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Preventing and Management of Arthritis for Your Pet

Arthritis is a common and important condition affecting pets’ quality of life. Arthritis affects the skeletal system of animals and humans, leaving them impaired to walk properly, struggle to get up, and experience pain when moving. Arthritis is a topic of concern worldwide for animals and humans alike.

While there might not be a cure for arthritis, there are many ways to help support your pets bodily functions. This article focuses on certain management practices that prolong your pets health and support your pets joints when arthritis arises.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis, mostly osteoarthritis, is characterized by a complex pathological condition that involves both inflammation and degeneration of joints. Major symptoms of arthritis include the onset of severe pain and inflammation. This pain and inflammation can and will impair their daily activities.

old Labrador laying on the floor has arthritis and joint pain

Arthritis is usually seen in older animals as it takes many years to develop. The pain and inflammation is caused by the bones in the joints rubbing together. In healthy joints, the bones are cushioned by cartilage and synovial fluid. When they age, the cushion is reduced and the joint becomes swollen, inflamed, painful, and warm. High motion areas like hips, elbows, knees and spine are the most common arthritis locations. But, any joint can develop arthritis.

Diagnosis of Arthritis in Your Pet

The diagnosis of arthritis is not very complex. Physical examination and palpation of joints can easily indicate painful, swollen areas that indicate arthritis. Further diagnostic tools can be used to further confirm the diagnosis. These diagnostic tools include X-rays, joint samples and other imaging technologies. During the physical, your vet is looking for

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

  • Clicking or popping sounds in the joint

  • Changes in gait

  • Joint distention

  • Boney outgrowths

  • Narrowed joint spaces

  • Calcified joint lesions

  • Swollen, inflamed and warm joints

It's usually after you take your pet to the vet when you are notified that they are suffering from arthritis. In most cases, pet owners don’t see it coming. Most cat owners do not notice arthritis until it becomes chronic, because cats are so good at hiding their pain. While most dogs owners will notice their baby slowing down in their activities as they age, they may not realize it's actually from pain from their joints that makes them slow.

Further diagnosis by your vet can find the underlying cause of pain. Arthritis, if left unattended, can develop severity and critical symptoms. Let us understand what causes lead your pet to suffer from arthritis.

What causes arthritis?

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 suffering from arthritis express different signs. They may or may not exhibit common signs, or they may express different signs at the same time.

A list of commonly observable signs of arthritis for dogs is given below. If your dog exhibits one or more of one signs mentioned below, your dog may be suffering from arthritis.

dog with arthritis has trouble getting up
  • Difficulty getting up and down

  • Start walking awkwardly

  • Exhibit limping on one more leg

  • Reluctant to go up and down stairs

  • Reluctant to jump up or down

  • Avoid you touching the affected area

  • Lose interest in activities and lose stamina

  • Show unexpected aggression

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
  • Hesitant to jump or play

  • Weakness in certain legs

  • Decreased energy or interest of play

  • Unkempt coat due to painful self grooming

  • Pain when using litter box which leads to peeing outside the box

  • Changes in sleeping or sitting positions

  • Falling when jumping up or down

  • Overall decreased agility

  • Muscle atrophy

What are the 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

Osteoarthritis in Pets

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.

Rheumatoid Arthritis in Pets

Rheumatoid arthritis is the type of arthritis that develops when the body’s immune system starts working against its body cells. These types of attacks are very general and don’t only affect the joint but also other parts of the body.

The body’s immune response damages the cartilage lining of the bones at the joints. It results in the erosion of opposing bones and joints. Corticosteroids are commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Polyarthritis in Pets

Similar to rheumatoid arthritis, polyarthritis occurs when the body's immune system becomes overactive and attacks the joints. The immune system can be activated to act this way when there are other problems going on in the body: cancer, infection, gastrointestinal disease, etc.

black dog laying down has arthritis in many joints

Since poly means several, it should be obvious that the arthritis will be present in many joints. The immune attack will not be localized to one region of the body but many areas. Dogs with this type of arthritis are usually lethargic and do not want to move due to pain. They will also seem to be stiff and have lowered range of motion in the joints. They may have arthritis in their spine resulting in neck and back pain.

This type of arthritis is treated with steroids and other medication to help suppress the overactive immune system. Dogs usually respond well to the medication. However, there are side effects from the medication and it should be discussed with your vet.

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

Surgery should be your last resort as it does not guarantee the arthritis from returning. It may be an option for your pet if it helps improve their quality of life. Surgery includes joint fusions, joint replacement or amputation.

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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