forces. There are several types of joints in a dog’s body, but we will focus on the main type of joint that is most often affected by arthritis. As a dog ages, the synovial joints in the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders are the most common culprits for mobility issues due to arthritis pain. The vertebrae of the spine can be affected by arthritis and aging related changes too, but that is a subject for a different day! 

In a healthy animal (humans included!) a synovial joint contains the smooth, slimy, “padded” surface between 2 or more bones. Each joint has similar components: the hard bones, soft cartilage, pocket of joint (“synovial”) fluid, and supporting structures such as ligaments and a meniscus. In order for your dog to move freely and without pain, every structure inside the joint needs to be healthy, shaped correctly, and located in the right place. 

In health, your dog’s joints contain a lubricated and smooth sliding surface, which acts as a shock absorber, and also to maintain proper alignment allowing your dog the freedom of pain-free movement! These qualities are essential for stable and balanced joint function. Healthy joints ensure the best long-term, pain-free movement for your dog.

What is Arthritis? 

Arthritis is also referred to interchangeably as “osteoarthritis (OA)” and “degenerative joint disease (DJD)”. These terms mean that one or more joints are inflamed and that the normal structures that make up that joint are no longer healthy.

If a joint is abnormally shaped or if it becomes damaged, then it will become unstable. Damage can happen due to a traumatic injury or can be due to degeneration of the joint itself over time. The instability eventually leads to inflammation and abnormal wear of surfaces within the joint, setting the stage for arthritis.  

Once a joint becomes inflamed, then what happens? Your dog’s body is incredible at trying to heal itself, and microscopic changes begin to take place in a vain attempt to restabilize the joint. Blood vessels deliver inflammatory cells to try to wage war on the cause of the instability and start the repair process. Unfortunately, these cells only serve to continue the vicious cycle of inflammation and destruction! Because these inflammatory cells can’t “win” (like they could against, say, a bacterial infection), they keep coming and keep causing more damage.

In the beginning, the damage may be microscopic and involve thinning of the cartilage, depositing blood cells and inflammatory cells in the joint fluid itself, and thickening the lining that provides essential shock absorption. (This structure is called the “joint capsule”–you can think of it like a water balloon between two hard bones!) When the lining of the joint capsule becomes thickened, this contributes to further irritation when your dog is bending and extending the affected joint. This changes the way the surfaces of the joint come in contact with each other, causing further wear and tear.

Eventually, these abnormal forces within the joint cause the nice soft spongy cartilage to wear away, increasing contact between the hard bony surfaces of the joint. Sometimes, pieces of cartilage can even break off! The body will further attempt to try to stabilize the joint by depositing new boney material to form a type of scar tissue. Unfortunately, this attempt is misguided and causes MORE problems–since this changes the joint shape even further, causing more inflammation, more erosion of normal tissue, and more pain. Once a joint is damaged, you can see how the resulting inflammation can cause permanent, progressive, and irreversible changes over time. 

When a joint suffers a traumatic injury, it is essential to identify the nature of the injury and assess if urgent treatment may help to minimize these inflammatory changes as much as possible. Sometimes, that treatment includes timely surgery and rehabilitation. By treating joint injuries promptly, stability of the joint is restored which can minimize and even prevent some damaging long-term changes. 

When arthritis is already setting in and we do not have a treatable traumatic injury,   veterinarians focus on managing the arthritis pain and slowing the progression in order to maximize comfort and mobility for your dog. Check this link for more about common treatments of arthritis in dogs. (LINK: Dog Arthritis treatments).

Give you pet the personalized care. Get the app!

Predisposing Factors of Arthritis in Dogs

Although any dog can be affected by arthritis, the common “poster child” is a large breed older dog who is slowing down due to hip stiffness and pain (Goldens, Labs, Shepherds, etc, that are 8+ years old). Why are these large breed dogs so commonly affected by arthritis? What might cause a smaller dog to get arthritis? 

