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11 Symptoms of Dog Arthritis Every Pet Owner Should Know

Humans aren’t the only ones who can get arthritis—but they are the only ones who can voice it. Watch out for these warning signs in your furry friend.

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Slower movements

When it hurts to get up, a dog with arthritis won’t exactly be bounding around. They’ll move slower, especially when standing up or sitting down, to avoid some of the pain, says Virginia-based veterinarian Katy Nelson, DVM. If you notice your dog slowing down—or showing any of these other symptoms—bring it to the vet right away. Whether it’s arthritis or another condition, getting a diagnosis means a chance for treatment. “Imagine three years of constant pain and then suddenly getting medication that makes that pain go away,” says Dr. Nelson. And if you aren’t crazy about giving your dog drugs, there are other options like hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and massage, she says.

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Bunny hopping

Less movement means less arthritis pain. That’s why some dogs—especially smaller breeds—will change their stance to “bunny hop” down the steps, says Dr. Nelson. Instead of moving one leg at a time, they use both legs to push off the stairs. “It’s just a little easier for them to move them in synch than to move those hips individually,” she says. Don’t miss these amazing health benefits of owning a dog.

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Avoiding certain floors

Instead of bunny hopping down, some pups with dog arthritis will avoid going down stairs entirely, while others won’t want to go down anymore. Figuring out your pooch’s pattern could be a hint to where the arthritis is, says Dr. Nelson. “If they’re reluctant to jump up or go upstairs, it could be the hips,” she says, “because when you think about how the weight would have to change, the majority of the weight would go on the hips.” If your pet hates going downstairs, on the other hand, it could be a sign of arthritic shoulders or elbows.

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Changing gait

Some canines with arthritis will start to limp, but others will have subtler gait changes. For instance, you might notice your dog’s head starts to bob because it’s putting its weight forward more. Or your pet might swing its arthritic leg around to avoid bending the achy joints. “Think of how a peg-leg walks,” says Dr. Nelson. “They kind of swing that leg rather than move it directly forward.” Here are some more signs your healthy dog is actually sick.

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Panting more than usual

Dogs pant when they’re in pain or feel stressed—including when they have dog arthritis. “They can’t really do anything about [achy joints],” says Dr. Nelson. “They can’t reach over and massage their leg if it hurts.” So sort of like when your heart rate goes up and your breathing gets faster when you’re in pain, your dog will start to pant.

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Getting cranky

A dog (or person, for that matter) in pain might just want to be left alone. If your happy-go-lucky dog is suddenly depressed or grumpy, hurting joints could be at play. “Any time you see a sudden attitude change in pets, you need to take it to the vet and see what’s going on,” says Dr. Nelson. Find out the 50 things your vet won’t tell you.

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Adjusting posture

If your pet seems to be holding itself differently but you can’t put your finger on how, it could be dog arthritis. Dogs dealing with joint issues might adjust their posture to ease the ache. For instance, your pup might leave its rear a little lower or hold its stomach differently. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific change—it’s just a change,” says Dr. Nelson. “For people who know their pet and are pretty in tune with what’s going on with their pet, it’s something people will pick up on.”

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Eating less

Even getting up to eat might not feel worth the pain if your dog has horrible arthritis. You probably won’t see the change in dogs with big appetites like Labradors or Golden Retrievers, but “more delicate breeds” such as Yorkshire Terriers and Chihuahuas might suddenly avoid their bowls, says Dr. Nelson. If your big dog gets an arthritis diagnosis, try leaving its bowl higher than the ground. “Elevating their food can be more comfortable so they don’t have to bend all the way to the floor,” says Dr. Nelson.

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Exercising less

If your dog suddenly doesn’t get so jazzed about the idea of taking a long walk or playing catch, it might be too sore to play. Dogs that get more winded could have dog arthritis—or something else, like diabetes or cancer. “It could be as simple as they’re feeling ouchy, but it could be something a lot more sinister,” says Dr. Nelson. Bring your vet in for an immediate visit if you’re concerned. Don’t miss these unbelievable facts you never knew about your pooch.

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Changing weight

Moving less could make your dog lose muscle mass. Your pet might look like it has lost fat, but the dog is actually less toned because it isn’t working its muscles. On the other hand, other dogs might gain weight if they stop exercising—and that weight gain is even more dangerous. “Being obese can cause arthritis and worsen it if it’s already there,” says Dr. Nelson. For one thing, carrying extra weight puts more stress on your dog’s already stressed joints, she says. Plus, obesity causes inflammation that can make symptoms worse. To help your dog lose weight, Dr. Nelson recommends swimming (which doesn’t stress the joints) or swapping out long walks for little bursts of exercise that your dog can handle without tiring out.

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Limping occasionally

It’s not your imagination if you dog seems to limp only every now and then. Your pooch might be dealing with dog arthritis all the time, but only shows it when the pain is aggravated. “These guys get used to the pain,” says Dr. Nelson. “But when they do something and step the wrong way, that can make it where they’re intermittently lame.” Next, find out the 50 secrets your pet isn’t telling you.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.