If you’re living with a senior dog who seems to get stiffer by the day, you might wonder how long can a dog live with arthritis. Each dog is different, but most have good days and bad days. After working with thousands of arthritic dogs, one big question clients have is about their dog’s quality and length of life.
Most dogs can live a normal lifespan with arthritis and have a good quality of life. A small subset gets what we vets call “end-stage arthritis.” These dogs get to the point that they can no longer walk or stand because of the inflammation in their joints. End-stage arthritis is more likely to occur in dogs over the age of about 11.
Multi-Modal Treatments for Dogs with Arthritis
Veterinarians recommend “multimodal” treatment for the best outcome for dogs with arthritis. That means it’s better to use more than one kind of treatment to help your dog with arthritis.
Most folks who have an arthritic dog wonder whether they can give them NSAID medications like aspirin or ibuprofen. Dogs are much more sensitive to the side effects of NSAIDs. Aspirin and ibuprofen can cause serious problems for dogs. That’s why we vets prescribe NSAIDs made especially for dogs.
If you think your dog needs a little help but is not yet ready for prescription medication, you can help your dog with arthritis at home without turning to risky medications like aspirin. The key points are weight loss, moderate exercise, herbal/nutritional supplements and stretching. All of these can make a significant difference in arthritis pain.
If you’re looking for one simple, non-prescription supplement to get started, my clients have had good luck with turmeric. I like products that contain both curcumin and BioPerine which helps with absorption. A supplement in the form of a chewable treat will be easier to give–try these Turmeric Curcumin Bites.
Arthritis Affects at Least 25% of All Dogs
The veterinary term for typical dog “arthritis” is osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD). Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that happens when cartilage breaks down. The degenerating cartilage leads to inflammation, hardening of joint tissues, pain, and decreased joint function. The process is irreversible.
Older dogs are more likely to have some level of arthritis from wear and tear on joints, but dogs of any age may be affected. Experts estimate that one quarter (25%) of dogs will be affected by OA during their lifetime (Bland, 2015).
Since canine arthritis spans a spectrum of severity, you should choose which remedy to use by your dog’s level of symptoms. Veterinarians have a grading system to help us decide the best treatment for each dog (Cachon, Frykman, Innes, et. al., 2018).
The Stages of Canine Osteoarthritis
|0-1||Dog has at least one joint undergoing the physical changes of osteoarthritis, but has no symptoms (i.e. no significant pain). Walks, runs, stands, lies down normally.|
|2||Mild symptoms like a mild shift of weight off of a sore limb or slightly abnormal gait when exercising. Stage 2 dogs usually have much worse pain the day after increased exercise.|
|3||Moderate symptoms of OA include obvious limping and some difficulty in getting up from a lying position, trouble with stairs. You might notice a general decrease in daily activity.|
|4||(End-Stage) Severe symptoms present, like not wanting to stand or stay in one position for very long, severe limping, lots of trouble getting up from lying down, and a reluctance to move much at all. Stage 4 dogs often spend a lot of time sleeping and not engaging with their family. These are the dogs that make people wonder how long a dog can live with arthritis.|
How to Help a Dog With Arthritis at Home
Help Your Dog Lose Weight
If your dog is overweight, his arthritis symptoms will be worse. Losing weight is not easy, but it can make a huge impact on the level of arthritis pain your dog has to endure (Marshall, Hazelwinkel, Mullen, et. al.,2010). Plus, it doesn’t cost you anything and has no long-term bad side effects for your dog!
The easiest way to start is by limiting treats to two or three small, low-calorie bits per day. Try baby carrots, apple slices, or even Charlee Bear© treats which have only 3 calories each (or make my homemade version of training treats). I advise people to decrease their dog’s food allotment by about 25%, depending on what they’re feeding and how overweight their dog is. Ask your vet for help on this.
If your dog has mild to moderate arthritis pain, you can try increasing his exercise to help him lose weight. Go very slowly with this, though! If his pain is worse the day after exercise, let him rest until he is better and start over with a smaller amount of milder exercise. You might have to increase in five minute increments of slow walking. See below for more on exercise.
