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Arthritis in Pets: Tips for Prevention and Management

Updated: Dec 13, 2023


dog on the edge of a cliff looking out after hiking up with no arthritis

Arthritis, a pervasive challenge in both the animal kingdom and the human realm, casts a significant shadow on the quality of life for our cherished pets. This condition, affecting the skeletal framework shared by animals and humans alike, unfolds a narrative of impediments—hindering smooth mobility, complicating the simplest of movements, and introducing the unwelcome companion of pain.


While the notion of a definitive cure for arthritis remains elusive, the journey to alleviate its impact on our pets' lives is far from futile. This article delves into a realm of practical insights, unveiling management practices that extend a lifeline to our pets' well-being. By understanding and implementing these strategies, we embark on a mission to safeguard our furry companions' bodily functions and provide crucial support to their joints, illuminating a path toward a more comfortable and enriched existence despite the challenges posed by arthritis.


Understanding Arthritis in Pets

Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, is a complex condition involving joint inflammation and degeneration, leading to severe pain and discomfort. Older animals are more prone to arthritis, as it develops gradually over many years. The primary cause is the erosion of the protective cushion between bones in the joints, resulting in bones rubbing against each other.


old Labrador laying on the floor has arthritis and joint pain

Primarily observed in older animals, arthritis is a malady that patiently weaves its intricate web over the years. Its genesis lies in the bones of the joints, where the gradual erosion of the once-efficient cushioning mechanisms triggers an unfortunate symphony of discomfort. In the realm of healthy joints, cartilage and synovial fluid collaborate to provide a protective barrier, ensuring smooth articulation without friction. However, as time marches on, this natural cushioning undergoes wear and tear, paving the way for joints that are no longer shielded from the abrasive contact of bone against bone.


The unmistakable companions of arthritis, pain, and inflammation, become unwelcome guests, tarnishing the vitality of our pets' daily lives. These symptoms don't merely evoke discomfort; they pose a tangible hindrance to the once-effortless motions and activities that once defined the essence of their existence.


Picture an aging joint – it becomes a battleground where inflammation takes root, causing not only pain but also manifesting in visible signs of swelling and warmth. The unfortunate consequence is an impaired range of motion and a palpable unease that radiates through every movement. While arthritis can potentially afflict any joint in a pet's body, it often chooses to make its presence known in high-motion areas such as hips, elbows, knees, and the spine.


Common Causes of Arthritis in Pets

Arthritis does not follow causation theory. There is no single cause of arthritis. Arthritis develops because of a number of factors. Certain factors become the primary cause, while other factors boost the development of arthritis.

  • Body conformation - Conformation is the way your pet is built. This includes leg length, joint angles and overall body size. For example, your dog has short stubby legs vs long tall legs or your dog has a long back (dachshunds) vs a shorter back.

  • Body weight and body condition - Body weight will be significant when they age. Having an obese animal will put a lot of weight on their joints, which leads to arthritis or worsening arthritis.

  • Abnormality in the development of joints - This would include elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, luxating patella, etc.

  • Activity status - If your pet has been highly active all their life, it could be very beneficial to their health. However, it could also lead to joint pain when they age. As a pet owner, you need to be aware of changes in their behavior and activity as they age to adjust the type of movement/exercise to help reduce joint pain.

  • History of any injury - This includes ligament damage, joint infection, muscle injury, fracture, etc. When an injury occurs, the body releases enzymes in the joint that further break down cartilage and collagen. This causes more pain and inflammation.

  • History of nutrition - When you have a young animal that was malnourished at a young age, their bones and joints may not develop to their full potential. This is seen in large breed dogs that have quick growing long bones. It can also be said about older animals who are provided the bare minimum. They too, need the proper nutrition to keep their bones and joints healthy.

  • History of surgery - Animals who go through joint surgery may be higher risk of developing arthritis. If your dog has gone through ACL/TPLO surgery, they may experience arthritis in the same knee.

  • Lyme disease - The Lyme bacteria enters the joint and can cause serious inflammation. If left untreated, it can also be a cause for developing arthritis.

It is commonly thought that a pet getting old develops arthritis. This statement is true but not quite true because getting old in not the only factor for the development of arthritis. A older pet in good health and well-being may not suffer from arthritis.


