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Ask the Vet - Pets and Osteoarthritis

Updated: Jun 13

Dr. Nguyen, DVM:

Dr. Nguyen examines a cat

Why is my senior dog having a difficult time getting up on the couch?

Do you have a beloved pet who is starting to limp? Struggling to walk up and down the stairs? Slowing down on walks and not being able to keep up like they used to?

“Oh, but they're just getting older...”

Although old age can certainly play a factor, it is likely your pet has developed a condition called Osteoarthritis.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease, is a progressive disease of the joints where the cartilage surrounding the joints deteriorates overtime. This is an inflammatory process, which can lead to chronic pain that can significantly impact your pet’s quality of life. Although typically seen more in older pets, any pet can develop this condition. It is estimated that about 14 million adult dogs are affected with OA, and about 90% of cats over 12 years of age will exhibit signs of arthritis, thus making this a top health concern for pet owners and veterinary health care professionals alike.

Other factors that can increase the chances of developing OA include pets with pre-existing conditions, such as hip/elbow dysplasia, patellar luxation, or previous injuries such as fractures or ligament tears. Obesity can also predispose your pet to developing OA, as this can lead to increased stress and inflammation to the joints.

Certain breeds are also more likely to develop OA. Large dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Great Danes, Labradors, Retrievers, St. Bernards, and Mastiffs are more prone to developing OA. For cats, Himalayans, Persians, Maine Coons, and Siameses may be more likely to develop it.

What are common signs of Osteoarthritis?

  • Lameness is most commonly reported. You may notice your pet favoring a specific limb. This may be more noticeable when they first stand up or during prolonged exercise.

  • Decreased activity in general. Your pet may be less playful or may seem to tire out more quickly. You may also see an increase in time spent sleeping or resting.

  • Mobility issues. Your pet may have difficulty rising, stiffness when walking or problems with stairs, getting into/out of cars, up/down beds/couches, etc.

  • Muscle changes. With decreased activity, you may notice muscle loss and an overall decrease in muscle mass.

  • Posture changes. If your pet has OA in the spine, you may notice stiffness or abnormal posture, such as a hunched over appearance.

  • Grooming changes. Your pet may lick or chew at the painful area, which can lead to hair loss and sores. Alternatively, especially in cats, you may notice a decrease in grooming ability due to painful movement.

  • Behavioral changes. Your pet may become more irritable or even aggressive. They may become less social and hide more. Your pet may be reluctant to be held or picked up in certain ways. This stems from the pain and discomfort they are feeling.

Below are some helpful resources for pet owners to use to evaluate their pet for OA at home:

2. Cat OA Pain Checklist:

How is Osteoarthritis diagnosed?

Diagnosis starts with a visit to your veterinarian. They will first start by gathering a history and performing a full physical exam. During their exam, they may test your pet’s range of motion and palpate each limb and joint to assess for any swelling, stiffness, or pain. Radiographs may be recommended to help rule in OA and rule out other conditions that could be causing your pet’s symptoms.

How is Osteoarthritis treated?

Although there is no cure for OA, it is a manageable condition usually treated with a multimodal approach. The goal of treatment is to slow down the progression of the disease and alleviate your pet from any pain. Several treatment options are available to help your pet maintain a comfortable lifestyle. These include:

  • Weight management. About 40-50% of dogs and cats with OA are overweight. Consistent exercise may help your pet lose weight and stay lean, which will help to decrease stress and inflammation in the joints.

  • Low-impact exercise can also help improve your pet’s strength and overall mobility. Limit activities like running or jumping, and instead, opt for controlled leashed walks.

  • Pain medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID’s) are the foundation of OA treatment. NSAID’s can reduce joint pain and decrease inflammation. It can be used alone or in combination with other medications to help relieve pain. Please note to never give over-the-counter pain medications for humans as this can be very dangerous for your pet!

  • Joint supplements and prescription diets. Certain supplements can support cartilage growth and increase water retention to provide more cushioning for the joint as well as reduce inflammation. These include omega-3 fatty acids and Glucosamine/Chondroitin, amongst others.

  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation can help improve comfort, joint motion, muscle strength, and overall endurance. Treatments include therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, electrical stimulation, massage, or even underwater treadmill.

  • Surgery can be used to remove damaged tissue or replace joints. It is rarely needed nor beneficial in most cases, and should be considered based on the patient.

  • Other treatment options include integrative medicine options such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, and stem cell therapy.

How else can I help my pet with Osteoarthritis?

There are numerous environmental modifications are changes you can make around the house to help your pet be more comfortable.

  • Certain surfaces can be slippery and harder for your pet to walk on. Adding area rugs and carpeting to these areas can help your pet have better footing inside the house.

  • Baby gates can be used to restrict access to certain areas and prevent falls. Use ramps for climbing into cars or onto furniture.

  • Provide comfortable bedding and areas for rest and relaxation.

  • Elevate your pet's food and water bowls to make it easier for your pet while eating and drinking.

  • Take walks on softer surfaces such as grass or dirt to help reduce stress on the joints.

  • Keeping your pet’s nails frequently trimmed can help them walk more comfortably.

In Summary:

Although OA is not a curable condition, many pets can live good quality lives if the condition is well-managed. The goal is to alleviate your pet’s pain and discomfort, and to minimize the degenerative changes to your pet’s joints. There are multiple treatment options available, often used in conjunction with one another via a multimodal approach. If you notice symptoms or have concerns about arthritis in your pet, talk to your veterinarian to create the best plan for your pet. 🐾


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