Recognizing Arthritis Pain in a Dog

Signs to look for other than a limp can help lead to treatment sooner.


In too many cases, a dog is in pain from arthritis for quite a while before her owner recognizes that something is wrong. That’s because people tend to expect arthritic dogs to have an asymmetrical gait, such as a limp. But not all joint problems express themselves that way. Take, for example, the case of a dog whose elbow joints in both front legs hurt equally. She’s not going to favor one over the other and limp or otherwise walk asymmetrically. Instead, she’ll shorten her stride, shuffling rather than walking in an effort to limit the amount of time she bears weight on each limb. If, on the other hand, the two back legs are equally affected, rather than ambling forward with her back straight, a dog will instead swing her back and waddle along, right and left, to help the limbs go forward rather than try to bend them where the joints hurt.

Unfortunately, a dog can go for years sometimes before the pain becomes undeniable to even the casual observer, and her owner finally realizes she needs help.

For that reason, it’s important to recognize that shuffling and waddling, just like limping, are not normal gaits. All are signs of pain, even if a dog isn’t constantly holding her leg in the air or whimpering in discomfort. Owners should recognize, too, that if a dog keeps holding up her front paw, it may not be her paw that hurts. It could be her elbow, and she’s holding out her paw to relieve joint pressure. A decreased enthusiasm for exercise, or an unwillingness to walk as far as she once did, may also signal that a dog has arthritis.

Note that once arthritis pain is recognized for what it is, periodic x-rays will not help determine how bad it has gotten. A joint may look worse over time on a radiograph, but with treatment, the dog may actually be doing better than she was originally. Conversely, two x-rays taken a year apart may indicate no change in the joint, but the dog could still be in worse pain. It just didn’t translate onto the image.

For that reason, the best way to see how a dog is doing once she starts being treated for arthritis is via your own observations along with regular clinical examinations by a veterinarian. That’s how to determine whether additional or alternative medications, physical therapy, or perhaps even surgery, are needed.


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