Are Small Dogs More Prone to Joint Disorders? - Simply For Dogs
Small Dogs

Are Small Dogs More Prone to Joint Disorders?


Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwyer, DVM on November 05, 2018

Hey guys, it’s Ash. Believe it or not, I have no story to share today. The dog park’s been a bit quiet since the weather has been cooling off. Janice and Leroy are both their usual selves. No one’s called me up for any advice lately, and I haven’t run across any unfamiliar pups in the last few days.

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I know, my life is tough. So today I thought I’d dive into a topic that I’ve talked around before, but have never gotten to really research as much as I’d like. Joint problems in dogs may not sound like something you’d look into just because, but remember who you’re talking to here. We’ve discussed things like the reasons that dogs may limp and exercises for arthritic dogs. But something I noticed a few months back is that every time I feature a small breed for the Breed of the Week, like the Pomeranian for example, I end up mentioning some form of joint disease. Small breeds in particular are frequently plagued by joint issues of all types. Today I wanted to take a closer look at some of these diseases, and give you some clues about what life with a dog who has bad joints may look like.

Are Small Dogs Prone to Joint Issues?

First, I was curious about why it seems that smaller breeds have joint issues more than other breeds. Any dog can have joint issues, especially as they get older. Wear and tear from aging can cause arthritis in the hips and knees especially. But it seems that dogs that are specifically bred to have shorter legs do in fact have these problems more often. Dogs like dachshunds, bulldogs, and basset hounds are especially prone to joint disorders. They are known as chondrodystrophoid breeds, meaning they are genetically predisposed to issues of the joints and cartilage.

It’s interesting because there seems to be mixed information out there. For diseases such as arthritis, larger breed dogs can actually suffer more, because increased weight is a very big risk factor. Additionally, giant breed dogs that grow too fast as puppies, like St. Bernards and Great Danes, tend to develop joint problems as well because their cartilage isn’t keeping up with their bone development. So maybe the answer is simply that all dogs can have joint issues, but that giant and toy breeds – the extreme ends of the spectrum – are more prone than others.

There are two things that can make potential joint issues worse in small breeds that you can control. The first is their weight. Dogs that are overweight have way too much pressure being exerted on their joints, which can exacerbate any genetic predispositions. The second is allowing the dog to tax the joints by jumping too high or falling. If you can offer your dog a set of stairs to get on the bed, for example, that can help stop them from overestimating the strength of their joints.

Hip Dysplasia

We may all know what arthritis is, because humans experience it as well, but there are a couple of dog joint disorders that I mention frequently on Breed of the Week posts, that I don’t think many people understand. The first is called hip dysplasia. This is one of the most common disorders of the skeletal system seen in any dog.

Hip dysplasia is a physical malformation in a dog’s hip. Think of a dog’s hip like a ball sitting in a hollowed-out portion of the leg bone. When the dog moves, that ball rotates around in that hollow area, called the socket, which is what causes the leg to move forward and back. In a normal dog, this action would be a smooth glide.

In a dog with hip dysplasia, that ball does not line up with the socket correctly, so instead of smoothly sliding in the socket as the dog walks, the ball rubs and grinds in a painful manner. This condition is developed through both genetic and environmental factors.

The first thing that happens in a dog with hip dysplasia is that the hip joint doesn’t develop naturally as they grow. They’re born with that physical malformation, in other words. However, as puppies, it’s not really that big of a deal. They are moving around and acting totally normal. But as they get older, that constant grinding and rubbing of the joint leads to cartilage loss. The bone isn’t meant to rub against the cartilage like that, and it starts to wear down. When the bones begin to rub against each other due to complete loss of cartilage, that’s when the condition becomes painful and debilitating. The dog’s environment and behaviors determine how fast this cartilage will wear down. For example, if the dog is frequently competing in canine obedience courses, it will wear down that cartilage a lot faster.

This disorder actually does seem to impact giant breeds more than small breeds, but we also read about it impacting toy breeds pretty frequently. Great Danes are particularly prone to this problem. How do you know if your dog has hip dysplasia? You’ll see things like:

  • Difficulty standing up
  • Not wanting to run or jump
  • Hopping instead of running
  • Reacting in pain to being touched at the hip
  • Not moving rear legs in a full step
  • Thigh muscles appear smaller
  • Not being as active as usual
  • Inability to move after exercise

Treatments for this disorder include a variety of things. Your vet may want you to start by having your dog lose some weight if they are obese, of eat a special diet. Surgery is a good option for small dogs under 40 pounds.

Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease

The other disease that I often mention in Breed of the Week posts that I don’t think is very familiar, is Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease. This is another hip socket disorder, but it involves the blood supply rather than the skeletal structure. Here’s what happens:

With this disease, the ball part of the hip socket isn’t getting enough blood supply due to a temporary interruption. This interruption is just enough for the bone to begin to die, and that means that it is very prone to breaking and poor healing. Essentially, the hip bone is disintegrating inside your dog. We don’t actually know the true cause of this disease, but we do know that it’s seen a lot in miniature, toy, and small breeds. We also know that the first dog to be recorded as having this disease is the Manchester Terrier – the genetic predecessor to dogs like Whippets.

This disease typically shows up when a dog is between the ages of five and eight months. If your dog has Legg-Calve-Perthes, you may see:

  • Carrying the leg off the ground
  • Crying out in pain when the leg is moved
  • Inability to move that leg
  • Thigh muscle becomes smaller

The only way to identify this disorder is to have an x-ray. Doctors are looking for a widening at the joint, which may indicate that the hip bone has become smaller from decay. The only way to really treat this issue is with surgery, as well as physical therapy.

Other Joint Problems and How to Help

Beyond these two joint issues, dogs can also face things such as arthritis, osteoarthritis, and more. Other types of joint disorders seem to be largely dependent on genetics and activity level, and frequently don’t require such serious treatments to be manageable.

Another common joint issue that small dogs have is called luxating patella. This is when the kneecap has a tendency to dislocate and “float” around in the body. This is very common in Chihuahuas, Yorkies, Mini Poodles, and other toy breeds. This joint problem has multiple grades of seriousness, ranging from “oops, give it a minute to pop back into place”, to “my kneecap might be in outer space right now for all I know”. For some dogs, just letting them manage it and keeping an eye on it is all you need. For more serious cases, surgery and supplements may be required to keep the dog mobile.

Here are some tips for helping your dog manage pain and immobility caused by joint problems:

  • Be sure to keep up with regular veterinary appointments. Your vet won’t be able to catch something serious like Legg-Calve-Perthes if they aren’t able to compare the dog’s mobility or pain level to a previous state.
  • Feed your dog a high quality dog food that avoids fillers. Whole food ingredients help provide nutrients to the cartilage so that it stays healthy. Some dog foods have ingredients specifically to aid in healthy mobility, and your vet may recommend that you use these foods for your dog.


  • Give your dog a glucosamine chondroitin You can get these over the counter without a prescription, and they are proven to help aid in comfort and mobility. These two nutrients are important for healthy joint development.
  • Play on soft surfaces, like grass and carpet, rather than paved roads or hardwood. It’s a good idea to monitor your dog so that she’s not overdoing it at playtime.


  • Keep your dog’s weight in check. Extra weight is one of the leading causes of worsening joint issues. Because your dog can’t exercise as much to burn off calories, a low-calorie dog food in smaller portions is going to be necessary.
  • Keep your dog warm. Cold aggravates painful joints. You can find heating pads made for dog beds that can help keep your pet warm at night if you live in a very cold area.
  • There are some alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage, that have been shown to help dogs. You may wish to get a recommendation from your vet in order to find an experienced professional.


  • Ask your vet about pain medications and anti-inflammatory medications. These may allow your dog to move around easier, which can help them keep their weight down and lead a happier life.
  • Be sure that your home has secure, stable flooring so that your dog doesn’t slip and fall. If you have hardwood or slick linoleum, lay down some secured rugs, for example. Falling and slipping are two quick ways to cause a bad joint to get much worse.
  • Be careful how you pick your dog up, and never let a child lift your dog up by the stomach. Many times, the way we pick a dog up around their middle can make the hip joint grind in a painful way. If you need to lift your dog safely, try using an assistance tool like a lifting harness.
  • Finally, keep your dog’s environment as stress-free as possible. When a dog is stressed out, not only are they more likely to move too quickly and jerkily out of surprise or fear, but their bodies are also not able to focus on healing. A calm dog will move calmly and that helps keep their joints pain-free.

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The Final Word

So while my research didn’t really support the idea that small dogs suffer more than big dogs from joint problems, it did show that joint problems are a common concern for a variety of small breeds. One thing that stands out to me is just how important it is to take your puppy in for regular vet checks until they get older. Many of these disorders develop when a dog is young, and the earlier a vet can catch them, the easier it will be to treat the problem before the cartilage totally wears away.

There’s a good chance that your dog will be healthy and mobile for their entire life, but being a vigilant owner who is aware of the possibility ensures that your dog is protected. If you’ve just gotten a toy breed puppy and want to keep them healthy, be sure to ask your vet to look over their joints at each checkup, and discuss what steps you might take to build up that healthy cartilage and maintain a healthy weight now.


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