As your dog ages, it’s common for him to slow down and take his time smelling the flowers — and the fire hydrants. However, if getting to his favorite sniffing spots, or up the stairs or onto the sofa, seems to be a difficult, your pooch may have developed arthritis.

“Arthritis is a huge health problem in dogs and cats,” says Robert McCarthy, DVM, a board-certified orthopedic veterinary surgeon at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. This degenerative disease happens when smooth cartilage that covers and protects the bones in a joint starts breaking down, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Once the bones are exposed, painful wear and tear can occur, followed by inflammation.

Your dog may have arthritis if she:

  • Is walking stiffly
  • Is limping or favoring certain limbs
  • Is showing stiffness or discomfort when getting up
  • Seems to feel pain when you touch certain areas
  • Seems to find certain positions uncomfortable or painful
  • Is losing flexibility in her joints
  • Is hesitant to jump, run or climb stairs

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When to take Fido to the vet

Notice any of those signs? Take your pooch to the vet right away. A physical exam, x-rays and other diagnostic tests will help determine if your dog has arthritis, the ASPCA says.

“Dogs don’t develop arthritis ‘just because’,” says McCarthy. Here are the most common conditions that may lead to it: 

  • Obesity
  • A joint infection
  • Dislocation
  • Trauma
  • An inherited condition, such as hip dysplasia
  • Immune system problems
  • Ligament, tendon or muscle injury
  • Fracture of a bone that involves a joint
  • Aging and natural erosion of cartilage

“Usually there is an underlying stress in the dog’s body that sets off the cascade of arthritis,” notes McCarthy. Some dog breeds — especially large dogs — have a lot of orthopedic conditions, while small dogs tend to not be as predisposed to the disease. The number one cause of arthritis in dogs though, is obesity, he says.

Treat the cause

“The first goal is not to start throwing pills at it,” says McCarthy. Your vet should find the underlying problem causing the arthritis and address it. For each diagnosis, a different treatment may be necessary, he adds.

A restricted diet might help take pressure off the joints. A minimally invasive procedure called arthroscopy to repair tissues or remove debris in joints may be in order, McCarthy says. At the extreme end is hip, elbow or knee replacement. 

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Relieve the symptoms

If treating the underlying condition is not possible, a lot can be done to slow down arthritis progression and control pain. Work with your veterinarian to come up with a plan. Here are some treatments you might want to discuss:

  • A healthy, restricted diet 
  • Antibiotics, painkillers or anti-inflammatory medications 
  • Nutritional supplements to help replenish cartilage and ease pain
  • Regular, low-impact exercise, such as walking or swimming 
  • Physical therapy, such as walking on underwater treadmills
  • Acupuncture and electro-acupuncture 

There are risks associated with long-term use of certain prescription medications for arthritis, says McCarthy. Make sure you understand how to administer the medications, and ask your vet what problems to look for.

Never give your dog any over-the-counter arthritis or pain medications for humans. Also, consult with your veterinarian on how much and what type of exercise would be best for your pooch. Too little or too much movement or exercise can increase pain.

Here are some changes in your home and routine that could also greatly improve your dog’s quality of life, according to the ASPCA and the American Veterinary Medical Association:

  • Provide soft bedding or an orthopedic foam bed. 
  • Have short, gentle play sessions. 
  • Provide her with gentle massages.
  • Place food and water bowls on a low table or crate, or in a raised feeder, to avoid neck and spine strain.
  • Groom the areas of her body that may be hard for her to reach.
  • Provide ramps for the car and other areas where jumping or climbing would be necessary.

Best methods of prevention

Your dog is happy and spry? No arthritis? Great. The best thing you can do for him is to make sure he stays that way.

  • Take a good look at your dog. Is his abdomen as thick as his chest? You rub his chest and can’t feel any ribs? Your dog is probably overweight. Take him to the vet for a checkup and new dietary plan. 
  • Keeping your dog fit with exercise also may help prevent arthritis. 
  • If your dog is predisposed to getting arthritis or if she had an orthopedic injury or condition that predisposes them to get arthritis, start her on join supplements, McCarthy advises.

“Prevention,” says McCarthy, “is the best thing you can do for your dog.”

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Daniela Caride is a freelance writer who has four cats and two dogs. She blogs about being a pet parent at Taildom.com and founded a nonprofit called Phinney's Friends.