Watch Your Pets for Signs of Arthritis

Dogs and cats can get arthritis. Photo: Muslanne via is a major source of chronic pain in dogs. The most common form is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease. It begins with damage to the cartilage that protects the joint surfaces and allows for the smooth, pain-free movement of the joint. This is conventionally considered to be largely due to the long-term, cumulative effect of mechanical stress on the joint or general "wear and tear," as well as factors such as traumatic injury, joint instability, abnormal or excessive activity, and abnormal or poor conformation.

Working, athletic, and obese dogs are more at risk, as are those with developmental disorders (such as elbow and hip dysplasia). Certain conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroid and Cushing's disease, and chronic use of corticosteroids may also predispose to cartilage damage.

Damage to the cartilage causes a release of breakdown products which further damage the cartilage and continue a vicious cycle of increasing cartilage destruction, inflammation of the soft tissues around the joint, and changes in the bone underlying the cartilage. Because the cartilage has no nerves, there is no pain at the initial stages and often by the time the condition becomes obvious, the joint is severely damaged. The full thickness of the cartilage may be lost in some areas causing very painful direct contact with the underlying bone.

While arthritis is most often noticed in older dogs, it is estimated that 20 percent of dogs older than one year have some degree of osteoarthritis. It is a slowly progressive condition that usually starts with barely perceptible signs of discomfort. Over time it may progress to the point where the animal is unable to get up, stand, or walk and may even stop eating.

Many people are surprised to learn that cats get arthritis, too, although obvious lameness is not usually seen. The majority of cats over 12 years of age have some signs of arthritis on x-ray. Because our dogs and cats tend to be rather stoical and suffer in silence, we need to be observant and alert to any signs that may indicate the development of arthritis.

Symptoms of Arthritis

Signs of arthritis in cats and include:

  • Intermittent lameness or stiff gait
  • Limping or favoring a leg
  • Difficulty sitting or standing
  • Trouble rising from a resting position, especially in the morning
  • Decreased energy, activity, and playfulness
  • Lagging behind on walks
  • Stiffness after longer exercise
  • Decreased flexibility
  • Difficulty climbing stairs, getting on and off furniture, or into the car
  • Swollen or sore joints
  • Difficulty finding a comfortable resting place or position
  • Crying or whimpering
  • Yelping when touched
  • Change in personality or behavior (e.g. irritability, less alert)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Difficulty grooming, especially in cats
  • Licking or biting at an affected joint
  • Difficulty accessing the litter box (cats)

Arthritis Diagnosis and Treatment

Osteoarthritis is a serious and progressive condition which can have a significant impact on your pet's quality of life and longevity. The sooner lifestyle changes and treatment are begun the more effective they will be in slowing or even halting its progression, helping your pet live as comfortable, happy and long a life as possible.

If you suspect that you pet has arthritis, a trip to the veterinarian is the first step. It is very important to rule out other, less common, conditions that can affect the joints including septic or infectious arthritis, immune-mediated arthritis, or cancer. In addition, many of the symptoms are quite general and may indicate another underlying condition. Radiographs are the most common method of diagnosing arthritis although often the severity of the changes on x-ray do not correlate with the degree of discomfort and changes in the animal. Other tests such as biopsy, analysis or bacterial culture of joint fluid, or blood tests may be appropriate depending on the situation.

Drugs that are used to treat arthritis in animals include NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), coricosteroids (anti-inflammatory), and analgesics. All of these may have serious side effects particularly with long-term use. Lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, and natural therapies such as homeopathics, herbs, nutraceuticals, acupuncture, and chiropractic can slow the progression, delay or avoid the use of drugs, or allow you to use fewer drugs.

Never give your pet over the counter or human medication without checking with your veterinarian first.

By Dr. Victoria Dale-Harris| March 10, 2010
Categories:  Nest

About the Author

Dr. Victoria Dale-Harris

Dr. Victoria Dale-Harris

Dr. Victoria Dale-Harris is a licensed veterinarian and a doctor of naturopathic medicine. She began her career in a small animal veterinary practice and while raising five children she first studied veterinary acupuncture. With additional training in alternative therapies, she became increasingly interested in the connection between the environment and health, both our own and that of our animals. She then returned to school to study naturopathic medicine as it applies to humans. She has a special interest in preventive medicine and health optimization through the reduction of exposure to toxins, elimination of toxic loads in the body and support of the body’s natural systems of healing and balance. Dr. Dale-Harris is committed to informing and inspiring people and organizations to make intelligent and sustainable choices so that they have the best possible health tomorrow for themselves, their families (including their pets), the environment and future generations.

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