Dogs who are otherwise healthy can safely lose about 2% of their body weight per month. That means if your dog weighs 50 pounds, she can lose 1 pound per month. Check your dog’s weight every two to four weeks. If you’re not seeing progress after a couple of months, get help from your veterinarian.
Your goal is to have your dog in lean body condition. That means you should be able to feel her ribs when you put your hands on her chest, but not see the ribs (when the dog is wet for dogs with longer fur).
Regular Moderate Exercise
Dogs with arthritis suffer more stiffness after periods of inactivity. Based on clinical experience of veterinarians, there is no question that regular, moderate exercise improves pain levels of dogs with arthritis. Daily walks of 15 to 30 minutes will help keep your dogs joints loosened and more comfortable. Beware of overdoing it, though. Too much exercise is as bad as no exercise at all. Your dog should avoid high-energy and high-impact activities like running and jumping if it makes him feel worse afterward.
Herbs and Plant-Based Products
CBD oil is the latest entrant into the field of contenders for treating dog arthritis. CBD stands for cannabidiol, a natural compound extracted from hemp plants (which contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC). CBD can decrease arthritis pain in dogs. There are several early veterinary studies showing that CBD decreased pain scores in dogs with arthritis and had no serious side effects (Gamble, Boesch, Frye, et. al., 2018).
The best-studied brand of CBD for dogs at this time is ElleVet Sciences. It’s not inexpensive, but may be a good option for dogs who can’t tolerate NSAIDs. It’s best to use CBD products with guidance from your veterinarian since they can cause some changes in blood liver values. Do not use any CBD or cannabis products made for humans as they are usually too strong for dogs.
Humans have used herbs and plants to treat pain for eons. Many of these remedies are well-tolerated by dogs when used in appropriate doses. Boswellia, Andrographis paniculata, Hawthorn, Licorice, nettle leaf, yucca root, and willow bark to name only a few. There are also many combination/Chinese herbal formulas such as Du Huo Ji Sheng are effective at decreasing pain and inflammation (Lee, 2019).
An easy way to try an herbal supplement is to use a combination product made specifically for dogs. My clients like Arthroplex from ThorneVet. It contains glucosamine, boswellia, bromelain and curcumin in a chewable form.
If you’d like to experiment with herbs more extensively, please enlist the help of a veterinarian trained in herbology. Even natural products can cause serious problems in dogs when used improperly.
Also, remember that any oral medication can cause gastrointestinal upset. If your dog experiences vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased appetite after starting any new herbal supplement you should stop using it and contact your veterinarian for help.
Homeopathy is controversial, but many people and animals all over the world use homeopathic remedies to ease pain and inflammation. For treating chronic conditions, it’s necessary to consult with a veterinarian trained in homeopathy.
Some of my clients have had success with using Rhus tox. 30C for short term management of arthritis pain in dogs. When it works, improvements are usually noticed within a couple of days.
Warming or Cooling Arthritic Joints
If there is a particular area that is sore, you can apply heat or cooling. For heat, I use a heating pad, set on low and wrapped in a towel held over the area for 5 to 10 minutes. Or try bathing small dogs in deep, warm water for 10-20 minutes (don’t leave him unattended).
For cooling, I use either a frozen cooler pack or bag of frozen veggies wrapped in a towel for the same amount of time. You’ll have to experiment to see which helps your dog feel better. If your dog seems uncomfortable with either of these, just stop and don’t push the issue.
Massage and Stretching
Most people don’t need much convincing that massage can have therapeutic effects on pain for themselves. Animals can benefit from massage therapy in the same way. Massage can be used for acute and chronic pain.
If you have access to a veterinary rehabilitation specialist, I highly recommend you try them! Physical therapy can do wonders for increasing and maintaining mobility. If you don’t have a rehab specialist near you, I have a book I really like called The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog. It was written by a faculty member from the Rehabilitation Coordinator at Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital and it’s easy to understand.
