Canine Rheumatoid Arthritis

Kelly Roper
Sick Labrador resting on a cushion

Canine rheumatoid arthritis is a fairly rare yet painful condition suffered by some pets. Learn more about this chronic condition, how to spot it and what a vet can do to help an affected canine.

About Canine Rheumatoid Arthritis

Canine rheumatoid arthritis (CRA) is a chronic condition that causes joint pain and eventual deformity. It's mainly caused when the immune system misidentifies some of the body's own protein as foreign matter. The immune system then produces antibodies known as rheumatoid factors that bind with the misidentified protein to create immune complexes. These complexes build up in the joints and cause the classic inflammation associated with arthritis.

There also seems to be a connection with the distemper virus in some cases. Traces of that virus have been found in the joints of some affected animals. Rheumatoid factor antibodies can also attack these traces of virus and cause damage to the joint tissue and adjoining bones.

Symptoms of CRA

There are a number of symptoms produced by CRA.

  • Painful joints
  • Swollen joints
  • Severe joint deformity in advanced cases
  • Muscle wasting in long term cases
  • Intermittent fever
  • Stiffness
  • Lameness
  • Loss of appetite

These symptoms can appear in almost any combination, and they also seem to come and go. A dog is usually affected in more than one joint, and the pain and stiffness may actually appear to switch from one side to another, depending on where the rheumatoid factors happen to be the most concentrated on any given day.

Reaching a Diagnosis

Diagnosing a case of rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult. Veterinarians can look for rheumatoid factors in blood samples, but the factors are not always present if the dog isn't currently having a flare up. Vets depend more on a physical examination to help them diagnose a case, and this includes close examination of the leg joints to check for pain, heat and swelling. Vets can also examine synovial fluid samples from the joints to check for cloudiness and a thinner than normal consistency, both of which can indicate CRA.

Help for an Affected Dog

The treatment plan for CRA varies from one dog to the next, and it can take a number of adjustments to find a course of treatment that provides the most relief.

  • Steroids can be used to reduce inflammation.
  • Pain medication is administered in many cases.
  • Immuno suppressants may also be used, but they present additional challenges because secondary infections have an opportunity to take hold.
  • Hydrotherapy can also be useful to increase a dog's mobility because it works the joints under weightless conditions.
  • Gentle massage therapy may also be useful because it increases oxygen in the tissues.
  • Dietary changes may also be in order if an affected dog is overweight. Reducing weight also reduces the amount of stress on the joints.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin supplementation can also help boost cartilage production in deteriorated joint linings.
  • Gold injections have proven helpful in some cases.

As a pet owner, you can also provide an orthopedic dog bed. The beds are made of high density foam that offers more cushion than a conventional dog bed. Many of these beds are equipped with heat and massage features for added comfort. A bed like this lessens the stress on the joints and may actually make it easier for the dog to rise after resting.


There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, so managing the symptoms is really the best that vets can do for an affected animal. With proper care, patience and affection, a dog can live for years beyond the initial diagnosis.

Canine Rheumatoid Arthritis