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Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease)

What is degenerative joint disease?

Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a veterinary term for osteoarthritis. It is characterised by progressive loss of the articular cartilage of the joints. This is the smooth cartilage at the end of the bones forming the joint surface. The cartilage begins to degrade leaving patches of bone exposed. Pain and stiffness occur when the cartilage is worn away to such an extent that the two bone ends come into contact. Osteophytes (small bony projections) can form around the affected joint, which can also cause pain and stiffness

What causes DJD?

DJD can occur as a result of wear and tear on an otherwise normal joint and occurs as the dog ages – this is called primary DJD. Secondary DJD frequently occurs as a result of other factors includingunderlying developmental joint disease (E.g. hip dysplasia), injury such as cranial cruciate ligament injury or fractures around a joint surface, and overuse.

Dogs with developmental joint disease such as elbow or hip dysplasia are highly likely to develope arthritis. Obesity is another factor for DJD, as it increases stress on joints. In addition, dogs with disorders such as diabetes, prolonged steroid treatment, and hyperlaxity (an excessive looseness of the joints) may also be at higher risk for DJD. Diagnosis will be made by your vet.

A clinical exam usually detects the problem but X-Rays may be taken to confirm the diagnosis and the extent of the disease and lab tests can also be taken.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Symptoms will vary according to which joints are affected, how old the dog is and how severe the condition is but usually the first sign of a problem is an altered gait as the dog tries to put more of his weight on the unaffected limbs. Other signs may be:

  • Lameness

  • Slowing down on walks

  • Stiffness after exercise

  • Stiffness or lameness after rest / periods of inactivity

  • Difficulty getting up from the floor

  • Reluctance to exercise (due to pain)

  • Reluctance to jump into the car

  • Difficulty going up/down stairs

  • Licking of the joints

  • Groaning when lying down

  • ​Occasional clicking of the joint(s)

  • Behavioural changes (grumpier)

  • Muscle wastage 

Depending on the amount of pain some dogs may have a reduced appetite and a noticeable change in behaviour.

What can be done?

DJD can be treated medically or surgically. It unfortunately cannot be cured as it is a progressive disease. Some forms of DJD can be treated with surgery. For example, hip replacement or femoral head and neck excision in dogs with secondary DJD as a result of hip dysplasia. The best treatment option will usually depend on various factors and will be discussed with you by your vet.

Conservative management

Prompt treatment of DJD is important to help reduce the disease’s progression of symptoms. Good conservative treatment and the right advice can ensure that the symptoms are well managed and that your dog remains comfortable and has the best quality of life possible.



* It is important to avoid over exercising, which may cause trauma or excessive pressure to the joints and exacerbate pain                      


How can physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapy aims to reduce joint and muscle pain, promote joint movement and improve strength and function

Treatment will include:

  • ​Advice on controlled exercise

  • Advice on nutrition and weight loss

  • Advice on lifestyle and environment

  • Advice on joint supplements

  • Joint range of motion/stretches

  • Joint mobilisation techniques

  • Soft tissue massage

  • Active strengthening exercises

  • Joint proprioceptive exercise

  • Pain relief using electrotherapy where necessary

  • Prescription of home exercises

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