Two veterinary nurses examine a Bulldog for signs of joint swelling (effusion).

Joint Effusion (Swelling) in Dogs

Joint effusion is an increase in fluid within the joint space. This increase in joint fluid often leads to a distention of the joint capsule and a swelling of the joint. The general causes of joint effusion include:

What to Watch For

Signs of Joint Effusion (Swelling) in dogs may include:

Many animals with joint effusion in multiple joints often have a very stiff gait and appear to be “walking on egg shells.”

Diagnosis of Joint Swelling in Dogs

A complete physical examination and accurate history is critical for accurate diagnosis. It is the most important part of the work up in evaluating an animal with joint effusion. Additional tests include radiographs (x-rays) of the affected joint.

Many times a diagnosis can be made on the basis of the physical exam findings, with or without radiographs. If a more systemic illness is suspected, additional diagnostics might include:

Treatment of Joint Swelling in Dogs

An accurate diagnosis is needed for proper therapy. Pending a definitive diagnosis, certain treatments may be appropriate:

Home Care and Prevention

In cases of acute joint swelling, restricted physical activity is always advised. In acute joint swelling, especially if the joint is warm, cold water compresses may be applied to reduce the swelling.

If a wound is noted, it can be cleaned with warm soapy water or hydrogen peroxide. If possible, foreign debris can be removed. Once cleaned, a light wrap may be applied. Contact your veterinarian to see if giving a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as aspirin, would be indicated to relieve the pain until seeking veterinary care.

More Information on Canine Joint Effusion

Joint effusion may be a sudden (acute) occurrence or a long-standing (chronic) problem. Many times, acute joint swelling is the result of trauma and usually involves only a single joint. External wounds may be noted and the animal is usually lame and painful at the swollen joint. Chronic joint distention may or may not be associated with lameness. The most common cause of chronic distention is degenerative osteoarthritis and may occur in multiple joints. Many animals with this type of joint effusion are more lame after lying down or first thing in the morning. Typically, the lameness improves over the course of the day.

One of the most important observations to make when dealing with joint effusion is if the dog is feeling ill. Animals feeling ill may be lethargic, anorexic, febrile, and they commonly have multiple joints that are affected. Reluctance to walk or even get up is a common complaint. Systemic illness should be expected in ill animals with joint effusion.

Ill animals may often require extensive diagnostic testing before a definitive diagnosis can be made. On the other hand, dogs with acute or chronic joint effusion that are still feeling fairly well are more likely to have conditions that are easier to diagnose. In these dogs a definitive diagnosis can often be achieved by a good history, physical exam and perhaps a radiograph. Rarely, animals with joint effusion will not have obviously distended joints and require arthrocentesis and cytologic evaluation of the joint fluid for diagnosis.

Another important part in evaluating an animal with joint effusion is whether or not there are multiple joints involved (polyarthritis). Animals with polyarthritis may walk very stiffly or have shifting leg lameness. Polyarthritis is a systemic disease that may be acute or chronic and it usually causes an animal to feel ill. Some dogs with polyarthritis have recurrent episodes making diagnosis more difficult. Since there are many causes of joint effusion an accurate diagnosis is crucial for correct treatment.

Causes of Joint Swelling in Dogs

Joint effusion is caused by an increase in fluid within the joint space. The amount of fluid within the joint can vary greatly, from a visually imperceptible amount to a very distended joint. In all cases of joint effusion, the fluid in the joint is abnormal in either cell type or viscosity (thickness). In many cases, the evaluation of the joint fluid is needed to determine the cause of the effusion. Joint fluid analysis may suggest a specific disease. Many times a simple history may identify the cause of the effusion. Traumatic injury, history of degenerative osteoarthritis, breed and age of the dog, and a travel history are all important in the assessment of joint effusion. The general causes of joint effusion include:

More Information on Diagnosing Swollen Joints in Dogs

A complete history and physical exam is vital in the evaluation of an dog with joint effusion. A history of trauma or current illness should be noted. Some causes of joint effusion are more common in certain geographic locations (tick borne diseases), so a travel history should be recorded. Determining if single or multiple joints are affected is an important part of the physical exam. Additional tests include:

More Information on Treating Swollen Joints in Dogs

One or more of the diagnostic tests described above may be recommended by your veterinarian. In the meantime, treatment of the symptoms might be needed, especially if the problem is severe. The following nonspecific (symptomatic) treatments may be applicable to some, but not all pets with joint effusion. These treatments may reduce severity of symptoms or provide relief for your pet. However, nonspecific therapy is not a substitute for treatment of the underlying disease responsible for your pet’s condition.

Pain relief may need to be provided. No medication should be given without first speaking to your veterinarian. Some medications that are often used for pain relief include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and narcotics. Controlling the pain is important in making your pet comfortable until veterinary care can be obtained.

If trauma or a fracture is suspected a bandage may be applied. Decreasing the range of motion in the joint and providing support may make your pet more comfortable and less painful.
Occasionally joint effusion is associated with more severe systemic illness and intravenous fluid support may be needed to stabilize your pet pending test results. Fluid therapy prevents dehydration and may be needed if an animal is in shock.

Once appropriate diagnostic tests have been submitted and infectious disease is suspected, antibiotics might be started. Starting antibiotics prior to getting the appropriate samples may prevent accurate diagnosis. Once tests are pending, starting antibiotics might be appropriate.