Caring for Older Dogs with Arthritis – Signs, Symptoms & Relief

Cats and dogs aren’t immune to arthritis; that affliction seen so often in aging people. “Arthritis” refers to a family of conditions marked by joint inflammation. Osteoarthritis is the most common type in humans and our four-legged friends, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. Also known as degenerative joint disease, arthritis is caused when the cartilage that protects joints breaks down, increasing friction between the bones. This causes discomfort, then pain, and the bones eventually become damaged. Although osteoarthritis is incurable, it can be managed with your veterinarian’s help. Most dogs diagnosed with arthritis are senior or older dogs. Arthritis, however, can occur at any age.


Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs & Cats

Your dog or cat isn’t going to groan as she sits beside you and complain, “Oh, my aching joints are really doing a number on me today.” It’s up to you to spot changes in the way she moves and behaves. Because osteoarthritis is degenerative, it starts off mild and continuously worsens. The signs are subtle to begin, and the earlier you catch them, the better you can protect your furry companion’s quality of life.

Physical signs and symptoms of arthritis include limping or favoring limbs; stiffness when getting up or down; struggling with stairs, running, jumping, or other movements; hunching or other postural changes caused by spinal problems; thinning limbs from muscular atrophy; excessive licking, biting or chewing at areas – because of pain — possibly resulting in localized hair loss or inflammation; and low energy. Decreased mobility often triggers weight gain, too. Behavioral and personality changes, such as loss of interest in socialization or play, mood changes, depression, sleeping more, reduced appetite or being less alert, are other possible indicators.


Signs of Arthritis Pets

  • Your pet just seems “off”  – If your older pet doesn’t seem like himself, talk with your vet. The cause of your pet’s unusual behavior could be arthritis pain or another medical condition.
  • Your pet isn’t eating as much  – One of the most common signs of a pet with arthritis is a decreased appetite. Pets in pain often don’t feel like eating.
  • Your pet can’t get comfortable – If your pet shifts around a lot and doesn’t seem to be able to get in a comfy position, he may be suffering from canine arthritis.
  • Your pet seems to have difficulty moving well – Pets who limp, tremble or seem to move slowly when they first get up might be experiencing stiff joints and arthritis pain.
  • Your pet cries out – This is an obvious sign of discomfort. If he cries out or whimpers when moving around or when you pet him, your pet could be suffering from arthritis.

You also may notice a number of behavioral changes, including:

  • Disorientation
  • Decreased affection or interaction with the family
  • Increased fear or anxiety
  • Doesn’t respond to verbal cues or its name
  • Stares into space or at walls
  • Sleeps less during the night but more overall
  • Forgets previously learned commands
  • Urinates or defecates indoors

If you witness any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your vet right away to determine if your pet has arthritis.


Diagnosing Arthritis in Cats and Dogs

If you have cause for concern, it’s time for a trip to your veterinarian’s office. The signs and symptoms are only clues; your vet will need to rule out other possible causes and make a diagnosis. Your veterinarian relies on your account of symptoms – including what you’ve seen, when you started seeing it, how often you see it and when it seems to get better and worse – to guide the diagnostic process, so be prepared to provide thorough information. A physical exam gives your veterinarian a good idea of what tests to run. They’ll probably include X-rays, and maybe some blood tests or other diagnostic tools.


Causes of Arthritis in Pets

Osteoarthritis is associated with aging, as cartilage deteriorates slowly over time. Hip and elbow dysplasia and some bone conditions also are common factors contributing to development of arthritis, according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine. Large breed dogs and cats are at higher risk for osteoarthritis because they’re more prone to these causal conditions and because their greater weight puts more strain on their bones and joints. Other types of arthritis have different causes. Rheumatoid arthritis, for example, is an autoimmune condition; there’s also an infectious arthritis caused by bacterial infections in the affected joint.


Arthritis Relief Treatment for Dogs

The first thing you should do once you suspect your dog has arthritis is to take him in for a thorough examination by a vet. Then, your vet can talk with you about treatment options and ways to keep your dog feeling his best.

