Degenerative Joint Disease (Osteoarthritis)

Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD or Osteoarthritis) is the slow progressive degeneration of joint cartilage due to the wear and tear that comes with aging. Some conditions such as hip dysplasia or cruciate ligament disease can result in more rapidly progressive arthritis in younger dogs and cats.


Pain is the most significant result of the condition. The discomfort may be exacerbated by cold damp weather or exercise. Dogs and cats are very good at hiding their pain and rarely cry out. They are less vocal and more tolerant than people. Therefore, it is important to look for subtle signs of pain.

  • Stiffness is noticed most when the animal rises from rest and usually lasts less than fifteen minutes.
  • Lameness – limping or an unusual gait.
  • Reluctance to play, jump up or use stairs.
  • Personality changes including irritability, especially towards children or other dogs, may be a sign of discomfort.


Your veterinarian will examine your pet for signs of joint stiffness and crepitus, pain and underlying problems. Radiographs (x-rays) are one of the most useful ways of confirming and characterising degenerative joint disease.


Weight Loss

It is crucial that animals with arthritis do not carry excess weight. Your vet will help you develop a diet plan to achieve the ideal weight for your pet. This will relieve a portion of their discomfort.

Rest and Exercise

During flare ups of painful arthritis, rest is important to encourage the inflammation to subside. Total disuse of limbs is not recommended as it will lead to muscle atrophy and joint stiffness. Appropriate exercise includes lead walking with no running or jumping. Swimming is an excellent activity for arthritic animals.


  • Warmth: heat packs (41 – 43 degrees C) are helpful at minimising muscle spasm and pain. Apply a heat pack across the shoulder blades and hips for ten minutes once or twice daily.
  • Massage: after applying heat perform five massage laps to the muscles of the back. Always start at the tail base and work up to the skull gently. Ideally, this is performed twice daily.
  • Cold Therapy: Icing is best used on inflamed joints during acute flare-ups of pain and inflammation. A gel pack kept in the refrigerator can be wrapped in a damp cloth and applied to the painful joint for five to 10 minutes twice daily.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used to treat pain and discomfort. They do nothing to reverse the osteoarthritis. Some dogs require daily medication to remain mobile and maintain good quality of life. Other animals can cope with sporadic doses during winter or at the time of flare-ups. Side effects may rarely include gut ulceration and kidney damage. Therefore, your vet may recommend blood or urine tests before commencing treatment and medication should always be discontinued in the face of vomiting, diarrhoea or reduced appetite.


Other pain relief medications may be prescribed for your dog. Most commonly this is a drug called Tramadol. This drug may not specifically be designed for musculoskeletal pain but has fewer side effects than NSAIDs.

Chondroprotective Agents

These treatments are used in an attempt to slow the degeneration of the joints by improving the condition of the joint cartilage. There is variable evidence proving their efficacy but they have very few and minimal side effects.

  • Pentosan polysulphate (Cartrophen): This medication is administered as an injection once weekly for four weeks. Often we will suggest monthly follow up injections. Approximately 80% of dogs appear to show an improvement in their signs of arthritis after treatment with Cartrophen.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin: These are very safe supplements for your dog; however, their bioavailability is uncertain.

Fatty Acids

These supplements act as a natural anti-inflammatory for the joints. Products containing green lip mussel have been demonstrated to provide relief in arthritis. It is available from the vet hospital as a powder which can be added to the food (Pernaease powder or Sashas Blend) or as a capsule from human health food stores (Blackmores Lyprinol).

Stem Cell Therapy

A new technology involves harvesting stem cells from the fat on your dog and injecting them into arthritic joints. These cells are then thought to exert anti-inflammatory effects in the joint. It is a one-day procedure for your dog which does involve an anaesthetic and a small surgical procedure. Results may vary between animals, however, many owners feel that their animal has benefited from the procedure.

If you have any questions regarding the information in this article or wish to book a consultation for your pet, please contact us.