Rickets In Dogs: Diagnosis & Treatment

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When caring for a young puppy, you must ensure they get all the nutrients they need to grow big and strong. Unfortunately, nutritional deficiencies can cause various health problems in dogs, ranging from obesity and allergies to rickets. Rickets is a painful bone disorder that can prevent a dog's bones from growing properly. 

If rickets in dogs is left untreated, it can cause deformities of the bones and severe pain for the dog. Rickets in dogs and humans are similar. The main cause of rickets in dogs is vitamin D deficiency, which can occur for several reasons ranging from unbalanced commercial dog food to parasites and intestinal diseases. Early treatment is crucial to prevent fractures and further pain for the dog. Luckily, rickets is easy to diagnose, and with the proper dietary changes, your dog can make a full recovery in a few months. Want to learn more about dog rickets? Keep reading to learn about rickets in dogs, why it happens, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated. 

What Are Rickets In Dogs?

Rickets is a rare disease of the bony growth plate that tends to affect young, growing dogs

Rickets is a rare disease that affects the growth of the bones in puppies and young growing dogs.1 Dogs with rickets have soft and deformed bones due to nutritional deficiencies in phosphorus, vitamin D, and calcium.1 Rickets caused by calcium deficiency is rare, and an excess of calcium in a growing dog's diet has also been seen to produce ricket-like symptoms in some dogs. Overall, animals eating all-meat diets are at a higher risk of developing rickets.2 Ultimately, growing dogs need vitamin D and the perfect ratio of phosphorus to calcium in their diets. 

Symptoms Of Canine Rickets

Symptoms of rickets in dogs

Dog rickets typically causes a variety of symptoms, and some may mimic dog arthritis. However, the first sign is often lameness and an inability to walk. 1 Other signs of rickets in dogs include:

  • Bone and joint pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiff gait
  • Difficulty standing up
  • Bowed limbs
  • Fractures 1

Young dogs affected by canine rickets will experience too much pain to play, and they may try to avoid being touched due to their bone pain. Folding fractures can also occur, in which the pressure on the bones forces them to fold instead of fully breaking.2 X-rays of the bones will show clear development issues, and limbs can grow at different rates in severe cases, causing worsening pain and other symptoms.2

What Causes Rickets In Dogs?

Any dog can be vulnerable to rickets, but it's most common in abandoned and neglected puppies who are still growing. Poorly balanced diets are the main cause of rickets in dogs because they don't contain proper amounts of phosphorus and vitamin D. Dogs fed all-meat diets or those not fed enough during their growing years can develop rickets. In addition, diets with too much calcium can cause rickets symptoms in large breeds like the Great Dane.1 

Dogs that don't get enough vitamin D are at an increased risk of rickets,3 along with those with low phosphorus intake and too much calcium.4 Some hereditary forms of rickets have also been reported in pigs, sheep, cats, and dogs.5 In these forms, vitamin D-resistance is caused by an abnormality in the vitamin D receptor gene.6 However, the non-hereditary form is more common. 

Rickets can be caused by several factors that affect a puppy's nutrition. For example, their mother may not have been able to produce enough milk, or the puppy hasn't received a proper diet throughout their life. In addition, they might be suffering from malabsorption caused by various underlying health conditions, such as tumors and intestinal disorders. 

How Are Rickets In Dogs Diagnosed?

Dog rickets is diagnosed based on clinical signs and supplemented by x-rays and biochemistry tests.1 In x-rays, the growth plates will look irregular, with enlarged joints and reduced bone density. If positive for rickets, the biochemistry test will show low calcium, anemia, incorrect phosphorus to calcium levels, and increased alkaline phosphatase.1 

Treating Rickets In Dogs

Treatment for rickets relies on addressing dietary deficiencies, especially vitamin D deficiencies.1 Since vitamin D is the main cause of rickets in dogs, vets will find ways to add more vitamin D into a dog's diet.1 Other treatments of rickets in dogs may include the following: 

  • Supplements: Supplements are another good option for correcting rickets in dogs because they can help treat deficiencies in vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus, depending on their needs. 
  • Improving dog's nutrition: The best way to treat rickets is to provide dogs with adequate nutrition with complete and balanced dog food. Nutritional dog food will ensure the dog is getting all the nutrients they need to prevent deficiencies in the future. 
  • Treating underlying illnesses: If the cause for rickets is an underlying issue that won't allow for the proper absorption of nutrients, your vet will aim to treat the disease and in turn treat the absorption issue.
  • Deworming: If parasites are causing the dog to lose vitamin D and other nutrients, vets will perform deworming procedures.
  • Anti-inflammatory medication: Anti-inflammatory medication can help reduce pain and discomfort due to bone deformities. 
  • Rest: When a puppy is diagnosed with rickets, they need to rest for a few weeks or until their symptoms improve. Until bone density in dogs with rickets improves, they can get fractures. Most young dogs with rickets will be in too much pain to play, but since they have high energy, you'll need to find ways to keep them calm to let their bodies heal. 

In most cases, puppies that get treatment will start improving relatively quickly. The outlook is generally good if there are no broken bones or irreversible bone damage.1 Most puppies will go back to normal lives within a few months, but how long your dog takes to recover depends on their case. If your puppy has broken bones, their recovery time will be much longer, so it's important to follow your vet's instructions and follow up with them if there are any concerns about your dog's health. 

