Merck Manual

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Pet Owner Version

Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease)


Joseph Harari

, MS, DVM, DACVS, Veterinary Surgical Specialists, Spokane, WA

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2018 | Modified Oct 2022

The joint cartilage in freely moving joints may degenerate over time, leading to loss of joint movement and, in many cases, pain. This condition is characterized by thinning of cartilage, buildup of fluid within the joint, and the formation of bony outgrowths around the joint. Joint degeneration can be caused by trauma, infection, the body’s own immune system, or malformation during development. This leads to inflammation of the joint membrane, continued cartilage destruction and inflammation, and abnormal joint function.

Signs of osteoarthritis include lameness, joint swelling, wasting away of muscle, and thickening and scarring of the joint membrane. Eventually enough damage can occur that a grating sound might be heard during joint movement. X-rays show increased fluid within the joint, soft-tissue swelling around the joint, the formation of bony outgrowths, hardening and thickening of bone beneath the cartilage, and sometimes a narrowed joint space.

Treatments can be either medical or surgical. Medical treatment includes weight loss (if needed), exercise on soft surfaces, and warm compresses to affected joints. It may also include the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce pain and inflammation. However, longterm use of these drugs in dogs can sometimes cause gastrointestinal problems such as loss of appetite, vomiting, and inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Corticosteroids also suppress inflammation, but they are usually given only for a short period in order to avoid adverse effects of continued use. Joint fluid modifiers or other types of pain relievers can also be used. Your veterinarian will prescribe appropriate medication based on your dog’s signs, age, and overall health.

Surgical options include joint fusion, joint replacement, cutting of the joint, and amputation. The outlook for recovery depends on the location and severity of the joint disease.

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