From Day One, Five Steps to Prevent Arthritis

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog waiting looking up with lonely eyes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Arthritis in dogs is common today and has several causes; the good news is there are many things pet parents can do to help their canine companions avoid this debilitating condition
  • In puppies, it's important to prevent injuries and trauma that can lead to joint disease in the future; it's also important to control growth in large and giant breed puppies
  • Feeding an anti-inflammatory diet, keeping your dog lean and well-exercised, and offering beneficial joint support supplements are also crucial steps in arthritis prevention

Arthritis is unfortunately a very common condition in dogs today, and genetics can play a role — especially for certain breeds. Other causes of arthritis include abnormal wear and tear on joints and cartilage, abnormal development of the hip or elbow, excessive laxity of the joints, trauma, dislocation of the kneecap or subluxation of the kneecap or shoulder, osteochondrosis dissecans, prolonged steroid therapy, and certain drugs.1

While there are many triggers for canine arthritis, some of which are outside our control, in my experience, lifestyle and inadequate proactive prevention are bigger contributing factors for many dogs than any other cause.

The good news is there are many things you can do, starting the first day you bring your pet home, to significantly reduce the risk your four-legged family member will develop arthritis down the road. The following tips are excellent not only for preventing arthritis in your pet, but also for helping manage the condition in dogs who have been diagnosed with the disease.

Prevention Tip #1 — Avoiding Injuries and Trauma

Many cases of arthritis in middle-aged or older dogs develop as the result of an earlier (sometimes years earlier), often seemingly minor injury or trauma. For example, most puppies are clumsy, prone to falling downstairs and jumping from high surfaces, which can set the stage for future arthritis.

That’s why I recommend trying your best to get your dog through the awkward puppy stage with minimal stumbles, tumbles, and falls. Cover slick floors with runners or area rugs. In my experience, puppies who slip, trip, and fall regularly are much more inclined to develop bone growth problems, which lead to joint problems.

Another type of injury I see frequently in dogs is cervical damage from leaping or jerking against a leash attached to a collar. A pet parent or dog trainer who jerks a dog’s neck when he’s leashed can also cause this type of injury.

Yanking a dog by a leash attached to a collar is absolutely the wrong thing to do, because it very often results in cervical trauma, which then results in joint damage. I recommend harnesses rather than collars for leash attachment for this very reason.

Prevention Tip #2 — Controlled Growth for Large Breed Puppies

The wrong diet can cause large breed puppies to grow faster than their frames can keep up, resulting in orthopedic disease, which is a precursor for arthritis. Many large and giant breed dogs are genetically predisposed to grow too fast, and sadly, their well-intentioned humans help the process along by feeding inappropriate, high-growth pet food to these puppies.

You should feed your large or giant breed puppy with the goal of keeping him lean, with controlled growth. A healthy large or giant breed puppy will thrive on a portion-controlled, nutritionally balanced, species-specific diet (see tip #3 below). You can feed a carefully balanced homemade diet or an excellent quality commercially available food.

Traditional puppy foods often provide much higher calorie counts than large breed puppies require, causing them to gain too much weight too quickly. If you're going to feed kibble to a large breed puppy, I recommend you look for special large breed puppy formulas or a formula that is "approved for all life stages."

This means the food is appropriate for growing puppies or adult dogs. I don’t recommend feeding a traditional (high growth) puppy food to large breed puppies. For more information on feeding a large or giant breed puppy, see "Why Overgrowing Your Large Breed Puppy Is Dangerous."

Prevention Tip #3 — An Anti-inflammatory Diet

The joints of your dog’s body are composed of soft connective tissue and cartilage. Their role is to provide cushioning between bones to allow normal movement. Arthritis is an inflammatory condition that causes damage to joints, which is why an anti-inflammatory diet is such an important prevention step.

A moisture-rich, nutritionally optimal, species-specific diet of real, whole foods, preferably raw, organic, and non-GMO, is naturally anti-inflammatory in nature. It should include:

High-quality, lean protein, including muscle meat, organs and bone (protein coming from animal sources should make up more than 80 percent of a cat's diet)

Low to moderate levels of animal fat (depending on your pet's activity level)

High levels of EPA and DHA (omega-3 essential fatty acids)

A few fresh cut, fibrous vegetables, pureed

No grains or starches

A whole food vitamin/mineral supplement that meets the additional E, zinc, iron, copper, manganese, iodine and vitamin D deficiencies often found in homemade diets OR enough of these hard-to-source foods in whole food forms, daily

Beneficial additions such as probiotics, digestive enzymes, and super green foods and a good source of vitamin C

Prevention Tip #4 — Weight Management and Daily Exercise

Keeping your four-legged family member at a lean, healthy weight is absolutely crucial in preventing arthritis. It’s very important to practice portion control at every meal. For most dogs, this means a carefully measured morning and evening meal. And don't forget to factor in any calories from treats.

You also need to know exactly how many calories your dog should be eating per day. Use this calorie calculator to determine how many calories he should consume on a daily basis to maintain an ideal weight.

If your dog isn’t well-exercised, even if her weight is good, it can set the table for arthritis as she ages. Animals are designed by nature for movement. If your dog doesn’t have the opportunity to go on walks with you, run, play and get regular aerobic exercise, she can end up with any number of debilitating conditions affecting her bones, joints, muscles and internal organs.

And dogs need to move their bodies more, not less, as they age. Although the intensity, duration and type of exercise will change, daily activity is still crucial to prevent musculoskeletal weakness. Muscles maintain your dog's frame, so preserving muscle tone will also slow the amount of joint laxity (which causes arthritis) as well. One of your our dog’s best defenses against joint degeneration is excellent muscle mass.

Daily, consistent, lifelong aerobic exercise is a crucial long-term strategy to prevent or delay the onset of arthritis symptoms. Without it, many dogs will exhibit more profound symptoms much earlier in life.

Prevention Tip #5 — Beneficial Supplements to Maintain Healthy Joints

Chondroprotective agents (CPAs) (e.g., glucosamine sulfate, collagen, hyaluronic Acid, MSM, eggshell membrane, perna mussel aka green-lipped clam, and cetyl myristoleate protect the joints and slow the rate of cartilage degeneration, which can be very beneficial in both preventing and managing arthritis. The form, dose and type of CPA your veterinarian prescribes should be based on a careful assessment of your dog's individual needs.

I also recommend supplementing your dog’s diet with a high-quality omega-3 supplement (krill oil), turmeric, and supergreen foods (spirulina, astaxanthin).

Additional Recommendations

  • Chiropractic care is an excellent and affordable way to realign your pet’s spine after an injury, or on a routine maintenance basis if your dog is a large or giant breed predisposed to arthritis, such as the Newfoundland. Proper alignment prevents your dog’s body from shifting into unhealthy positions to compensate for an injured or painful area, which can create problems down the road.
  • Massage is another good way to treat tissue inflammation and prevent secondary compensation in your dog’s body.
  • Stretching is beneficial for reducing degeneration and preventing soft tissue injury. It’s especially helpful for older dogs and competition and working dogs.

I also recommend finding an integrative or proactive, functional medicine veterinarian to work with you to customize a comprehensive arthritis prevention protocol for your dog.