However, A pet getting old and suffering from the factors mentioned above, or a combination of those factors, develops arthritis.


What are the common observable signs of arthritis?

Dogs and cats grappling with arthritis may manifest a spectrum of signs, and the expression of these indicators can vary widely among individual animals. While some common signs are observable, others may exhibit a unique combination of symptoms. Below is a list of commonly observed signs of arthritis in both dogs and cats, providing a helpful guide for pet owners to recognize potential issues.


dog with arthritis has trouble getting up

Signs of Arthritis in Dogs

  • Difficulty Getting Up and Down: Struggling with mobility when transitioning between sitting and standing positions.

  • Awkward Walking: Displaying an altered or unsteady gait.

  • Limping on One or More Legs: Indicating localized pain or discomfort.

  • Reluctance to Navigate Stairs: Hesitation or avoidance when faced with ascending or descending stairs.

  • Avoidance of Jumping: Unwillingness to leap up onto surfaces or down from heights.

  • Sensitivity to Touch: Exhibiting aversion when a specific area is touched, indicating localized pain.

  • Loss of Interest and Stamina: Demonstrating a decline in enthusiasm for regular activities and a decrease in overall energy levels.

  • Unexpected Aggression: Reacting defensively or aggressively, possibly as a response to pain.


Signs of Arthritis in Cats

However, cats may show signs in a different than dogs. In their minds, they are still feisty predators. When they show signs of pain, they are putting themselves at risk of attack from a stronger animal. So, naturally, they do not want to indicate weakness, even if they are just a house cat.

cat on couch may be hiding pain from arthritis
  • Hesitation to Jump or Play: Reluctance to engage in activities that involve jumping or vigorous play.

  • Weakness in Certain Legs: Exhibiting a lack of strength or stability in specific limbs.

  • Decreased Energy or Interest in Play: Demonstrating a reduced desire for play and physical activity.

  • Unkempt Coat due to Painful Self-Grooming: Neglecting grooming activities that involve painful or uncomfortable movements.

  • Pain during Litter Box Usage: Expressing discomfort or pain while using the litter box, potentially leading to inappropriate elimination outside the box. 

  • Changes in Sleeping or Sitting Positions: Alterations in typical resting positions, indicating an attempt to find a more comfortable posture.

  • Falling When Jumping Up or Down: Experiencing instability and falling during routine jumping movements.

  • Overall Decreased Agility: A noticeable decline in overall agility and flexibility.

  • Muscle Atrophy: Gradual wasting away or loss of muscle mass, particularly noticeable in certain areas of the body.


Recognizing these signs in your pets, whether canine or feline, is crucial for early intervention and effective management of arthritis-related discomfort. By being attentive to these indicators, pet owners can ensure a better quality of life for their cherished companions.


Types of Arthritis

There are two main types of arthritis and one that is immune related.

  1. Rheumatoid arthritis

  2. Osteoarthritis

  3. Polyarthritis

All types of arthritis differ in their development. The symptoms observed are almost the same however. Among the main two types, osteoarthritis is the most common.

Diagram showing healthy joint vs osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis joints
Photo credit: Mayo Clinic

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis stands as a distinct type of arthritis, its origins rooted in a disconcerting scenario where the body's immune system turns against its own cells. Unlike osteoarthritis, which results from wear and tear, rheumatoid arthritis emerges when the immune system launches generalized attacks, affecting not only the joints but also various other parts of the body.


This autoimmune response unfolds as a broad-scale assault, impacting not just the joints but also other bodily elements. The body's immune mechanisms, designed to protect against external threats, mistakenly target and damage the cartilage lining that envelopes the bones at the joints. This relentless attack leads to the erosion of the opposing bones and joints, causing a cascade of inflammatory responses.


The specific target of rheumatoid arthritis—the cartilage lining—plays a pivotal role in ensuring smooth joint function. The immune-mediated damage to this crucial structure disrupts the harmonious movement of bones within the joint, resulting in the erosion of the bones themselves. Consequently, affected pets experience pain, swelling, and compromised joint integrity.


Corticosteroids emerge as a common therapeutic tool in managing rheumatoid arthritis. These medications, which exhibit potent anti-inflammatory properties, are instrumental in mitigating the immune system's hyperactivity. By suppressing the inflammatory response, corticosteroids alleviate the symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis, providing relief to affected pets.


