Common Canine Joint Problems


Regular readers might remember our recent article covering common eye conditions. Following on from that, and with joint issues ranking high in lists of common dog ailments, we thought it was time we focused on the most common canine joint problems.

dog at vets for treatment

A dog’s joints take a lot of strain during its lifetime. Dogs bear over 60% of their weight on their strong, flexible front legs, whilst powerful, muscular hind legs provide acceleration and speed. It’s no wonder then that joint problems are so common in dogs, whether through injury or wear and tear over time.

All breeds are susceptible to issues with their joint health, however some breeds are particularly affected by certain canine joint problems. In some pedigrees, where the gene pool has become concentrated, inherited joint conditions can be a particular problem. This is the case with breeds such as the Great Dane, which is susceptible to slipped discs, and the Dachshund, which is prone to luxating patellas. Breeders can tackle this by cross-breeding, which dilutes the gene pool and can reduce the risk of developing, and in some cases even eradicate, some health issues. If you don’t have a preference for a particular breed, choosing a cross-breed or a random-breed can reduce the likelihood of having to deal with genetic diseases.

On a more general note, large, active, high energy breeds, such as those in the gundog group, are particularly susceptible to joint problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia. This is mainly due to the extra pressure on the joints simply from being a larger dog. Smaller breeds tend to be more prone to Perthe’s disease and luxating patellas.


There are several symptoms that could indicate canine joint problems, either a temporary injury or an underlying condition:

  • Limping.
  • Reluctance to jump.
  • Slower or seeming to have less energy than usual.
  • Stiffness of gait when walking or when moving from or to a lying position.
  • Swelling and maybe heat around the joint.
  • Tenderness around the joint.
  • Lameness or paralysis.

Any of these symptoms need checking by a vet, who will arrange further tests if necessary and advise on the best course of action. Regular monitoring and seeking the advice of a vet as soon as you suspect a joint problem offers the best chance of treating with non-surgical options.

Risk Factors

Whilst many canine joint problems are genetic, there are some risk factors that can increase the chances of an early onset of a joint condition or exacerbate it once present.

Carrying excess weight is a major risk factor in joint problems. All dogs should be fed to condition to avoid excessive weight gain. Feeding to condition is a method of feeding whereby the portion is adjusted to the dog’s condition. It involves regularly monitoring the dog by feeling the flesh over the rib cage. You should be able to feel the ribs when the flesh is pressed lightly. You shouldn’t be able to see the ribs protruding against the skin and neither should you be unable to feel the ribs under too much fat. If the ribs start to show, you can increase food portions slightly and if you can’t feel the ribs at all, you can decrease food portions gradually.

Many large or giant breeds of dog have a rapid growth period during puppyhood. It is vital during this time that dogs receive a diet with the right balance of nutrients to maintain healthy bones and joints. Asking your vet or the puppy’s breeder for advice is a good idea, because too much of a particular vitamin can be just as bad as too little. With any puppies, but particularly those with a rapid growth period, you should avoid overexercising them and prevent them using stairs and jumping from heights.

Common Canine Joint Problems:

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia – Dysplasia of the hip and/or elbow is a genetic disease that is influenced by environmental factors. The hip socket or elbow joint forms abnormally causing incorrect movement. This eventually leads to discomfort, lameness and arthritis in the joints. It is common in many dog breeds, though larger breeds are more prone due to extra pressure on the joints. The discomfort in the joint causes a vicious cycle of reduced mobility, overcompensation in other areas and more discomfort. Environmental factors include carrying excess weight, joint or ligament injury and overexertion or repetitive motion in puppyhood. A vet will diagnose with hip-scoring tests and x-rays, whilst treatment will be a mixture of non-surgical (weight control, exercise and medication) and surgical (hip replacement).

Luxating Patella – Also called trick knee, subluxation of patella, floating kneecap, floating patella, patellar luxation. This condition occurs when the patella, or kneecap, dislocates from its normal position. It is generally a congenital condition that mostly affects small or miniature breeds of dog, such as Papillons and Boston Terriers. Patellar luxation has four grades of severity, from a kneecap that slips under manual pressure but returns when the pressure is released to a kneecap that is permanently out of place and will not return to place manually. Treatment is surgical in all but the lowest grade of the condition. It usually leads to arthritis in later life.

Arthritis – Also called degenerative joint disease and osteoarthritis, arthritis is an overarching term for the deterioration of articular cartilage. It presents in a few different ways including joint inflammation and cartilage thinning. Arthritis can stem from a previous joint injury and is also the secondary or end-stage of many other canine joint problems, hence the need to treat other joint problems early. Diagnosis is via examination and x-ray. Treatment will range from non-surgical (anti-inflammatories, exercises, diet) to surgical.

Perthe’s Disease – Also called Legg-Calve-Perthe’s disease, LCP disease. Perthe’s disease affects the hip joint in small dogs, typically under 25lb in weight. The disease starts with a lack of blood flow to the femoral head of the hip joint, which causes the bone to stop growing and die. There is a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis in the hip joint later in life. A vet will use x-ray to diagnose Perthe’s and surgery is the standard treatment.

Osteochondrosis – Also called Osteochondritis Dissecans, OCD. Osteochondrosis is a condition affecting the articular growth cartilage, in particular the growth plate and immature joint cartilage. Osteochondritis Dissecans develops when small pieces of cartilage break off and float around in the joint fluid, causing intense pain. The condition usually affects the shoulder joints. Vets may use x-ray to diagnose OCD, however scans will display cartilage problems more effectively. Surgery has a good prognosis.

Ruptured Cruciate Ligament – The cruciate ligament, as the name suggests, forms an x-shape within the joint. It stabilises the joint whilst still allowing a wide movement range. Rupturing of the cruciate ligament is a very common injury in dogs, with larger, older and overweight dogs slightly more prone. A vet will diagnose a rupture with observation and palpation, sometimes under sedation. Treatment will involve a surgical repair, though a weight loss diet may be useful to prevent reoccurence in an overweight dog.

Intervertebral Disc Degeneration – Also called IVDD and covers conditions such as slipped disc. IVDD refers to a number of conditions affecting the spinal discs. It is common in most dogs, but some breeds are more prone to IVDD than others. Chondrodystrophic breeds, such as Dachshunds and Bassett Hounds, are particularly susceptible to Hansen Type I, whereas Hansen Type II is more common in older, large breeds, such as German Shepherds and Great Danes. Symptoms vary depending on the location of the degenerating discs and can include tenderness, limb paralysis and urinary incontinence. As a result, vets will carry out neurological examinations as well as x-rays to diagnose IVDD. Surgery is usually necessary.


The treatment for canine joint problems is naturally dependent on the type and severity of the problem. Treating a problem in the early stages can avoid the need for surgical treatments. Non-surgical treatments include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication.
  • An exercise programme to strengthen muscles to help them support joints more effectively.
  • Physiotherapy, which could include hydrotherapy.
  • A diet to aid weight loss if a dog is carrying excess weight. Or a nutritionally-balanced diet with instructions to feed to condition. Both diets should include a bone and joint complex to maintain joint health. Many of Gilbertson & Page’s dog foods contain New Zealand green-lipped mussel extract, which is a natural source of glucosamine and chondroitin, both of which are essential for healthy joints.

If the problem is more severe or of a type that necessitates surgery, surgical options include:

  • Steroid injections into the joint.
  • Joint ‘cleaning’.
  • Joint replacement.

For more information on these canine joint problems, see the resources below or ask an experienced veterinary surgeon. Always seek the advice of a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your dog’s health.