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Arthritis and Pets: Introduction

By Eric Mohrman

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.

Arthritis and Pets: Introduction


Symptoms of Arthritis in Pets

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.

 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. 

Medical Treatment for Arthritis

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.

 Home Adjustments

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.

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