When to Euthanize a Dog with Arthritis – Stages & Protocols

Dog with Arthritis

Although arthritis is common in canines, especially as they reach their senior life stage, it can still be difficult to watch your dog go from an energetic pup to one that struggles to walk and stand up.

Even more painful than seeing your arthritic dog have to slow down is facing the reality that severe cases of canine arthritis force dog owners to make the tough decision to euthanize their beloved pooch. 

Fortunately, the decision to put a dog down due to arthritis pain is a very last resort, and there is plenty that you can do to help your canine companion manage their pain.

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How Can We Help Our Dogs?

To help you understand when it might be the right time to let your dog go, we explain everything you need to know about canine arthritis. We explain when euthanasia can be an appropriate option, and also go over all of the arthritis stages and protocols.

Euthanasia should always be a last resort, which is why it is important to understand how you can support your arthritic dog before considering putting it down!

When Should Euthanasia Be Considered for a Dog with Arthritis?

As mentioned, euthanasia should always be viewed as an absolute last resort. This is the case for all age-related conditions, including arthritis.

In regards to putting down a dog because of chronic arthritis pain and disability, any veterinarian will tell you that you should only euthanize a dog in extreme circumstances!

This means the dog can no longer walk or stand up on its own, and it is in obvious pain, even when it only makes slight movements.

The inability to move unassisted or without experiencing severe and constant pain is a serious quality of life issue. In short, if the dog is suffering tremendously and a trusted veterinarian has determined that they can do nothing to ease your dog’s suffering, it may be a decision you would have to consider.

That said, each case is unique, so a veterinarian will need to perform a series of thorough assessments on your dog. Again, you do not want to take this decision lightly.

As we will explain in greater detail, you and your vet should take many steps before considering euthanasia. Prescription medications, along with a range of supplements and specialized diets, can be combined to help your dog manage their arthritis.

What Are the Stages of Canine Arthritis and the Appropriate Protocols?

When it comes to osteoarthritis in dogs, there are four main stages of the condition.

To help you have a better understanding of how veterinarians assess a patient’s arthritis, we will go over each of the four stages in detail. We will also cover some of the protocols veterinarians prescribe at each stage.

As you would expect, the stages progress in severity. Unfortunately, a dog’s arthritis often goes undiagnosed until it has developed into the later stages. Dogs are very good at hiding and overcoming pain and discomfort.

That said, it is still important to familiarize yourself with the following four stages, as it can help you identify arthritis in your dog from an early age.

Stage 1 – Early Genetic Predisposition or Injury-Induced Arthritis

If a veterinarian knows that a particular breed has a genetic predisposition to developing arthritis, they can prescribe preventative measures. 

They can also make efforts to prevent arthritis if a dog has undergone a ligament injury that would put them at a heightened risk of developing arthritis.

During this earliest stage, the dog might not even experience any pain or mobility issues. It is more about preventing arthritis from becoming worse than anything else.

What Protocols Are Followed Throughout Stage 1 Arthritis?

Since this stage almost always involves preventative measures, most of the protocols will revolve around diet and exercise. 

Weight control is critical. Since obesity is one of the most prominent contributing factors to severe arthritis, it is important to ensure the dog is not overweight. 

A veterinarian may recommend a specialized weight loss diet for the dog. Joint health supplements are also regularly recommended during this stage.

Low-impact exercise is also very important. This will help the dog maintain a healthy weight without damaging the cartilage between the joints. In most cases, this means walking and swimming rather than running and jumping.

A veterinarian will come up with a specialized plan for your specific dog.

Old dog lying on the beach

Stage 2 – Dogs That Don’t Display Symptoms But Have Joint Damage

This stage occurs when actual damage to the joints has occurred. Many dogs will have joint damage and inflammation before they experience any pain or lameness.

This stage can be difficult to recognize and treat, as a veterinarian has to look for signs of joint deterioration or inflammation. Without symptoms, there is no other way of knowing.

Arthroscopy or scoping is a technique used to view the joints. Some signs of arthritis are also detected with X-rays.

This stage can also be tricky, as many dog owners will refuse to accept that their dog has joint issues, as they may seem perfectly active and healthy. However, this stage is critical, as arthritis is still partially preventable. This means treatment can save your dog from future suffering!

