Osteoarthritis and Joint Pain in Our Pets

Have you noticed any of these signs in your dog or cat – difficulty rising in the morning; less enthusiastic about going for a walk or playing; inability to jump on the couch, the bed or into the car; occasional limping; reluctance to climb the stairs; whining or growling when being touched on the legs or back? If the answer is yes, then these may be signs of osteoarthritis. Dogs and cats are now living longer than ever. Many conditions, such as osteoarthritis, occur with aging and can be difficult to manage. With recent advances in veterinary medicine and surgery, there are now many things that can be done to help your pet with osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a chronic degenerative disease that may affect any joint but is commonly found in a pet’s hip, elbow, shoulder, stifle (knee), carpus (wrist), hock (ankle) or intervertebral joints (in the spine). It occurs when cartilage in the joint is damaged, either following a traumatic event or with wear and tear that increases in athletic animals, obese animals, or when the joint is congenitally abnormal. The purpose of cartilage is to decrease joint stress by reducing impact on the ends of the bones in joints, like a gelatinous shock absorber. When cartilage is damaged, a cascade of inflammatory changes occurs, eventually leading to destruction of the cartilage and subsequent damage to the underlying bone. Nerves are not present in cartilage so if your pet is showing any signs of pain, the damage and changes in the underlying bone have already begun.

It is never easy to see a beloved pet and friend in pain. The medical treatment of arthritis has greatly improved in the last several years thanks to the introduction and approval of several new medications and supplements. While there is not yet a cure for this debilitating disease, there is much you can do to control the pain, make your pet comfortable, and perhaps slow down the progression of the symptoms. The best results come from a multi-modal therapy comprised of different treatment methods. Weight reduction is key if the pet is carrying too much weight. Ask your pet’s doctor about your pet’s Body Condition Score (BCS). If your pet is overweight, discuss a weight loss diet with your veterinarian. Exercise is helpful. Low-impact exercise is best. Swimming or walking through shallow water is ideal. Leash walking and controlled jogging are also acceptable. Nutritional supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate support cartilage structure and may slow or prevent further deterioration, suppress inflammation, and reduce free radical damage. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are other nutritional supplements that have been shown to improve joint health by decreasing inflammation in the body. There are also injectable joint protective agents that strengthen the remaining cartilage. Therapeutic laser treatments may provide additional non-drug pain control. Also, make daily activities less painful. Going up and down stairs is often difficult for arthritic pets, and for dogs, it can make going outside to urinate and defecate very difficult. A ramp will assist your pet getting into and out of the car or on and off of furniture and prevents the stress on joints. Think about your pet’s environment when developing a plan to help your dog or cat. There are many things you can do at home to help your pet with osteoarthritis. Keep them in a warm, dry environment, away from cold and dampness. Use a soft, well-padded bed or even a heated bed. Provide good footing to avoid slipping and falling. Minimize jumping and stair climbing by using ramps. Avoid overdoing activities and excessive play with other pets. And if necessary, prescription medication may be prescribed. These medications can reduce inflammation and suppress pain in pets with more advanced disease. Side effects can be minimized by monitoring your pet’s blood work regularly. Human medications such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen should never be given to pets.

Signs of osteoarthritis may be subtle and easy to miss. Early treatment is critical to slow progression of the disease. Maintaining lean body weight is absolutely critical for arthritic patients and pets prone to osteoarthritis. If you believe your pet may be suffering from osteoarthritis, consult with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can perform an assessment of historical symptoms, a physical examination, and possibly X-rays. The stage and severity of your pet’s osteoarthritis may be factors in the treatment and management plan your veterinarian recommends.

Remember, your family Veterinarian can help guide you through your pet’s health care!

— Dr. Beth Williams