Swollen Joints in Dogs - What Causes Inflammation in Dogs

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Close up of inflamed joint on dog laying on the floor

Close up of inflamed joint on dog laying on the floor

What is joint swelling in dogs?

Swelling in a dog’s joint is typically caused by an inflammation of a joint. This inflammation can result from trauma to the bones or ligaments within the joint, infection, or immune-mediated disease. Arthritis, which is a disease caused by the wear and tear of joints due to aging or damage, is also a common culprit in joint inflammation. Just like in humans, joint inflammation can worsen over time and can be quite painful. Symptoms such as discomfort and stiffness may be present, as well as difficulty standing up and running.

What causes inflammation in dogs' joints?

In a healthy joint, a thin layer of cartilage covers the bone, and synovial fluid flows within the joint cavity, which makes up the space between bones. This fluid acts as a lubricant, allowing bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons to move smoothly without friction.

Swelling of the joint is caused by inflammation, which can occur in the joint cavity or when the cartilage in the joint becomes worn or damaged. As the cartilage deteriorates, the surfaces of the bones that were previously protected come into contact with each other, resulting in further inflammation, which causes the joint to become increasingly stiff and limits its movement.

Joint inflammation can have many different causes:

  • Osteoarthritis due to joint trauma, injury, surgery, and/or aging
  • Bone abnormalities such as patellar luxation and hip dysplasia
  • Bone or joint tumors such as osteosarcoma and synovial cell carcinoma
  • Ligament abnormalities such as cranial cruciate ligament rupture
  • Immune-mediated disease

    Immune-mediated disease usually affects multiple joints.

  • Infections, such as tick-borne diseases and sepsis caused by bacterial infections, usually affect multiple joints. Sepsis is most commonly found in middle-aged males and large and extra-large dogs. Diseases like Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Anaplasmosis, and Ehrlichiosis, which are transmitted by ticks, can cause polyarthritis in dogs. Additionally, some anaerobic bacterial and fungal organisms can lead to septic arthritis.

Symptoms and signs of swollen joints in dogs

Inflammation of the joints can cause joint swelling as well as the following symptoms:

  • Pain, discomfort, and stiffness
  • Lameness
  • Reduced joint range of motion
  • Licking the affected joints which can lead to hair loss due to excessive licking
  • Unable to get up, crying, and whimpering behavior
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased appetite
  • High fever
  • Oral or nasal bleeding

Risk of swollen joints in dogs and when to see a vet for joint inflammation

Being overweight increases the risk of joint swelling in dogs by putting additional pressure on their joints. If your dog has a disease or taking any medication that suppresses their immune system, such as immunosuppressants, diabetes, or Addison's disease, inflammation may occur more easily as their immunity is lowered and become more susceptible to infection. A visit to the vet is necessary if your dog has a high fever or exhibits a decreased appetite with signs of swelling or inflammation in your dog’s joints.

Home treatment for sudden swollen joints in dogs

If a dog's joints are mildly swollen/inflamed, the following treatment methods at home may help:

  • Appropriate exercise

    You can engage in light activities such as walking or swimming, as long as they do not worsen any joint damage. If your puppy shows signs of severe pain, exercise should be limited. If you are unsure how to judge your pet’s severity of joint damage, it is recommended to seek the advice of a veterinarian before making further decisions.

  • A comfortable and warm environment

    If a dog’s joint(s) is swollen or inflamed, the pain may be exacerbated by touching hard surfaces. Providing a soft, comfortable bed and maintaining a warm environment can aid in preventing stiffness and further pain in the joints.

  • Ice packs and hot packs

    Ice packs and hot packs can help reduce swelling and pain.

  • Massage

    Gentle massaging the joint(s) and the surrounding area may help relieve symptoms.

Diagnosis of joint swelling and inflammation in dogs

If you take your dog to the hospital for swollen or inflamed joints, the veterinarian will inquire about the animal's previous medical history and lifestyle. Observing the dog for a day prior and noting when and under what circumstances the pain occurs can be beneficial to your vet in making a diagnosis. Additionally, the veterinarian may ask about your dog's vaccination status, recent travel, and medication usage.

For a more accurate diagnosis, the following tests may be performed:

  • Physical examination

    Closely examine the joint in the affected area and observe how the dog stands and walks.

  • Imaging tests

    The appearance of joints and bones is confirmed through several available imaging tests.

  • Arthrocentesis

    Fluid obtained from the joint capsule through arthroscopy can be examined for signs of inflammation and infection. If a bacterial infection is suspected, a bacterial culture can be performed using the synovial fluid.

  • Bone biopsy

    If a tumor of the bone is suspected, a bone biopsy is performed to confirm a diagnosis.

  • Blood test and urine test

    Your dog’s overall health status can be checked and systemic diseases can be ruled out through blood and urine samples.

Treatment process for inflamed joints and swelling in dogs

Puppy having bandage wrapped around swollen joint

Depending on the cause, it can be difficult to resolve even with a hospital visit. You can, however, improve your dog's quality of life through management and treatment.

  • Painkillers

  • Anti-inflammatory

    NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and sometimes steroid drugs such as corticosteroids may be used to reduce inflammation.

  • Supplements

    Joint supplements that contain ingredients such as Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Vitamin C, S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAMe), and green-lipped mussels may be prescribed.

  • Water therapy

    Treatments such as an underwater treadmill can be very helpful, especially for larger dogs.

  • In case of trauma or damage, disinfection and bandage treatment are performed.

  • Immunosuppressants can be prescribed for immune-mediated diseases, and antibiotics can be prescribed for infectious diseases. Both of these diseases can affect not only the joints, but other organs such as the heart, kidneys, and liver. Therefore, diagnosis and treatment for them must be accompanied.

  • Severe bone and joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis, may require surgical correction.

  • Tick-borne diseases are treated with doxycycline or antibiotics. A response to the treatment usually occurs within 3 to 5 days.

  • Septic arthritis is treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics, which often require hospitalization. Joint and blood cultures can be performed for accurate antibiotic treatment.

How to prevent swollen joints and inflammation in dogs

Weight management is always vital in raising a healthy pet because excess weight placed on the joints can easily or further inflame them over time. If your pup is obese or slightly overweight, losing weight through a low-calorie diet can help prevent inflammation from occurring. In the case of arthritis, since it is a progressive disease, it is important to identify the cause early with regular checkups and prevent it from getting worse. If joint damage or trauma is suspected, it is recommended to visit a veterinary hospital as soon as possible.

Evaluate your dog’s joint swelling symptoms through the Buddydoc's pet symptom checker!

Buddydoc pet symptom checker infographic for joint swelling in dogs

If you are not sure about your pet's symptoms, check yourself through Budidak's self-diagnosis. BuddyDac self-diagnosis is a simple response within 5 minutes, and provides a scale of companion animal symptoms according to the user's answer. Record and manage your pet's health through advice from a professional veterinarian, various possible results, and necessary test information suggested on the results screen :)