It's important to note that while corticosteroids address the symptoms and provide relief, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition without a definitive cure. Management strategies focus on controlling inflammation, minimizing pain, and enhancing the overall well-being of the pet. Regular veterinary consultations and a tailored treatment plan contribute to optimizing the quality of life for pets grappling with rheumatoid arthritis.


Osteoarthritis

The most common type of arthritis, osteoarthritis, may result because of daily wear and tear of the joint. Another factor of osteoarthritis is an injury that results in damage to the joint and joint cartilage. Cartilage is a very important structure of the joint and it surrounds the bone at the extremities and protects the regular movement of bones around the joint.

dog wrists or carpus showing swelling in the joint from arthritis
Joint swelling in the carpus/wrist of the dog. Photo credit: North Downs Specialists

Any damage to this cartilage results in the impairment of normal joint functioning. Arthritis develops when cartilage and bone start to erode due to friction between the joint. The damage triggers the inflammatory response of the body. Pain and swelling are the common signs seen at the joint.


Long and weight-bearing bones are the typical target of osteoarthritis. In addition, osteoarthritis can affect any large and small bone of the body. Most commonly, osteoarthritis is seen in older age pets with obesity.


Osteoarthritis, just like rheumatoid arthritis, once developed, can’t be cured. However, the condition can be prevented from worsening. A management approach can be used to improve the quality of life of your pet. The approach includes pain management and weight loss to reduce the further development of osteoarthritis.


Polyarthritis

black dog laying down has arthritis in many joints

Polyarthritis in pets mirrors the autoimmune dynamics seen in rheumatoid arthritis, where an overly zealous immune system targets the joints. However, polyarthritis distinguishes itself by its multifocal impact, extending beyond joint-centric manifestations. The immune system's hyperactivity, triggering such an assault, is often a response to underlying issues in the body, ranging from cancer and infections to gastrointestinal diseases.


The term "poly" signifies many, indicating that polyarthritis manifests in multiple joints throughout the body. Unlike localized arthritis, the immune attack in polyarthritis spans various areas, causing a systemic impact. Dogs grappling with polyarthritis often exhibit signs of discomfort, lethargy, and a reluctance to move due to the widespread pain associated with inflamed joints.


Pets afflicted with polyarthritis display noticeable signs that extend beyond the joints. Lethargy becomes a prominent feature as the constant pain and inflammation sap their energy. Stiffness and a diminished range of motion in the affected joints are common, while arthritis in the spine can lead to additional discomfort in the neck and back.


Polyarthritis demands a strategic approach to treatment, primarily involving the use of steroids and other medications to suppress the overactive immune response. The goal is not just to alleviate joint-specific symptoms but also to address the systemic inflammation affecting various parts of the body.


While dogs typically respond well to medication, it's essential for pet owners to be aware of potential side effects associated with the prescribed treatments. Regular communication with a veterinarian is crucial to monitor the pet's response to therapy, make adjustments as necessary, and manage any emerging complications.


Diagnosis of Arthritis in Your Pet

Diagnosing arthritis in your pet is a relatively straightforward process, primarily relying on a physical examination and joint palpation. These initial steps can reveal painful and swollen areas, providing valuable indicators of arthritis. To solidify the diagnosis, veterinarians employ additional diagnostic tools, including X-rays, joint samples, and advanced imaging technologies.


During the physical examination, your vet meticulously assesses various factors to identify potential signs of arthritis. These include:

joint fluid being drawn from a dog to check for arthritis
Joint fluid being drawn from the dog. Photo credit: North Downs Specialists
  • Decreased Range of Motion: Assessing the limitations in joint movement.

  • Clicking or Popping Sounds: Noting any unusual sounds emanating from the joints during movement.

  • Changes in Gait: Observing alterations in your pet's walking pattern.

  • Joint Distention: Detecting abnormal swelling in the joints.

  • Boney Outgrowths: Identifying abnormal growths around the joints.

  • Narrowed Joint Spaces: Noting reductions in the space between joints.

  • Calcified Joint Lesions: Identifying areas of calcification within the joints.

  • Swollen, Inflamed, and Warm Joints: Assessing the overall condition of the joints.