Nutrition for Arthritic Dogs
Diet can go a long way toward reducing general inflammation and increasing overall health. There are so many options for upgrading your pet’s diet these days, but fresh foods are easy to start using right away.
Start with very small amounts and work your way up. Don’t feed more than about ⅓ of your dog’s total daily food intake from table foods or you risk causing nutritional imbalances. Make any changes gradually over a period of 7-14 days to avoid stomach upset.
Some easy things to try adding to your dog’s food include
- A little canned salmon or water-packed sardine
- A bit of baked sweet potato
- A few tablespoons of 90% lean cooked ground meat
- A few blueberries (thawed from frozen is OK)
You could consider a gradual change to a fish-based food (more omega 3 fatty acids), a moist food rather than dry kibble, or even try a dry kibble food made with ingredients added to help with arthritis.
Nutritional Supplements to Decrease Inflammation
In addition to adding fresh foods to your dog’s diet, nutritional supplements may be helpful for dogs with arthritis pain. Go slowly and cautiously with these, too!
- Fish oil contains a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids not found in many other foods. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease the pain and inflammation of canine osteoarthritis.
Fish oil helps arthritis pain. Learn how to safely give your dog fish oil supplements.
- Propolis, bee pollen, and royal jelly are all products derived from honey bees. When taken orally, these products have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM are available for dogs in oral form. These substances work at the level of the joint to maintain normal cartilage. My dogs take Glycoflex 3, but there are many good options. For dogs with severe arthritis, the injectable form in Adequan is often helpful. Ask your vet.
- Undenatured type-II collagen is an oral nutritional supplement that has been shown to slow the breakdown of collagen and decrease joint inflammation. Dogs who took 10 mg of UC-II per day had a significant improvement in pain level (Deparle, Gupta, Canerdy, et. al, 2005).
- Antioxidants including vitamins C and E, glutathione and methionine may quell general inflammation in the body. My clients like Cell Advance for dogs.
Natural and Alternative Pain Relief for Dogs with Arthritis
If you’re doing all you can to treat your dog’s arthritis at home and he’s still having trouble, consider enlisting the help of alternative medical treatment. You’ll need to find a special veterinarian in your area to do the treatments, but they can be very helpful for dogs with arthritis.
Clinically proven to be an effective therapy to reduce pain, acupuncture is safe and gentle when administered by a trained practitioner. Acupuncture can be used for both acute and chronic pain and inflammation. Most dogs get acupuncture treatments once a week for a few weeks or until they show a good response. Then monthly treatments are used for maintenance.
Cold Laser/Light Therapy
Cold laser and infrared light can soothe the pain of arthritis in dogs. Cold laser therapy is available through many general veterinary clinics. It’s usually given as a set of weekly treatments and is painless for your dog.
According to rehabvets.org, “Physical rehabilitation is the treatment of injury or illness to decrease pain and restore function.” Injured and painful animals stop moving in a normal way in order to avoid pain. Physical therapy/rehabilitation helps animals by using exercise and physical manipulations to restore normal movement patterns. Specially trained veterinarians and therapists are available to help.
Platelet Rich Plasma
Platelet rich plasma (PRP) is made by drawing blood from your dog and separating out the platelets and plasma from other blood components. The concentrated platelets have a large amount of bioactive proteins and growth factors.
When injected into an arthritic joint by a veterinarian, PRP significantly reduces the inflammation and pain found in arthritic joints (Fahie, Ortolano, & Guercio, 2013). PRP injections may be given once or multiple times over a period of weeks for more severe cases. The beneficial effects of PRP injections can last for weeks to months.
Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cells are a special type of cells present in multi-cellular organisms that can transform into bone, cartilage, fat and connective tissue. In stem cell therapy for arthritis in dogs, stem cells are collected using a bit of fat from the same dog or from a donor dog. After processing, the stem cells are injected into the arthritic joint space. The injected stem cells help repair damaged cartilage in arthritic joints, improving pain scores in dogs with osteoarthritis (Black, Gaynor, Gahring, et al, 2007).
