Reader Question: Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Most dogs will suffer from arthritis at some point in their lives.

What is commonly referred to simply as "arthritis" is the degenerative form of the disease, or osteoarthritis (OA), which is caused by wear and tear of the joint tissue, often as a result of injury (such as a torn ACL), anatomic abnormalities (such as hip dysplasia or luxating patella), obesity or poor physical condition. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in dogs. It is most likely to develop in larger joints such as the knees or hips. While any dog can develop arthritis, it is more common in the larger breeds.

Osteoarthritis is diagnosed based on a dog's symptoms, physical exam, and x-rays.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a completely different disease. It is rare in dogs and accounts for a very small percentage of arthritis diagnoses. While it might lag behind in quantity, it surely doesn't come up short in severity.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an immune-mediated disease. This means that your dog's own immune system attacks his joint tissues leading to their inflammation and damage. Small breed, young to middle-aged dogs are most commonly affected, and multiple, smaller joints, such as the toes, wrists) or ankles are typically involved.

Common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include swollen and painful joints, a lameness that seems to shift from one leg to another, stiffness, decreased mobility and a reluctance to exercise. A dog suffering from rheumatoid arthritis can also have a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and experience depression and loss of appetite.

Diagnosing rheumatoid arthritis is not always easy. While your veterinarian may suspect the disease based on your dog’s history, physical exam and the presence of typical joint damage  on x-rays, blood work and an analysis of joint fluid or a tissue biopsy may be needed to correctly determine if your dog is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, another type of immune-mediated arthritis, osteoarthritis or infectious arthritis.

Infectious arthritis is an acute form of arthritis caused by an infection in the joint. It can be a result of tick-borne diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, or caused by fungal infection. It often affects only a single joint and it is accompanied by swelling and fever. Rheumatoid arthritis, in fact, is one of the risk factors for contracting infectious arthritis.

An accurate diagnosis is important because each form of arthritis requires a different type of treatment. For example, arthritis that is caused by a bacterial joint infection will require antibiotics, while treatment of rheumatoid arthritis might involve anti-inflammatories, steroids or other immunosuppressive drugs.

Related articles:
Rheumatoid Arthritis (Immune-mediated Disease) in Dogs
Talk To Me About Arthritis


  1. A big WOOF to our fellow Canadian. I just started Dr. Maggies joint supplement so found this all very helpful.
    Thanks ~ Miss Kodee @ Bark'n About

  2. Hi Miss Kodee! Glad you found the information helpful! Did you also read the Talk To Me About Arthritis article?

  3. My old girl is 15 years old. I'm sure she has arthritis, some days it's more apparent than others, but she is 15.

  4. Dear Jim. Thank you for reading!

    Of course the only way to know for sure that it is arthritis is to have your vet to determine that. It is however most often the case. The common type of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is quite rare, only wrote about is as a response to a specific question.

    Just because your old girl is 15 years old, it doesn't mean there is no hope for improvement. There are many ways to improve her quality of life and decrease her pain, including supplements, acupuncture, laser therapy, hydrotherapy etc. Please check them out. Some dogs respond really well to these therapies and sometimes improvement can be seen in a matter of weeks.

  5. Thanks Jana.

    "Sweety" undoubtedly has OA, but she is far from debilitated. She just doesn't get around the way she did when she was younger.

    She still jumps up and down when it's walk time, jumps up and down from the couch and bed with no apparent pain. She just does all of these things slower.

  6. One thing about OA is that it is a degenerative disease and it is progressive. The sooner you get it in check, the better.

    The options I'm suggesting are all safe and affordable.

  7. This whole article actually makes me sad. I want to close my eyes and picture every dog everywhere with healthy everything, all chasing tennis balls.... But I know this isn't the truth of the matter.
    It really puts it into perspective when you read things like this... no matter how small a chance that your own dog could contract/develop any of these, it still makes you want to close your eyes and pray they don't.
    A lot of my clients put a lot of time, energy, and never-ending effort into caring for dogs with medical problems. Since I've never before seen this, it astounds me. Each and every story.
    Glad to be educated on the differences. This is a really good article. Even if ...Now I want to go cuddle my dog and tell her no RA. Ever. ;_;

  8. Dear JJ. Well, the good news is that RA really IS rare in dogs. Which cannot be said for OA and a number of other things that plague our best friends.

    I do believe that animals should not get sick. There should be a law against that. But, sadly, they do. Fortunately RA is not one of the common enemies of our furry pals.


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