An arthritic dog tends to fall into one of two general groups: those who were born with their issue, and those that acquired their issue through their life. Let’s go through both scenarios:

Congenital Causes that can Lead to Arthritis

Genetic and developmental issues are among the predisposing factors for arthritis that we have little to no control over. Dogs will inherit conformation (body structural/shape) and skeletal (bone/joint) issues from their parents.  Some of the most common heritable issues that can lead to arthritis over time are as follows:

-Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Dysplasia – abnormal formation of the hip and elbow joints

-Osteochondrosis – Abnormal bone/cartilage development

-Luxating Patella – Abnormally shaped femurs (thigh bones) which cause the kneecaps to slip in and out of place

-Bone and joint conformation – Abnormalities in the shapes of a dog’s bones which result in abnormal forces being placed on the joints         

AskVet Tip: Some dog breeds are predisposed to congenital and developmental conditions due to the inheritance of traits from their parents. A goal of responsible and selective breeding of purebred dogs is to improve the genetics and physical traits that are passed down to further generations. Genetic testing, X-rays, and blood testing are among some of the ways of avoiding the perpetuation of undesirable health issues. If you are considering breeding your dog, we recommend a detailed discussion with your veterinarian and screening your pup for any congenital issues that may put their offspring at risk of a painful life due to arthritis! 

Acquired Causes of Arthritis

Even if a dog was born with stable balanced joints and has strong genetics, there are some aspects of their lifestyle, daily activity, body condition, and environment that can increase their risk of developing arthritis: 

-Obesity – Excess body weight can cause abnormal forces to be put on the joints 

-Joint Injuries – Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament in the knee, bacterial joint infections, trauma, immune-mediated and inflammatory conditions, bone fractures, etc

-Joint surgery – Any past surgeries involving the joints can disrupt the healthy surface and structures

-Diet – Lacking appropriately balanced nutrients for healthy growth, especially during puppyhood, can affect the makeup of bones and cartilage

-Strenuous exercise and joint usage – Repetitive high impact movements of performance, working, and sporting dogs

Common Dog Arthritis Symptoms  

Dogs are very good at compensating and hiding their discomfort when arthritis is in its early stages. Typically, when dogs are no longer able to cope with the pain, pet parents will start to see some of the signs hinting at arthritis. We primarily see arthritis affecting middle-aged to older dogs, although some younger dogs can also be affected. Here are some of the more common symptoms of arthritis in dogs:

-Moving more slowly

-Hesitant to run and jump

-Slow to lay down or get up from bed

-Limping, or “bunny hopping”

-Swelling or thickened joints

-Muscle atrophy

-Difficulty standing on slippery surfaces

-Limited ability to flex or extend joints

-Less playful, reluctant to be active

-Grumpy behavior, sensitive to certain areas of their body being touched

-Depression and unusual behavior

-Postural changes, arched back

-Licking joints

-Pacing at night

-Inability to get comfortable

-Sleeping more than normal

-Weakness in hind legs (fall over, legs give out, difficulty posturing to urinate and defecate)

-Excessive panting

What to do Next?

If your pup’s movement and behavior match some of the above descriptors, it may be time to take her to the vet for an orthopedic exam! Your vet will watch your pup move around the room prior to conducting a full physical exam. During the exam, your veterinarian will be keeping a close eye on your dog’s reactions, looking for areas that are painful or sensitive. They will also assess your dog for decreased muscle mass, thickening and swelling of joint capsules, a crunchy sensation when the joints are flexed, and decreased overall flexibility. Also, a series of special flexion techniques can help determine the presence of certain conditions like a ruptured cruciate ligament.

Your veterinarian’s orthopedic exam may be followed by x-rays to view the health of the bones and look for any obvious visual changes within the joint. Sometimes veterinarians will also recommend blood and urine testing to check the health of the internal organs as well, especially if surgery or daily and long-term pain medication is under consideration.

Your vet will then use all this information to discuss any therapies and a plan for your pup’s condition. Again, since arthritis changes cannot be reversed, management going forward mostly focuses on keeping the pain at the lowest level possible, supporting the current health of the joint structures, and preventing further inflammation and deterioration. Keeping your pup mobile and comfortable for as long as possible is the goal of arthritis management!   

Our AskVet team is ready and waiting 24/7 to discuss your dog’s mobility issues, address any questions about arthritis causes, and share general info regarding treatment options. Whether you have an immediate need or are looking to improve your pet’s overall wellbeing, just sign into your account and one of our friendly and knowledgeable veterinary experts will attend to your needs, no appointment required!

Written by:

Alexa Waltz, DVM

Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!