Joint Problems in Large Breed Dogs

If you are an owner of a large breed dog, you probably know that several health problems are more common and/or more serious in big dogs.

Here, we’ll explain three of the most common joint ailments that plague large dogs, their causes, and some things you can do to help prevent, minimize or relieve the symptoms causing discomfort for your large friend.

Canine Hip Dysplasia

This is one of the most common ailments found in larger breed dogs.

It’s caused by the hip joints failing to develop normally, which leads to gradual deterioration and loss of function. The large and giant breeds are the ones most commonly affected, such as German Shepherds, Saint Bernards, Great Danes, and Labradors.

It’s much less common in small dogs and when it’s present they are less likely to show symptoms due to their small size.

Hip Dysplasia most commonly begins early in life, usually after about four or five months of age.  In older dogs, it can develop due to osteoarthritis, which is a type of joint deterioration that causes a breakdown in the bone cartilage.


There are four generally agreed on causes of hip dysplasia in large dogs:

  1. Rapid weight gain and the accompanying obesity
  2. A genetic predisposition for loose hips
  3. Mass in the pelvic muscle
  4. Nutritional factors.


If your large breed dog exhibits one or more of the following symptoms, you should suspect the possibility of hip dysplasia and consult your veterinarian as soon as possible, especially for older dogs:

  • Decreased activity
  • Difficulty rising from a lying position
  • Reluctance to jump, climb stairs or run
  • Decreased range of motion in hip joints
  • Standing with back legs unnaturally close together
  • Enlargement of shoulder muscles as your dog tries to avoid putting weight on its rear legs
  • Any lameness observed in the hind legs, especially after exercise
  • Any grating noises you detect with the movement of the joints

While this is not an exhaustive list, two or more symptoms mean you should have your veterinarian perform a complete physical exam.


If hip dysplasia is the diagnosis, treatment will likely be on an outpatient basis if surgery is not required. Physical therapy and swimming will both help joint and muscle activity without increasing the injury.

A very important component of treatment and recovery is weight control to decrease the pressure on the joints as your dog moves. Controlling weight can be a particular challenge with the reduced activity level and your veterinarian may recommend a special diet.

Anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to reduce inflammation and swelling, in addition to pain medications to make your dog more comfortable.

A supportive and well-built dog bed, one that is specially designed for large dogs, will also make your dog more comfortable and can relieve pressure points on sore joints.  If the bed has height, it will also assist your dog with getting up from a lying position.



Arthritis is a very general term used to describe any abnormal changes in a joint. It can have several causes:

  • Congenital defects in the bone structure
  • Trauma and/or stress to joints and ligaments
  • Joint tissue destruction caused by an infection

Less common are immune system disorders that can cause tissue degeneration or inflammation.

Basically, with arthritis, the bone cartilage is impacted for a variety of reasons and wears away faster than the body can regenerate it. This causes the bony layer beneath to become exposed and inflamed, causing pain and joint stiffening.

What then can happen is that reduced activity causes weight gain, putting additional stress on already sore joints, and continued lack of usage leads to even more lessening of joint mobility.

As you may suspect, large dogs are especially prone to arthritis due to their heavier weight and the greater likelihood of other joint problems that are common in the larger breeds (for example, hip dysplasia as explained above).


Unfortunately, like many animals, dogs rarely display symptoms of discomfort or pain until the underlying cause becomes quite severe.  This means you must look for what can be very subtle signs, such as:

  • Sleeping more
  • Change in alertness
  • Change in mood – e.g. less excited to run up and greet you when you come home
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Decreased interest in playing
  • Slower or overly cautious when climbing stairs
  • Hesitation to jump on the couch or your bed

These signs may be early indicators of arthritic joint pain and should trigger a checkup at your veterinarian.


Treating the discomfort of arthritis in your dog is similar to treating a human, with the first line of treatment frequently being the use of anti-inflammatory medications. As with humans, any sign of an adverse reaction should be immediately reported to your veterinarian.

Liquid NSAID medications are also now well-accepted for managing arthritis in dogs.

Non-prescription drug ways to help manage arthritis in your dog include:

  • Keeping weight under strict control.  This is the most important action you can take.
  • Moderate exercise to improve joint flexibility and mobility.
  • A proper, supportive bed to relieve pressure points and help your dog rise from a lying position
  • “Nutraceutical” supplements, the most common being glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate.

Be aware, though, that some medications common for humans are absolutely inappropriate for dogs. High on the list are both Acetaminophen and Ibuprophen, which have been associated with liver damage and gastrointestinal bleeding in dogs.

The bottom line is to let your veterinarian help you choose the best course of action for treating your dog’s arthritis and approving any medications you may use.

Elbow Dysplasia

The abnormal growth of bone, cell, or tissue in dogs is a condition known as elbow dysplasia.

This is the single most common cause of elbow lameness and pain, and one of the most common causes of forelimb lameness in large and giant breed dogs. The ones most commonly affected are Newfoundlands, Bernese mountain dogs, Labradors, Rottweilers, Golden retrievers, and German shepherds.

Males and females are both affected, with the condition being slightly more common in males due to their larger size.


Early-onset is a characteristic of this condition. Clinical signs are usually seen at around four to ten months of age. Symptoms can include:

  • Pain when flexing or extending the elbow
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Sudden and acute elbow lameness, particularly in older dogs
  • Intermittent forelimb lameness brought on by exercise, noticed after the dog is resting
  • Tendency for the dog to hold a limb away from the body
  • Any grating of the elbow bones or joints that is detected


The underlying causes of elbow dysplasia are developmental, genetic, and nutritional.

However, your veterinarian will need to rule out other possible causes, such as:

  • An infection
  • Trauma to the affected joint
  • A tumor


Once the diagnosis becomes one of elbow dysplasia, several treatment methods may be used.

  1. Surgery (last resort!)
  2. Weight control
  3. Certain prescription medications

But don’t wait until symptoms appear, as there are some preventative measures you can take.

The easiest and most common one is to restrict the rate of weight gain and growth while your dog is young. This may reduce the risk for young large breed dogs, which are the ones most at risk.

On an ongoing basis, if you have a large dog you should schedule yearly exams to assess the progress of deterioration in the joint cartilage (if any). This will enable you to take early intervention actions to postpone and minimize the severity.

As with other joint-related problems that are common in large breed dogs, a supportive, quality bed will help reduce your dog’s discomfort and improve their quality of life.

In Conclusion

One thing you may have noticed in all these descriptions is that a high-quality dog bed can be instrumental in providing relief for these ailments and enabling your large friend to have a better quality of life.

We recommend that you research and buy the best dog bed you can afford. To help you, see our large breed dog bed guide. It will tell you everything you need to know to ensure you’re big friend gets the best bed possible.

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