After treatment is initiated, vets will likely require routine follow-ups to ensure the treatment methods are working. If treatment is proving ineffective, your vet may have to make changes to your dog's diet or add supplements to give them a boost of vitamin D and improve any deficiencies as soon as possible. 

Unfortunately, if a young dog has fractures or complications, they typically require a different kind of care in the form of casts or surgery, so dogs with more complications will have more complex treatment plans. 

If a dog doesn't get treated, rickets can lead to painful bone deformities, ultimately impacting a dog's quality of life. Therefore, if you believe your puppy has rickets, you should take them to the vet as soon as possible to improve their chances of recovery.

Preventing Rickets In Dogs

Rickets is a preventable disease. Many abandoned and neglected dogs get rickets because they're not fed a proper diet when they're young and still growing. Abandoned puppies may eat garbage or hunt small critters. In most cases, they are not getting enough vitamin D in their diet or spending enough of their time out in the sun, preventing them from soaking in any beneficial rays. Ultimately, these dogs don't have a pet parent who can feed them a balanced diet and ensure they grow up to be happy, healthy adult dogs. 

Still, even with pet parents, some dogs may get rickets. Many homemade diets for dogs are deficient in minerals and prevent dogs from getting a proper calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.2 In addition, even though dogs love meat, they're omnivores that require a healthy amount of meat and plants in their diet. Dogs are not carnivores like cats; they need a nutritionally balanced diet. 

Homemade dog food is often insufficient in minerals and unsuccessful in providing a proper calcium-to-phosphorus ratio

The best way to prevent puppy rickets is to feed them high-quality commercial food based on their life stage. For example, feeding puppies kibble designed for adult dogs can lead to rickets because it doesn't contain the nutrients they need while growing. Dogs need different levels of nutrients depending on their age, so even feeding your dog the wrong kibble based on their life stage can be dangerous to their health, potentially causing rickets. 

If you're unsure what to feed your dog, you can consult your vet, who can provide recommendations for the best types of puppy food for your dog based on their health. 

Since rickets is characterized by a vitamin D deficiency, you can also ensure your dog gets to spend plenty of time outside in the sun. Luckily, it isn’t necessary for dogs to spend all day outside, especially if it's hot out. Instead, a moderate-length walk should be enough sunlight to help your puppy get enough vitamin D to grow up big and strong. 

Rickets In Dogs: FAQs

Can dogs recover from rickets?

Yes, many dogs make a full recovery from rickets in a few months as long as they have the proper treatment and you improve their diet. However, dogs with fractures may need specialized care in the form of surgery or casts to correct their bone deformities. In any case, the outlook is generally good for most dogs. 

Is rickets in dogs painful?

Rickets in dogs can be excruciatingly painful, preventing them from being able to walk or play. Dogs with rickets have soft bones that are painful to touch. 

How common is rickets in dogs?

Rickets in dogs is relatively rare because most dogs get enough vitamin D by spending time in the sun or through their diets. However, neglected and abandoned dogs are at a higher risk of developing rickets. 

Is rickets in dogs genetic? 

There is a rare hereditary form of rickets in dogs in which they have vitamin D resistance. Treatment for this type of rickets differs from treatment for the more common form, but dogs will still need to eat a balanced diet and take supplements. 

What is adult rickets in dogs?

Rickets is a disorder that impacts young, growing dogs. However, there is a form of adult rickets called osteomalacia. With this disorder, rickets develops in fully matured bones.2 Dogs with adult rickets may also have pica because their body craves nutrition. In addition, these dogs are at higher risk of fractures. In most cases, treatment is to correct the dog's diet while letting them rest and monitoring the condition for signs of improvement. 

Close up side profile of puppy looking sad

Final Notes

Rickets is a bone disease that can cause bowed legs and pain. The condition is usually caused by a nutritional deficiency and is easily diagnosed by vets through physical examination and x-rays. If you believe your puppy has rickets, they should be taken to the vet as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment to prevent painful fractures. The outlook for dogs with rickets is good. Most patients will recover in a few weeks to a few months, depending on the severity of their condition and nutritional deficiencies. 

A high-quality diet is crucial to preventing rickets in dogs and other potential health problems. Unsure what to feed your pet to ensure they grow up healthy? Talk to a Dutch vet. We can help you find the right food for your dog depending on their current health and life stage. Try Dutch today. 

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References

  1. Grünberg, Walter. "Rickets in Animals - Musculoskeletal System." Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/musculoskeletal-system/dystrophies-associated-with-calcium,-phosphorus,-and-vitamin-d/rickets-in-animals.

  2. Grünberg, Walter. "Disorders Associated with Calcium, Phosphorus, and Vitamin D in Dogs - Dog Owners." Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/bone,-joint,-and-muscle-disorders-of-dogs/disorders-associated-with-calcium,-phosphorus,-and-vitamin-d-in-dogs.

  3. Chesney, Russell W. "Early Animal Models of Rickets and Proof of a Nutritional Deficiency Hypothesis." Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22134552/.

  4. McMillan, Chantal J, et al. "Dietary-Related Skeletal Changes in A Shetland Sheepdog Puppy." Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16397196/.

  5. Vitamin D Metabolism and Rickets in Domestic Animals: A Review. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0300985810375240.

  6. Hereditary 1,25‐Dihydroxyvitamin d‐Resistant Rickets in a Pomeranian https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-1676.2009.0405.x.

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