The good effects of stem cell therapy can last months to years. It’s not cheap, but this is the closest thing to a cure for canine osteoarthritis that we have at this time.
Ultrasound can speed healing of injured tissues. There is clinical evidence that ultrasound can stimulate cell migration, proliferation, and collagen synthesis of tendon cells that may aid in tendon healing (Tsai, Tang, & Liang, 2011). Some practitioners use it in cases of osteoarthritis as well, as it may have a positive effect on the concurrent soft tissue changes that occur in the disease.
Prescription NSAIDs for Your Dog’s Arthritis
I advise clients to try the gentler interventions before resorting to a long course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for their dog’s chronic arthritis pain. But if a dog has a sudden onset of severe pain, giving a short course of prescription NSAIDs is a reasonable approach.
If you’ve used non-prescription interventions successfully for a while, but they just don’t seem to be getting the job done anymore, it might be time to add a chronic regimen of prescription NSAIDs. But NSAIDs should not be relied upon as the only thing given to help a dog with arthritis at home.
Are NSAIDs Bad for Dogs?
NSAIDs can be both good and bad for dogs. They work by blocking certain molecules produced in the body that increase pain and inflammation, namely prostaglandins. There are different kinds of prostaglandins that serve different functions in the body. Some are inflammatory and some actually help protect cells.
Older NSAIDs suppressed both inflammatory and protective prostaglandins. With these drugs, inflammation and pain got better, but the protective effects of other prostaglandins were lost. This is part of the reason adverse side-effects from NSAIDs occur. Newer NSAIDs specifically for dogs are much better at blocking only the inflammatory prostaglandins.
These days, NSAIDs are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of drugs in veterinary practice because they work GREAT for arthritis pain and most dogs do well with them. Some of the brand names you may have heard include Rimadyl, Metacam, Deramaxx, Previcox, and Onsior. These newer pet-specific drugs are much gentler than human NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen. Vets prescribe these dog-specific NSAIDs for both long- and short-term use.
Unwanted Side Effects of NSAIDs in Dogs
Newer NSAIDs are less likely to cause side effects, but it still happens to some dogs. Side effects range from annoying to life-threatening. The top three reported types of unwanted NSAID side effects are:
Gastrointestinal Upset and Ulceration
The most common unwanted side effect of NSAIDs in dogs is gastrointestinal upset and ulceration. Some of the beneficial effects of prostaglandins include protecting the lining of the stomach and intestine from digestive substances. When protective prostaglandin is suppressed too much, ulcers and inflammation form in the GI tract. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, and decreased appetite, but ulceration can occur even without these symptoms.
NSAIDs, especially the older ones, also lead to decreased blood flow to the kidneys. This can cause mild, reversible kidney damage. Long-term use and/or high doses can cause permanent kidney damage and even death. Pets who already have kidney disease may not be good candidates for taking NSAIDs because of this.
The liver helps clear NSAID by-products from the blood. Long-term use and/or high doses of NSAIDs, especially the older versions, can cause liver damage. Rarely, a dog will have an idiosyncratic reaction (peculiar to the individual) to NSAIDs in which liver toxicity occurs. Animals with pre-existing severe liver disease are also not good candidates for taking NSAIDs.
Other Prescription Medications for Arthritis Pain in Dogs
Veterinarians have other prescription medications available to treat severe arthritis pain. Some of these work better than others and each dog will respond better to certain drugs.
Some of the meds I’ve used to help dogs live longer with arthritis include tramadol, gabapentin, Adequan injections, and amantadine. Fortunately, most dogs tolerate these medications well so it’s worth trying one or more of them if your dog is still in pain despite trying some of the other things mentioned above.
With a multi-modal approach to treating pain and immobility, dogs can live a long, normal life span despite having arthritis. Weight loss, nutrition, plant-based therapeutics and nutritional supplements decrease the need to use stronger drugs. Prescription medications and veterinarian-administered treatments can be added for more severe cases of arthritis to keep your dog comfortable for a long time.
photo credit cc bY 2.0: Donnie Ray Jones
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Last update on 2021-05-02 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API