Osteoarthritis in Pets: How to Help

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If your once lively pet is less active than they used to be, or seems to be exhibiting pain when moving around, he or she may have osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a chronic, degenerative joint disease that makes movement difficult and painful. The condition is more common in dogs, with approximately 20% of dogs suffering in some form, but it can also affect cats. While it affects most pets in their middle and senior years, it can also strike younger pets. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but fortunately, if it is treated promptly, there is much your veterinarian can do to decrease your pet’s pain and increase his or her mobility. Keep an eye out for signs of osteoarthritis so you can help your pet receive the medical attention they need early on.

Early Signs of Osteoarthritis

  • Difficulty walking, climbing stairs, or getting in and out of the car or other high spaces
  • Decreased activity, especially decreased playtime
  • Resting more than usual
  • Difficulty getting up from a lying position
  • “Bunny hopping” with the hind legs when running
  • Slow or stiff movements after waking up or resting
  • Limping
  • Swollen joints that feel warm to the touch
  • Licking or biting at a joint
  • Personality changes, including a dislike for being touched

If you notice these changes, it’s easy to think that your pet may simply be slowing down with age. However, your pet may be in great pain. It’s important to take him or her to the veterinarian as soon as you notice these changes because diagnosing and treating osteoarthritis will greatly increase your pet’s quality of life.

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

The causes of osteoarthritis can be grouped into two main categories: abnormal stress on normal joints and normal stress on abnormal joints. Abnormal stress can originate from an injury that damages a joint, “wear and tear” on joints that are subjected to repeated stress, or added load on joints due to obesity. Normal stress on abnormal joints includes developmental defects to the shape or stability of a joint, poor limb conformation such as bow legs or knock knees, and genetic predisposition to osteoarthritis. Whatever the cause, stress on a joint can lead to a cycle of inflammation and damage to the cartilage that is painful for your pet.

How is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Treatment is based on three key components: weight control, exercise, and anti-inflammatory drugs.

  1. Weight Control: When a pet’s activity level drops, obesity is often the result. Maintaining a healthy weight will prevent additional stress on your pet’s joints and make it easier for your pet to move around. Helping your pet lose weight involves a low-calorie diet and regular exercise. Your veterinarian can help you design the best weight management plan for your pet’s individual needs.
  2. Exercise: A well-tailored exercise plan contributes to strengthening the muscles that support joints. Pets with osteoarthritis benefit from daily, moderate amounts of low-impact exercise such as walking and swimming. These activities improve joint mobility and keep your pet active. Ask your veterinarian what type and amount of exercise is best for your pet. Keep in mind that your dog’s pain can be more severe at some times than others. When this happens, give your pet a break from his or her exercise routine until the pain subsides.
  3. Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: Your veterinarian can prescribe drugs that fight inflammation in the joints, reducing pain, increasing mobility, and protecting the joint from greater damage. New NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are effective in relieving inflammation and pain without the harmful side effects once associated with NSAID use.

If further treatment is needed, your veterinarian may suggest physical therapy, cold or hot packs, baths, massage and acupuncture, or glucosamine and chondroitin to help manage pain. In extreme cases, surgery may be recommended. With the right care, most pets’ pain and loss of mobility can be minimized for a long period of time through weight control, regular exercise, and occasional use of anti-inflammatory drugs. For some pets, however, osteoarthritis may progress rapidly and require long-term medication and other therapy. No matter the case, your veterinarian can suggest the best course of treatment for your pet’s unique needs and help your pet live a long, happy and comfortable life.