Arthritis and Our Pets

FVH Senior Pet Handout

Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis (also known as Degenerative Joint Disease or “DJD”) is one of the most common diseases of older animals affecting both dogs and cats.

Pets are now living longer than ever. Many conditions, such as osteoarthritis, occur with aging and can be difficult to manage. With recent advances in veterinary medicine and surgery, there are now many things that can be done to help your pet with osteoarthritis.

DJD is especially common and often devastating in large breed dogs over the age of 8. Sadly, DJD starts out mild but over several years often leads to painful, crippling effects that eventually lead to euthanasia. While it is quite common in older cats, the symptoms of arthritis are often more subtle yet the effects are not as devastating.

Causes: There are multiple causes of arthritis including injury, infection, and most commonly, genetic predisposition. Attempts to significantly reduce arthritis in certain breeds by selective breeding have not been very successful. Regardless of the cause, the effects are gradual loss of the protective cartilage that acts as a protective cushion between joint surfaces. The end result is irritation and proliferation of bone which produces mild to severe discomfort and gradually reduces joint mobility.

Symptoms: An early symptom in dogs is lameness after lying down for a few hours, often more noticeable after hard exercise. Other common canine symptoms include difficulty rising, using steps and getting into vehicles. Cats most commonly have a gradual loss of agility, hesitancy or difficulty to jump up, walk slowly and stiffly. Over the course of months and years the symptoms become progressively worse. People sometimes assume that if their pet isn’t crying it isn’t hurting. Arthritic pets seldom vocalize their pain, but if they are limping or walking stiffly you can be certain that they are experiencing pain. Occasionally an arthritic dog will suddenly be unable to get up, this is most common after unusually heavy exercise.

Diagnosis: While the classic symptoms listed above may strongly suggest DJD, there are other tests to help determine if the root cause of discomfort is truly DJD. Joint palpation by an experienced veterinarian and Xrays are most commonly used. The degree of degeneration in a joint seen on Xrays doesn’t always correlate well with the degree of discomfort a pet experiences. Just like people, some pets are more pain tolerant than others.

Prevention: To a degree, arthritis is a normal aging change that is a fact of life, especially for large breed dogs. Perhaps the simplest, most effective means of preventing, or at least delaying, the onset of arthritis is weight control. Studies have shown that lean dogs develop arthritis an average of 18 months later than their chubby litter mates. Selecting puppies whose parents are radiographically free of arthritis after 2 years of age reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the potential for arthritis. Moderate exercise, as opposed to rigorous activities such as ball or Frisbee play, may reduce the potential for ligament injuries but at the cost of limiting a dog’s fun.

Treatment: Treatment for DJD is designed to reduce the symptoms and subsequent pain as the only true cure is joint replacement.

  • Weight management: Weight control is a key to preventing and slowing the progression of DJD. It is simple and relatively effective in the early and moderate stages of DJD. Best of all it is free and has no negative side effects!
  • Environmental changes: Soft padded beds, a warm and dry environment, non slippery floors, ramps in replacement of stairs can all contribute to making an arthritic pet’s life more tolerable.
  • Physical Therapy/Exercise: Moderate non-pounding types of exercise help maintain the strength of the muscles that support joints. Consistent on-leash walking and swimming (therapeutic pools are available) are excellent choices. Passive range of motion exercises can be useful in dogs that are unable to exercise regularly. Exercise is also free and good for dogs and their people.
  • Dog specific NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs): Prescription drugs such as Carprofen and Meloxicam are quite safe for dogs with mild to moderate DJD. Use of these drugs must only be under the direction of a veterinarian. Standard OTC NSAID drugs used in human medicine are often toxic to animals and must not be substituted for veterinary approved products.
  • Cats and NSAIDs: While these can be used in cats, they have potential to damage kidneys and as a result are rarely used (as of Oct 2013, there is ongoing research in this area).
  • Additional Pharmaceuticals: Products such as Gabapentin and Tramadol can be used to alleviate some of the pain experienced by a patient. While these occasionally work well alone they are most commonly used to supplement NSAIDs.
  • Supplements: Products containing Glucosamine and Chondrotin (Dasuquin, Cosequin) seem to help many animals in the early stages of DJD. This is also true of high doses of Omega 3 fish oils (Welactin). Some research suggests that the use of these products may slow the progression of DJD.
  • Adequan injections: This is a compound that is given by injection that is often quite helpful.
  • Cortisone based drug: Cortisone based drugs can dramatically reduce joint pain, but their side effects limit use to crisis events where pets have become acutely immobile due to discomfort.
  • Other therapies: Acupuncture and cold laser therapy can be beneficial for some arthritic pets.
  • Multimodal therapy: To keep a pet with advanced DJD comfortable, it is usually necessary to use several of the above treatments. Your veterinarian can advise you on multi-modal therapy.
  • Euthanasia: Unfortunately, all the above cannot stop the aging and deterioration of joints. Euthanasia can be a necessary last act of compassion when the discomfort and disability is significantly impacting a pet’s welfare and quality of life despite our best efforts to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

If you feel your pet displays any of the potential symptoms of arthritis the best first step is a complete physical exam with your veterinarian.