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Degenerative Joint Disease in Dogs

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Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a broad term used to describe a number of medical conditions in dogs that result in joint pain, including osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia and inflammatory joint disease. It's a common condition in dogs; researchers believe as many as 20 percent of all dogs will experience arthritis at some point in their lives.

Signs that your dog may have arthritis include:

  • Reluctance to walk, climb stairs, jump or play
  • Limping or walking strangely
  • Swelling or abnormal appearance of a joint
  • Lagging behind on walks
  • Difficulty rising from a resting position
  • Yelping in pain when touched or generally resisting touch

What is degenerative joint disease?

In DJD, there is a noninfectious deterioration of the cartilage that covers the surfaces of the bones in the joints. "This cartilage deterioration is also accompanied by thickening of the tissues surrounding the joint, an increase in the amount of joint fluid, and bone formation at the margins of the joint, all of which can lead to significant pain and disability,'' said Tish Harper, DVM, assistant professor of surgery at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "DJD is a slowly progressive condition that is confined to the joint.''

What causes DJD?

DJD may develop in dogs because of abnormal stresses on normal cartilage, Harper said. "This is commonly seen when there is instability in the joint, such as dogs with unstable knees due to ligament rupture or dogs with unstable hips due to hip dysplasia,'' she said. "DJD also may develop as a result of traumatic injury to the cartilage or may be due to normal stresses on abnormal cartilage...as part of the normal aging process.''

Which dogs are at risk?

DJD has several risk factors, including:

  • Overweight or inactive dogs
  • Large or giant breeds, such as the Newfoundland, Bernese mountain dog, rottweiler, German shepherd, Saint Bernard, golden retriever or Labrador retriever
  • Dogs that have suffered joint injuries, such as greyhounds.
  • Dogs of breeds that are predisposed to developmental orthopedic disorders such as hip or elbow dysplasia. Many breeds have an increased risk of these types of conditions, including the golden retriever, Labrador retriever, German shepherd, Bernese mountain dog, rottweiler, Newfoundland, Saint Bernard, old English sheepdog and great Dane.

"Any dog is at risk of developing DJD,'' Harper said. "Damage to the joint cartilage due to trauma is not confined to any particular age or breed.''

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are variable and may affect one or multiple joints. "Dogs affected with DJD usually have difficulty exercising, lameness, decreased muscle mass on the affected limb and decreased ability to bend or extend the affected joint,'' Harper said. "These dogs are often in a lot of pain and there may be increased heat or warmth associated with the affected joint.''

How is DJD treated?

According to Harper, treatment for DJD can be conservative or surgical. "Conservative treatment involves weight management, controlled exercise, physical therapy and pain management,'' she said. "The aim of conservative management is to increase muscle strength and range of motion in the joint, promote cartilage repair and metabolism, and decrease pain. Surgical treatment options include surgical reconstruction or replacement of the joint, or joint fusion. The type of treatment selected  depends on factors such as age, activity level and the presence or absence of other disease conditions.''

What is the prognosis for dogs with degenerative joint disease?

DJD in dogs is usually secondary to other orthopedic problems; therefore the underlying problem should be corrected if possible. Prognosis varies depending on the severity of the disease, the number of joints affected and the medical condition of the dog. "Some surgical procedures can return pets to near normal function,'' Harper said. "It is important to remember that DJD is a complicated, progressive disease condition and that treatment plans are designed on an individual basis through discussions between the pet owner and his or her veterinarian.''

What you can do for an arthritic dog?

Harper recommends the following:

  • Providing a soft, comfortable bed for sleep
  • Monitoring weight
  • Ensuring adequate exercise and physical therapy, especially swimming
  • Providing relief from pain and inflammation, including nutriceutical joint supplements for cartilage health, prescription anti-inflammatories or non-prescription medication for treatment of pain and inflammation
Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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