What Protocols Are Followed Throughout Stage 2 Arthritis?

If the arthritis is identified in stage 2, the veterinarian will recommend the same recommendations we went over in stage 1 as well as others.

Anti-inflammatory medications are often prescribed in very low doses or before particularly active periods. For example, if you were taking your dog with you on a weekend away that would involve plenty of walking and hiking, you may give your dog a dose of medication.

Supplements that help ease joint deterioration and pain are highly recommended at this stage. Omega-3 and -6, glucosamine, and chondroitin are the most common. Sometimes dog food that contains these as additives will also be recommended.

Stage 3 – Dogs with Moderate Arthritic Pain and Partially Restricted Movements

Dogs-with-Moderate-Arthritic-Pain

By this stage, the symptoms become apparent to the owner. If they take their dog for a checkup with a veterinarian, there is a very high chance that the vet will recognize and diagnose arthritis in the dog right away.

Usually, the way the dog walks will reveal an issue. The owner may also notice that their dog is not as active as they once were. It may appear that they are becoming slower, which many simply attribute to age rather than a medical issue.

In more severe cases, the dog may walk with a limp. They may even recoil in pain if pressure is applied to certain joints. Many dogs that have progressed to this stage are also overweight, making stage 3 arthritis easier to spot.

What Protocols Are Followed Throughout Stage 3 Arthritis?

The first step will be getting the dog down to a healthy weight. The added body weight can put unnecessary strain on the already damaged joints and make things much worse.

Strength-building exercises that help restore the dog’s range of motion without further deteriorating the joints might be recommended. The specific exercises will depend on the severity and location of the dog’s arthritis.

The vet may recommend additional supplements. Mostly, these are designed to help with pain management and may include turmeric and hydrolyzed egg. Lately, non-conventional treatments are recommended, including acupuncture and localized laser therapy treatments.

Depending on the severity of the dog’s pain, the vet may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If the dog is in serious pain, prescription pain medications can manage flare-ups.

Stage 4 – The Arthritis Has Led to Severe Damage and Symptoms

Arthritis-Symptoms

By this point, the dog’s arthritis is unmistakable. The dog is experiencing severe pain daily. The dog also suffers from a lack of mobility, meaning they cannot get up or walk without straining.

The combination of pain and restricted movements is becoming a serious issue for the dog. At this stage, the cartilage between the joints has almost completely deteriorated. This means pain is caused by bone rubbing against bone whenever the joint is used.

Pain will be more severe if certain joints are affected, as they may be closer to a greater number of nerve endings.

What Protocols Are Followed Throughout Stage 4 Arthritis?

At this stage, physical therapy can be an option. Underwater treadmill exercise routines tend to be the most effective, as they allow the dog to move the joints without the same level of pain or impact as walking on flat ground.

Very high doses of NSAIDs are usually combined with stronger prescription drugs, including certain opioids if the pain is extreme.

Monitoring the dog on a very regular basis is important in Stage 4. This can include bi-weekly or monthly appointments for physical exams. X-rays are also advisable, as they make it easier for the veterinarian to accurately monitor the progression of arthritis. 

Semi-annual blood tests are also important, as they can make sure that the sustained use of prescription drugs is not leading to organ damage.

Since all forms of treatment during stage 4 ease pain and ensure the dog has an acceptable quality of life, it can also be a stage where dog owners are confronted with the difficult question of euthanasia. 

If all other options are exhausted and the dog’s pain and lack of mobility have reduced its quality of life to unacceptably low levels, euthanasia may be the only option. 

Again, euthanasia is always seen as a last resort, but in severe cases, the dog’s poor quality of life might not warrant continued care

For More Information About Canine Arthritis

CARE.org, which stands for Canine Arthritis Resources and Education, is an organization that seeks to help dog owners help their arthritic dogs live a happy and active lifestyle. It is an incredible resource for any dog owner that suspects their dog could be suffering from arthritis pain.

The American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation also published an informative guide titled Managing Canine Arthritis. It is another useful resource that can help you make sure your dog does not suffer.

The American Kennel Club also has a guide to Canine Osteoarthritis Signs and Treatment. Again, it is a great resource for any owner of an arthritic dog.