Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

Written on November 24, 2010 by Staff Veterinarian

Arthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease) is one of the most common diseases affecting dogs and cats of all ages.  Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the joints become inflamed, swollen and painful.  Joint mobility is reduced and changes are often progressive.

A healthy hip joint compared to an arthritic hip in a dog.

Signs of Arthritis
The most common sign of arthritis in both dogs and cats is a reduced activity level.  In dogs, this might mean decreased play activity, less enthusiasm for walks, or turning around to come home earlier than usual.  Cats may have a decreased ability or desire to jump, run, or play.

Other Signs Include:

  • Limping or an altered gait, especially upon rising from rest.
  • Soreness.
  • Behavioral changes such as aggression.
  • Change in normal eating habits.

Causes of Arthritis
In many pets, it is difficult to determine a single cause of arthritis.  However, there are known factors that, individually or combined, can make a pet more prone to degenerative joint disease.

  • Obesity
  • Age, particularly in breeds predisposed to arthritis.
  • Developmental abnormalities such as hip dysplasia or osteochrondrosis dissicans.
  • Injury such as fractures or cranial cruciate ligament tear.
  • Genetic predisposition.

Management of Arthritis
Arthritis is a disease that can be managed, but not cured.  Changes in the joint are permanent and progressive, so the goal in treatment is to maintain joint mobility, reduce strain on the joints, and reduce inflammation.

1.    Weight management is the single most important factor in maintaining the health of the joints.  Obese dogs and cats place excessive strain on inflamed joints.  Without weight management, no other therapies will be completely effective. An overweight pet with signs of arthritis should be started on a strict regimen of diet and gentle exercise to produce gradual weight loss.

Conway getting his Massage in PT at Mass Vet

2.    Physical therapy, either in a formal setting (sessions with a physical therapist certified for animals) or performed at home, can help to improve joint mobility.  Starting slow with regular exercise (daily or twice daily short walks, gradually increasing the distance) can keep dogs moving, aid in weight management and serve as a bonding opportunity for you and your pet.  A physical therapist will also often show owners how to perform exercises and massage at home.

3.    Acupuncture is an alternative modality which has gained in popularity and availability.  It can significantly improve a pet’s quality of life, and is described in greater detail in the next article in this newsletter.

4.    Change the home environment, making it easier for your pet to do his or her daily activities.  This may consist of ramps to help pets get up and down from desired sleeping spaces or outdoor locations or changing the height of food and water bowls.  Be creative!

5.    Dietary supplements and foods containing glucosamine can help to supplement the joints, sometimes significantly reducing pain.  These supplements often do not have a reliable effect – some pets show no visible changes and some derive significant benefits from glucosamine.  There are almost no adverse effects, so they may be worth a try.

6.    Medical management with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Metacam, or others, should be used judiciously, with veterinary supervision, and only in addition to all of the above therapies.

NSAIDs reduce pain by controlling inflammation.  With long-term usage there can be significant side effects, and regular examinations and bloodwork are recommended.  This is why it is important to reduce a pet’s needs for these drugs with the other changes recommended above.  Other pain medications are available in addition to NSAIDs that may provide relief.

Unfortunately, there is no “quick” treatment for arthritis, but the pain and inflammation can be managed with appropriate care.

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