Arthritis in Pets: Warning Signs, Causes, and How to Treat It

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Is your pet slowing down or having difficulty getting up and down?  For older cats and dogs, this could be due to arthritis.  Just like in aging people, our pets also develop arthritis.  Arthritis is a degenerative joint disease that progresses and has mostly some irreversible changes to the joints.  This can occur due to constant wear of the smooth cartilage in the joints.  In dogs, we diagnose this in approximately 25% of all we see. However, as many as 60% of pets have radiographic evidence of this.  Cats also can have arthritis but are usually less likely to show symptoms of the problem.  It is estimated that over 90% of cats over 12 years of age have some arthritis.   

As stated, the most common cause of arthritis is just normal aging.  Some pets also develop this condition from some trauma or can even have an autoimmune disease or infection that may start the process.  Some pets with bad joint conformation such as hip or elbow dysplasia develop the problem at a faster rate.

Most people bring their pets in for evaluation of possible arthritis due to a lameness issue.  Other signs could be that a pet is reluctant to stand up from a lying position.  Some pets stand with their hind limbs closer together.  There can also be muscle loss of the affected limbs or the back of a pet with arthritis.  We can determine a lot with an exam but usually confirm the problem with radiographs.

We have many options for managing pets with arthritis.  In mild cases, pets are placed on supplements – usually oral glucosamine/chondroitin, but also some pets respond to omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric compounds.  Applying warm compresses to affected joints – especially on cold days – can also help.  Pets are sometimes given laser therapy treatments and even acupuncture.  There are injectable joint supplements that the veterinarian can give or prescribe to give at home.  CBD oil is gaining some popularity recently to try to treat this condition.

The most common type of medication used to treat arthritis is a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory or NSAID.  There are many forms of these medications.  However, before a pet is given this, there should be some blood tests and possibly urine tests to make sure your pet can tolerate them safely.  If your pet is taking these, stop the medication if your pet shows nausea and call your veterinarian.  Regular follow-up lab tests are done for pets that have chronic treatment.  We also sometimes add analgesics or other medications such as tramadol, gabapentin, or amantadine.  In some cases, surgery may be the best option.  Some veterinarians are trained in using stem cell therapy for this problem.

Modifications can also be made around the home to help an arthritic pet.  A special orthopedic bed can be purchased.  Non-slip rugs should be used on slippery floors.  If a pet has a hard time using the stairs, you sometimes have to block them off if possible.   There is also a sling harness that can be used to help your pets get up.  Make sure that your pet is not overweight since the extra pounds put more pressure on their joints.

Take care of your aging pet, and they may continue with a good quality of life for years.

– Dr. Ronald Resnick says, “I graduated from Tufts University in 1987.  Tufts is considered the best veterinary school in the world (I know, I asked the dean).  While in veterinary school, I also taught at Harvard University.”

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