How much exercise does a dog with arthritis need?

Arthritis is a common condition in dogs that causes pain and inflammation in the joints. It can make normal activities like walking, running, and playing difficult and uncomfortable. Determining the right amount of exercise for an arthritic dog requires balancing their need for activity with the need to avoid overexertion that can worsen joint pain. This article provides guidelines and suggestions to help identify the appropriate exercise regimen for a dog with arthritis.

Understanding arthritis in dogs

Arthritis develops when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones wears down over time, allowing bone to rub against bone. This causes inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joint. There are several types of arthritis that can affect dogs:

  • Osteoarthritis – Also called degenerative joint disease, this is the most common type of arthritis in dogs. It occurs from general wear and tear on the joints over many years.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – An autoimmune condition that causes abnormal inflammation of the joints.
  • Traumatic arthritis – Joint damage caused by an injury, often the cruciate ligament in the knee.
  • Septic arthritis – Inflammation caused by a bacterial or fungal infection in the joint.

Certain breeds like Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers are genetically prone to developing osteoarthritis as they age. Other risk factors include obesity, joint injuries, overuse of joints from too much high-impact exercise, and abnormal structure of joints present at birth.

Some common symptoms of arthritis in dogs include:

  • Stiffness and limping, especially after rest
  • Difficulty standing up, climbing stairs, or jumping
  • Lagging behind on walks
  • Reluctance to run, play, or walk
  • Yelping when touched or moving the joint
  • Muscle loss around the joint

Your veterinarian can perform a physical exam and take x-rays to determine if a dog has arthritis. They may also recommend blood tests to look for underlying infections. Arthritis cannot be cured, but various treatments can help manage pain and slow the progression of joint damage.

Benefits of exercise for arthritic dogs

Exercise is extremely beneficial for dogs with arthritis because joint immobility leads to greater stiffness and loss of range of motion. Keeping the joints moving gently can help relieve stiffness, maintain flexibility, improve circulation, support muscle strength, and prevent weight gain. Other benefits of regular, low-impact activity include:

  • Reducing pain – Exercise releases endorphins that relieve discomfort.
  • Supporting joint health – Movement aids distribution of joint fluid to nourish cartilage.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight – Activity prevents obesity that worsens arthritis.
  • Preventing secondary disabilities – Regular use of muscles/joints prevents loss of function.
  • Improving mental health – Exercise elevates mood and reduces anxiety.

Many dogs with arthritis are capable of leading active, happy lives with appropriate exercise tailored to their condition. However, it is crucial to consult your veterinarian before starting or increasing your dog’s activity level.

Potential risks of too much exercise

While exercise is important for arthritic dogs, too much high-impact activity can worsen their joint pain and speed disease progression. Potential risks include:

  • Increased inflammation – Overusing sore joints causes more irritation and swelling.
  • Accelerated cartilage breakdown – Excessive strain on damaged joints wears down cushioning.
  • Amplified pain – High-impact activities make symptoms much worse.
  • Additional injuries – Jumping or rough play can damage already weak joints.
  • Exacerbated lameness – Too much exercise makes limping more pronounced.
  • Weakened muscles – Fatigue from overexertion can cause muscle loss.

It’s important to monitor your dog’s symptoms during and after exercise. Stop any activity that causes pronounced limping, panting, vocalizations, or other signs of pain or overexertion. Letting your dog overdo it can set back their arthritis management and progress.

Tips for safe exercise

The types and amounts of exercise appropriate for an arthritic dog depend on factors such as the type and severity of arthritis, which joints are affected, their weight, and current activity level. While every dog’s needs are different, the following tips can help make exercise safe, gentle, and beneficial:

  • Start slowly – Gradually increase duration and intensity over several weeks to build conditioning without overstressing joints.
  • Keep a low-impact – Avoid high-strain activities like jumping or running on hard surfaces.
  • Listen to your dog – Stop if they seem reluctant, in pain, or overtired.
  • Swimming – An excellent cardio workout that removes weight-bearing strain from joints.
  • Massage – Gently move and manipulate legs to improve flexibility.
  • Stretching – Extend each leg carefully before and after walks.
  • Mental games – Tricks, training, and puzzle toys provide active rest for the body.
  • Hydrotherapy – Water treadmills and resistance jets aid low-impact conditioning.
  • Vary activities – Try different types of gentle exercise to work all muscle groups.
  • Soft surfaces – Walk on grass or dirt trails rather than concrete.
  • Cold therapy – Apply ice packs after activity to reduce inflammation.

Aim for multiple short 5-15 minute activity sessions each day rather than one long period of exercise, which can cause fatigue and soreness. Consistency is key – it’s better to do a little bit every day than overdo it only once a week.

Recommended types of exercise

Certain activities are ideally suited to improving mobility and strength in dogs with arthritis. Recommended options include:

Leash walking

One of the easiest ways to exercise an arthritic dog is to take them on short leash walks on flat surfaces at a comfortable pace. Aim for 2-3 slow 10 minute walks per day. Pay attention to limping and allow sniffing/rest breaks.


Swimming allows aerobic conditioning with minimal strain on joints. Start with short 5 minute sessions in warm water and gradually increase over several weeks. Life jackets provide buoyancy support. Lakes, beaches, and pools are good options.


Controlled hydrotherapy using underwater treadmills, resistance jets, or massage provides structured conditioning and pain relief. Vets or rehabilitation therapists supervise sessions. Most last 10-15 minutes.


Rehabilitation specialists use techniques like passive range of motion exercises, stretching, massage, heat/cold therapy, and electrical stimulation to maintain joint mobility. Plan for 30 minute appointments 1-2 times per week.

