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Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

Veterinarian Reviewed on September 9, 2012 by Dr. Janice Huntingford

Just like their human companions, many pets suffer from stiff and painful joints – a condition commonly known as arthritis.

In pets, arthritis may be either degenerative or inflammatory in nature. Degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis, is the most common form of arthritis in dogs and cats. Osteoarthritis can be divided into primary or secondary arthritis. Primary osteoarthritis is caused by an inherited disposition to osteoarthritis. An example would be hip dysplasia in certain German Shepherd dogs.

Secondary osteoarthritis is a result of wear-and-tear on the joints. Vigorous exercise, excessive jumping, injuries, accidents, or stretching and tearing ligaments can lead to arthritis due to abnormal stresses on previously normal joints. Large breed dogs seem to be more susceptible to osteoarthritis due to increased weight and stress on the joints. Our furry friends who are overweight, seniors or pets that have medical conditions such as diabetes, also have an increased risk of osteoarthritis. In a recent study, it was found that 90 percent of cats over the age of 12 had radiographic evidence of arthritis. (ref 1)

Clinical Signs of Arthritis

Clinical signs of arthritis in dogs can be stiffness upon rising, limping, reluctance to go for walks, slow or stiff movements that improve with walking, muscle atrophy and pain. It is not difficult to suspect that your dog has arthritis, however, cats are a different story. Clinical signs of arthritis in cats can be reluctance to use the litter box, poor grooming habits, decreased appetite, weight loss, depression, neurological signs and lameness. Your pet may actually show no signs of arthritis and yet be suffering from it.

Diagnosing Arthritis

X-rays of the bones and joints can confirm a diagnosis of arthritis, although some special cases, such as Lyme arthritis and lupus, may require additional tests.

Treatments for Arthritis

Treatments for arthritis are varied but focus on two key principles: to reduce pain and to improve mobility. Weight loss should be mentioned first (in the case of overweight pets) to stress the importance of less weight coming down on the already-arthritic joints and creating a dangerous snowball effect. Conventional treatments may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (injectable drugs that prevent cartilage breakdown), glucosamine products, Omega-3 fatty acids, steroids and painkillers. Other treatments can include stem cell therapy, herbal therapy, dietary therapy, Pentosan injections, acupuncture, laser therapy, magnetic therapy, chiropractic, massage and physiotherapy including water therapy and controlled exercises on soft surfaces. Surgery is indicated for some animals depending on the problem that caused the arthritis and the severity of the arthritis. Examples include: total hip replacement surgery for severe hip dysplasia, and arthrodesis (joint fusion) for debilitating pain that cannot be relieved by nonsurgical means.

Weight Management

There is no secret to weight loss, for animals or for people. Weight loss = decreased calories + increased exercise. Most pets absolutely love the second part of that equation, but be careful to not aggravate their arthritis with too much exercise, too quickly. Exercising dogs seems easy with walks, playing fetch, and running around at the dog park, but don’t forget exercise as part of your cat’s regime. Cats enjoy chasing laser-pointers and jumping for suspended feathers or dangling ribbons. Cats will usually investigate thrown objects but, of course, it will be their decision whether or not to retrieve them for you. Controlled exercise also builds musculature that will provide more support for arthritic joints. The first part of the weight loss equation (decreasing calories) is getting easier as more new, well-researched diet foods are being developed. Some foods have more fiber so your pet will feel more satiated (full). Some foods concentrate more on increasing the protein and decreasing the fat and carbohydrates, kind of like the Atkins diet for humans. Our little carnivores surely enjoy (and can physically thrive on) protein diets. Avoid increasing the protein content in animals with kidney disease and have older pets screened for kidney disease before starting a high protein diet. Decreasing the food you are feeding is an option as well, but it may be unhealthy to decrease a regular food severely enough for the pet to lose weight while continuing to get adequate and balanced nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids). Never allow your pet to go without food; they require calories every day. Forcing your pet to fast (go without food) is not healthy and may cause more health problems. Additionally, dogs’ and cats’ bodies function best when eating a biologically appropriate diet. Avoid feeding your pet “treats” like sugar or junk food. Love them with walks not food!

Costs Involved in Treating Arthritis

Costs to treat arthritis vary as widely as the treatments. It is highly recommended to consult a veterinarian before starting any treatment for arthritis. Remember that over-the-counter medications for humans can be extremely toxic to animals. The surgeries mentioned above will be the most expensive form of treatment and the cost will vary. The numerous treatments listed above are proof that there are multiple options, both standard and cutting-edge, with varying costs and varying side effects. Find what works for your pet!


Read also: Chiropractic Care for Cats

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for 28 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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