  • Ask your vet about arthritis relief medications and supplements.
  • Keep your dog at a healthy weight.
  • Make sure your dog with arthritis gets exercise.
  • Try heat therapy, especially in the cold months.
    • Antibiotics help treat infectious causes of arthritis. Immunosuppressive drugs are effective against autoimmune disorders.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help control the debilitating effects of degenerative arthritis. These medications can effectively control pain and inflammation in dogs. In fact, your older dog may act like a puppy again!
    • Carprofen (Rimadyl®) is a recently developed NSAID. It is significantly more potent than aspirin and has a very wide margin of safety. Rare instances of liver toxicity have been reported in dogs receiving carprofen. It is also given twice a day.
    • Etodolac (EtoGesic®), another recently approved NSAID with potent analgesic activity, can be given only once a day. At the recommended dosage, Etodolac presents little potential for development of stomach ulcers.
    • Chondroprotective agents, including glucosamine and chondroitin, are natural compounds that the body uses to replenish joint materials.
    • MSM (natural dietary sulfur), antioxidant vitamins and fatty acid supplements may decrease the inflammatory effects of arthritis.
    • Cortisone can be effective in the treatment of arthritis but can have side effects with prolonged use at high dosages.


Treatment focuses on protecting your pet’s mobility and enhancing her quality of life. Your veterinarian will have a personalized management plan that is likely to include medicine and supplement prescriptions and tips for making your cat or dog more comfortable at home. Human products are almost never safe for companion animals; give your pet only products that were prescribed to her in the recommended dosage, even if they are natural supplements.

Steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – that’s NSAIDs for short – are often used to reduce pain and inflammation. Nutritional supplements containing compounds such as glucosamine, chondroitin, methylsulfonylmethane, hyaluronic acid, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E are commonly recommended, too. Overweight pets benefit from weight loss, according to the Arthritis Foundation, so limit treats, cut back on portion sizes and incorporate safe, gentle exercises suggested by your veterinarian.

Sometimes, surgery can correct joint deformities or other problems. It’s usually reserved for younger pets, but discuss the possibility with your veterinarian. Types of arthritis besides osteoarthritis have other treatment possibilities, though support strategies are mostly the same. For example, an infectious condition can be resolved with antibiotics.


Pet Arthritis Surgical Options

If medical management fails to reduce pain and improve function, there are many surgical options for hip dysplasia—arthritis in dogs hip joints. The most common is femoral head ostectomy, where the head of the thighbone is removed to resolve the pain of the thighbone grinding against the hip socket. Triple pelvic osteotomy is a corrective surgical procedure that reorients the hip socket to realign it with the head of the thighbone, thus stabilizing the joint. If all else fails, total hip replacement with a prosthetic device can be performed. For DJD involving the knee or elbow, total knee and elbow replacement may be available in the not too distant future.

Finally, although controlled clinical studies are lacking, there are many anecdotal reports on the use of acupuncture in treating musculoskeletal disorders in dogs. Pain from hip dysplasia and accompanying DJD is a common reason for acupuncture referrals.


What You Can Do at Home

Arrange your home to ease your pet’s mobility challenges and to keep her comfortable. Keep floors clear, provide non-slip surfaces and place the litter box and food and water bowls in accessible areas. Avoid unnecessary trips up or down stairs. The American Animal Hospital Association guidelines suggest relocating everything your pet needs to one level or adding a ramp, and closing off steps with a baby gate if needed. Provide lots of love and affection, and pick up the slack with your pet’s grooming, which can become more difficult over time.

Lightening the load on joints may help decrease the pain associated with arthritis. If your pet is overweight, proper diet and weight control is essential. Your veterinarian can recommend a therapeutic diet and exercise program, such as regular walking, to decrease your pet’s weight safely.

Providing a padded bed and a warm, dry environment and appropriate medications for your pet can also help control discomfort.

The bottom line is that there are many, many therapeutic options to help older pets deal effectively with this common condition of old age.