By Diana Bocco
While there may be long-term issues related to trauma or injury, the most common mobility issue affecting dogs is degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis, according to Dr. Tony Rumschlag, DVM, director of consulting veterinarians for Elanco Companion Animal Health.
While joint issues affect most aging dogs to some degree, it can show up in dogs of all ages. And although most people understand that joint abnormalities can cause stiffness and pain, many pet owners are not aware that it can also cause other problems as well.
“Over time and with progression of the disease, a pet owner may notice more and more visible changes in the dog,” says Rumschlag. “Unfortunately, we might not automatically link some of the mild changes in behavior or attitude with possible osteoarthritis until more significant stiffness or a pronounced limp occur.”
Here are some unexpected ways in which mobility issues can change your dog.
While dogs don't groom themselves as thoroughly as cats do, many will often shake or lick excess hair off their bodies—something they might stop doing if the movement causes pain. As a result, a dog with osteoarthritis might need more frequent brushing to prevent matting.
However, the main grooming problem with dogs experiencing joint pain has to do with nails. “Nails can grow long if dogs are walking less or are walking on lower-impact surfaces, like grass or dirt rather than pavement, and are not wearing them own as quickly,” says Dr. Erin Preiss, DVM, of the advanced care veterinary clinic The Vet House.
“Plus, if arthritis is already causing some stability issues on slippery surfaces and nails are allowed to get too long, there will be even more issues,” says Preiss.
Although rare, Preiss points out that some dogs with serious mobility issues might also have trouble adopting a normal posture to urinate or defecate, which could result in them soiling themselves in the process.
“These are really important issues to address and treat as soon as possible for quality of life and hygiene reasons,” says Preiss.
Joint pain can cause changes in the way your dog eats, and in how much he eats.
“For example, it may be difficult for your pet to eat in the same area of the house as he always has if he has to go up and down stairs, walk long distances, or if the floor is slippery and so forth,” explains Preiss.
If you notice that your dog is staying away from his food bowl, try adjusting the eating location to a more accessible spot, or provide a rug or mat under the feed dish for your dog to stand on for stability. “Even bowl position can affect eating,” Preiss says. “Bending their neck may be difficult and it may be beneficial to feed with raised bowls.”
The first changes in behavior might be so subtle that you easily miss them. Initially, you might notice that your dog is playing less or appears to tire more quickly from a walk. “For example, your dog that used to wear your arm out throwing a ball for a good game of fetch might be ready to quit before you are,” Rumschlag says.
Since osteoarthritis can affect movement, it might end up also affecting interaction with the family. For example, your dog might be reluctant to follow you up and down the stairs like he used to, or his greetings may be less enthusiastic. “Instead of rising and affectionately greeting everyone entering the room, he may instead greet the first time or two and then just look up with interest as others arrive,” says Rumschlag. “Or it could be that instead of climbing onto the couch or bed to snuggle, he is content to sit and lean against your leg or lie at your feet,” she adds.
You might also find that your dog has started to avoid certain areas of the house. “Some owners report that their dog will no longer walk across slippery tile or hardwood in their house,” says Preiss.
As joint pain increases, your dog might become what we would interpret as grouchy or irritable, according to Rumschlag. “With enough pain, he might even show aggression when you bump the painful area or try to make him get up,” Rumschlag adds.
However, what you might interpret as aggression is different from other types of aggression, Preiss explains. “I find that dogs who are aggressive due to pain associated with degenerative joint disease are usually only aggressive when that joint is manipulated/palpated or when they are being asked to move quicker or more than they are able to,” Preiss says.
Preiss points out that some dogs who are in pain are more prone to “snapping” when their owners try to lift them up (to get in the car, for example) or when a child accidentally falls or lays on them.
“For this reason, especially if you have children or other pets in the house, it is important to treat aging dogs with respect and give them quiet places to relax,” says Preiss.
A dog that has trouble getting up is more likely to start having accidents inside the house. Some may no longer enjoy their walks as much, or they may not be able to go in and out of their doggy door to enjoy time outside, said Preiss. For some dogs, getting to the door to go outside might mean walking on slippery floors or going up and down stairs—all things that can exacerbate pain and cause your dog to avoid doing them.
If you notice any of these subtle changes in your dog and can't pinpoint the cause, talk to your vet. A through history, examination, and a variety of tests as needed will give your veterinarian the information to determine the source of the changes and the potential courses of management,” Rumschlag says. “With early identification, there are many things that can be done to help slow progression of osteoarthritis and help the dog manage the pain.”
If you think your dog has arthritis, learn more about how to recognize and manage the condition here.