Low-impact cardio

Options like gentle treadmill walking, slow jogging on soft ground, or cycling/rowing on underwater or recumbent machines allow heart-pumping exercise without jarring impact.

Strengthening exercises

Building muscle protects joints from overcompensation. Weighted cuffs, resistance bands, ramp/cavaletti rails, and balance equipment provide toning. Perform 10-15 reps, 2-3x weekly.

Aerobic steps/ramps

Stepping up/down short distanced, soft-sided aerobic steps or gradual ramps improves range of motion. Start with 5 repetitions.

Proprioceptive exercises

Wobble boards, balance pads, peanut/booda balance balls, and cavaletti rails improve joint position sense and coordination. Use 10-15 minutes daily.

Exercise guidelines by arthritis severity

The amount and types of exercise appropriate generally depends on the severity of your dog’s arthritic condition. Some general recommendations include:

Mild Arthritis

Dogs with early joint degeneration can typically handle 20-30 minutes of moderate activity 1-2 times daily. Opt for low-impact exercise and avoid overexertion during active periods. Appropriate activities may include:

  • Leash walks up to 30 minutes
  • Swimming up to 20 minutes
  • Slow jogging on soft ground up to 15 minutes
  • Hydrotherapy up to 15 minutes
  • Hiking on even trails up to 30 minutes
  • Playing gentle fetch up to 15 minutes

Moderate Arthritis

For dogs with more advanced arthritis, aim for multiple sessions of more gentle activity for 10-20 minutes daily. Suitable options include:

  • Short leash walks 10-20 minutes
  • Swimming or hydrotherapy 10-15 minutes
  • Physiotherapy exercises 10-15 minutes
  • Proprioceptive exercises 10-15 minutes
  • Aerobic steps or ramps 5-10 repetitions
  • Massage and stretching 10-15 minutes

Severe Arthritis

Dogs with degenerative joint disease requiring surgical management need very conservative exercise routines. Work multiple 5-10 minute activity sessions into each day such as:

  • Gentle leash walks 5-10 minutes
  • Hydrotherapy or physiotherapy 5-10 minutes
  • Proprioceptive exercises 5-10 minutes
  • Massage and stretching 5-10 minutes
  • Mental games and training tricks 10 minutes

Avoid any high-impact or strenuous exercise that could damage extremely arthritic joints.

Signs your dog is overdoing it

It is important to monitor your arthritic dog closely during and after exercise sessions. Stop right away if you notice any of the following signs of overexertion:

  • Marked limping or lameness
  • Yelping or whimpering in pain
  • Lagging behind and reluctance to move
  • Panting, trouble breathing
  • Discomfort when touched or manipulated
  • Trembling, muscle weakness
  • Inability to put weight on a limb
  • Irritation, aggression when forced to continue

These reactions indicate the exercise is too challenging for the dog’s current condition. Allow them to rest immediately. It’s better to gradually build activity tolerance over several weeks than push too much intensity too soon.

Using an exercise diary

Keeping an exercise diary is an excellent way to monitor your arthritic dog’s activity tolerance and make appropriate adjustments. Note details such as:

  • Date and time of exercise
  • Type of activity performed
  • Duration of exercise
  • Symptoms noted during and after
  • Overall reaction and behavior

Review the diary weekly and adjust the exercise program depending on positive or negative responses. For example, increase durations slightly if your dog appears capable of doing more, or reduce intensity if you notice limping and reluctance after sessions.

Complementary therapies

Certain complementary treatments used alongside an exercise program can help soothe arthritic pain and support joint health in dogs. Options to discuss with your vet include:

  • Joint supplements – Glucosamine, chondroitin, turmeric, Omega-3’s
  • Pain medications – NSAIDs, steroids, gabapentin
  • Acupuncture – Stimulates healing and relieves pain
  • Therapeutic laser – Reduces inflammation
  • Stem cell therapy – Joint injections to slow degeneration
  • Platelet rich plasma – Joint injections to reduce inflammation
  • Weight management – Helps take strain off joints

Alternative treatments should always be used under veterinary supervision in combination with exercise and other care recommendations.

Lifestyle and environmental adjustments

Making some changes to your home and daily routine can make exercise and mobility easier for an arthritic dog. Ideas include:

  • Install ramps/stairs to access furniture
  • Use slip-proof surfaces for traction
  • Provide an orthopedic bed for comfort
  • Use treats or games to motivate movement
  • Maintain a consistent daily schedule
  • Help your dog stand up/lie down
  • Carry upstairs/lift into vehicles
  • Keep their living space on one floor

Consult with your veterinarian about assistive mobility devices like harnesses, braces, or carts if needed. Keeping their environment accessible encourages activity while preventing falls or injury.

Warning signs to watch for

It’s extremely important to monitor your dog closely during exercise and also in their normal daily activities. Contact your vet right away if you notice:

  • Significant or sudden increase in limping or stiffness
  • Extreme difficulty rising, standing, walking
  • Crying out suddenly in pain for no reason
  • Personality changes such as aggression or depression
  • Reluctance to put weight on a limb or sensitivity to touch
  • Swelling, heat, redness in one or more joints
  • Appetite loss, vomiting, diarrhea

These signs may indicate a new injury, progression of arthritis, or complications like an infection. Prompt veterinary care is crucial.

The bottom line

Regular, gentle exercise tailored to your dog’s arthritis severity can improve their pain, mobility, and quality of life without worsening joint damage. But activities should never be pushed to the point of causing lameness, fatigue, or distress. Monitor your dog closely, keep an exercise diary, and work with your vet to find the sweet spot where your dog gets all the benefits of activity without overexertion. With a properly designed program, dogs with arthritis can stay comfortably active.

Leave a Comment