Often, pet owners become aware of their pet's arthritis after a veterinary visit. In many cases, the onset of arthritis catches owners by surprise, especially in cats, as they are adept at concealing pain. Dogs, on the other hand, may exhibit a gradual slowdown in activities as they age, which can be attributed to joint pain.


Upon confirming arthritis, veterinarians delve deeper to identify the underlying causes of pain. If left unattended, arthritis can progress, leading to more severe symptoms. Understanding the root causes allows for a more targeted approach to managing and alleviating your pet's discomfort. In the upcoming sections, we'll explore the factors that contribute to the development of arthritis in pets.


How to Manage Arthritis in Your Pet

Unfortunately, we have nothing magical that we can use to cure arthritis. Once arthritis has developed, we do less treatment and more management. Arthritis is a complex condition that involves multiple factors to develop. That is why we combine multiple modalities to deal with this condition. Only then do we get the best results out of it. The typical combination of multiple modalities includes the following management practices.


Pain Medications for Arthritis

veterinarian looking over dog with arthritis

Pain management is the first priority in dealing with arthritis. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are generally used against pain. The drugs used under this category include meloxicam, deracoxib, carprofen, and firocoxib. Your veterinarian should determine whether this class of drugs is suitable for your pet or not.


On rare and severe occasions, corticosteroid anti-inflammatory drugs are used instead of NSAIDs. Both these classes of drugs can’t be used together. The goal of the veterinarian is to reduce the pain your pet is experiencing.


Joint Cartilage Protective Medications

Several medications are available in the market that are effective in arthritis. These medications increase joint fluid production and blood supply to the joints. These drugs help slow the progression of arthritis and relieve pain.


One brand, Adequan, can help stop cartilage loss, increase lubrication and relieve inflammation. It is used for both cats and dogs.


Nutrition for Pets with Arthritis

healthy diet for dogs can help prevent obesity

The best way to tackle any abnormality in your pet to provide the right nutrition. Providing your pet with the best food will help keep them healthy and live a longer life. Providing healthy treats for your pets or adding Raw diets to their meal plan can be a good option. We understand some owners may not have the budget to provide raw, but there are are great kibble options out there as well! Be sure you read each label when buying food and provide the right amount of food for your pet is so important. Avoid foods with artificial dyes/colors and harmful preservatives (nitrites).


Veterinary nutritionists have developed specific diets for arthritis. Veterinarians prescribe a nutrient profile that supports the joints and helps the body achieve a normalized state. Be sure to look for a veterinarian that is specialized in nutrition if you select this option for your pet. Or, talk to a holistic vet that understands nutritional needs for your pet.


The most important factor is maintaining the weight in a normal range. If your pet is suffering from arthritis, you should strictly stick to a nutritional program that includes correct amount of food and/or treats to maintain their healthy weight.


Supplements to Support Joint Health

Supplements are easily available in the market for reducing pain. Chronic pain of low intensity can be reduced with supplements. These supplements can also help reduce stiffness, support joint movement, and help strengthen the tendons and ligaments.

  • Glucosamine - Naturally occurring in cartilage. Is used to by the body to rebuild tendons, ligaments, cartilage and joint fluid.

  • Chondroitin - Also naturally occurring in the cartilage of joints, but can be provided as a supplement to help reduce further damage to joints.

  • Tumeric - Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and wound healing benefits.

  • Fish oils - Anti-inflammatory, coat/skin health, and great for heart health due to the omega 3 fatty acids.

  • Essential oils - There are many types of oils for your pets that can be anti-inflammatory, reduce swelling, reduce stiffness and more. Be sure to avoid oils that are toxic to certain pets.

  • CBD - CBD is a newer option on the market for animals. It can help keep anxious animals calm in stressful situations but it also can be great for pain management and reducing inflammation. When purchasing CBD, be sure to get pet specific tinctures or treats. THC found in full spectrum CBD can be harmful to pets.

You can find these supplements in powder, liquid and in treat form. Mix in with food or give as a tasty treat!


