Does my pet have osteoarthritis?

Is your pet slowing down? We hear pet owners say this often, especially as our pets age. While we understand that some changes are inevitable with age, “slowing down” isn’t necessarily a normal change for our pets. Often the changes that pet owners see are actually caused by pain. The most common source of this pain is osteoarthritis. In this blog, we are going to talk about some key points for pet owners when it comes to keeping our pets with osteoarthritis as pain free as possible!

Why “slowing down” isn’t normal….

In many cases, this slowing down owners see is because of the chronic pain associated with osteoarthritis. These may be signs your pet is uncomfortable:

  • Decreased activity and sleeping more
  • Decreased appetite
  • Difficult with using the stairs
  • Hesitance/refusal to jump on/off things
  • Taking more time to get up/lay down
  • Behavioural changes – like not following you around

How does osteoarthritis cause pain?

The primary instigator of pain in pets with arthritis is inflammation. As cartilage becomes worn and more irregular, the forces acting in the joint space change. This wearing will cause progressive damage to the cartilage, which normally acts as a cushion with lubricant to help the joint move. When these features become diminished, abnormal force is applied within the joint and inflammation and joint capsule thickening occurs. Sometimes the surface of the bone itself can become irregular, form new bone fragments, and contribute to pain. 

What sorts of things predispose pets to developing osteoarthritis?

Being overweight is the most common contributor to developing arthritis in our furry family members. Excess weight adds extra pressure on the joints meaning more wear and tear over time. Certain breeds may be affected at higher incidences due to commonly bred joint conformation abnormalities such as hip dysplasia in large breed dogs (retrievers, shepherds, etc.). Prior trauma is another contributor. A common example of this is dogs that have torn their cruciate ligament in their knee. Because of the change in forces overtime, even if surgical repair is performed, these dogs are at higher risk for arthritis later on. Diet, types of routine exercise, and gender may also be contributing factors.

Don’t forget our kittens!

Cats often get forgotten in the world of arthritis, as older dogs tend to more overtly show signs of potential pain. Osteoarthritis is a major problem in overweight and older cats, and is frequently missed by owners. Cats may show the same “slowing down” type changes as dogs, but even things as simple as sleeping more might indicate pain. Sometimes older cats will urinate/defecate outside the litter box because it’s too painful for them to get into the box to go! It’s important to remember that cats are commonly affected by arthritis and may need joint support too.

How can I tell if my pet has osteoarthritis?

In conjunction with some of the signs at home mentioned above, a trip to the vet can help determine if your pet is suffering from joint disease. Your vet can check joint range of motion, look for pain on exam, and take x-rays to see if there are any visible changes to the bone itself. Sometimes x-rays may look relatively normal, but osteoarthritis is still present as inflammation itself is not necessarily seen on imaging. 

What can we do to support our pets joints and manage pain?

A few ways we can help support healthy joints earlier in life is by keeping pets at an ideal body weight, maintaining a regular exercise routine, and starting them on a joint supplement with glucosamine and chondroitin. In fact, we are more likely to support happy joints the EARLIER we start (i.e. before there are clinical signs of possible pain). This is particularly true for our larger breeds of dogs. 

As osteoarthritis becomes more progressive, with the help and expertise of your vet, the following may be used to help with joint disease:

  • Maintaining an ideal to just below ideal body weight to take additional pressure off the joints.
  • Monitoring daily behaviours at home and keeping a journal to better track any changes, especially if changes are becoming more frequent or worsening.
  • Regular low impact exercise is key, keep them moving!
  • Consider short daily walks, passive range of motion therapy, and water or hydrotherapy.
  • Anti-inflammatory and pain medications from the vet.

Don’t be scared of this one! If done responsibly and monitored appropriately by your vet, adding daily medication can significantly improve your pets pain and quality of life!

NOTE: HUMAN PAIN MEDICATION IS NOT SAFE FOR DOGS/CATS. Speak with your vet to determine if veterinary safe pain management is warranted.

Joint supplements can be excellent, and some of the following are used often:

  • Products that contain compounds such as glucosamine and chondroitin. 
  • Products that contain green lipped mussel.
  • Products that contain omega three fatty acids. 
  • Joint supportive diets, particularly prescription joint diets as these are specifically formulated to target joint health.  
  • Holistic therapies including physical therapy/chiropractic sessions, laser therapy, acupuncture, etc.

We’ve come a long way in managing joint pain in our dog and cat patients over the years, and pet owners are becoming more aware of the signs. This means we’re all on the right track to keeping our pets as comfortable and healthy for as long as we can!

Dr. Kirsten Ronngren, DVM MRCVS

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