Physical Therapy for Arthritis

Acupressure is an effective therapy for pain relief. Using acupressure can help increase the blood flow to joints. This facilitates the nutrition (vitamins, minerals, etc) in the blood to reach the joints. It can also help energetically to help relieve any blockage or stagnation in the body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the blocakge/stagnation is where pain arises. So, relieving these areas helps relieve pain and inflammation in the body.

canine massage can relieve arthritis in your dog

Acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage therapy can also be considered. Physical rehabilitation is well-known these days in humans and can be beneficial to animals as well. Combining human medicine in veterinary medicine for similar conditions has been effective. Your veterinarian may also suggest you to go to a rehabilitation specialist for specific therapy to help with arthritis.


Other techniques include hydrotherapy, joint mobilization, therapeutic laser, red light therapy and therapeutic exercise.


Gentle and Appropriate Exercise

walking your dog reduces arthritis pain and stiffness

You may remember the phrase "an object at rest stays at rest and object in motion stays in motion" from Newtons first law of motion. This is the same with our senior pets. If they lack exercise, they will soon be less mobile and get weaker. Keeping them active will help their muscles, tendons and ligaments be strong to support the joints.


Walking and swimming are the best exercises for pets with arthritis. The duration and intensity of exercise vary with an individual pet. It is better to perform exercise on a daily basis instead of occasional large bouts. Continual exercise can also help in weight loss. Remember, the joints will become more stressed when there is more weight to carry.


Red Light Therapy to Manage Arthritis

The concept of red light therapy can be defined in a simple way. Red light therapy helps the animal generate the energy essential for regenerating and healing damaged tissue.

Red light therapy for arthritis in the knee

The whole process of energy generation takes place inside mitochondria. These mitochondria are present inside each cell. The basic unit of energy produced inside the mitochondria is ATP. When an animal is exposed to red light, the mitochondria absorb the energy coming from light photons. Red light therapy improves mitochondrial function and number by helping it produce more ATP for healing and regeneration.


Recent studies have proved further benefits of red-light therapy. It can effectively maintain blood flow, reduce inflammation and immune response. These characteristics have increased its use for pet injuries and wounds along with arthritis. Red light therapy is a very effective part of complementary care when used for managing arthritis.



Surgery for Pets with Arthritis

Opting for surgery in pets with arthritis is a decision that should be approached cautiously, reserved as a last resort when other treatment avenues have been exhausted. It's important to acknowledge that surgical intervention does not guarantee the permanent eradication of arthritis and should only be considered when it holds the potential to significantly improve the pet's quality of life.


Exploring Surgical Modalities

Several surgical options exist for managing arthritis in pets, each tailored to address specific aspects of joint dysfunction. These include:

  1. Joint Fusions: This involves surgically immobilizing a joint, often by fusing bones together. While it limits movement, it can alleviate pain and enhance stability.

  2. Joint Replacement: Similar to procedures performed in humans, joint replacement involves replacing a damaged joint with an artificial implant. This can restore joint function and relieve pain.

  3. Amputation: In cases where a limb is severely affected by arthritis and poses persistent discomfort, amputation may be considered to eliminate the source of pain and enhance the pet's overall mobility.

The Decision-Making Process

The decision to proceed with surgery should involve a comprehensive evaluation of the pet's overall health, the severity of arthritis, and the potential benefits and risks associated with the chosen surgical approach. It is crucial to engage in open and informed discussions with the veterinary team to fully understand the implications of the procedure.


Post-Surgical Considerations

Post-surgery, diligent aftercare and rehabilitation are essential components of ensuring the success of the intervention. This may involve a tailored rehabilitation plan, pain management, and ongoing monitoring to track the pet's recovery and adjust the treatment strategy as needed.


A Holistic Approach

Surgery, when deemed necessary, should be viewed as part of a broader, holistic management plan for arthritis in pets. Combining surgical interventions with other non-invasive treatments, such as medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle adjustments, can optimize the pet's long-term well-being.


In conclusion, while surgery may offer relief for pets with arthritis, it is not a guaranteed solution and should be approached judiciously. Consulting with veterinary professionals, considering the individual needs of the pet, and exploring less invasive options beforehand contribute to a more informed and compassionate approach to managing arthritis in our beloved animal companions.


Final thoughts

Arthritis is better prevented that treated. Being a pet parent, you should care for your pet’s well-being. An adequate diet having all the essential nutrients, regular exercise, and avoiding stress, infections, and trauma reduces the onset of arthritis. Regular visits to the veterinarian are helpful in keeping a check on your pet’s health and well-being.

old golden retriever getting pets
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