Arthritis is a common ailment and the most common mobility issue affecting dogs and cats. Arthritis means ‘inflammation of the joints’.
There are several types of arthritis that can affect pets, but the most common form that everyone is familiar with is osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, and it is the focus of this article. Other types include septic arthritis, which is caused by infection (mainly by bacteria), and immune-mediated polyarthritis, which occurs when a pet’s immune system attacks the joints of its body.
Inside an animal’s joints, the bone surfaces are normally covered with a thin layer of smooth cartilage which acts as a cushion, and are lubricated with synovial fluid. This allows the two surfaces to glide freely over one another with minimum friction. In animals with osteoarthritis, cartilage cells die and release compounds that cause inflammation and cartilage degeneration. When the cartilage degenerates, it becomes thinner and less smooth. The normal joint space narrows. The bone beneath the cartilage deteriorates and extra bony growths (osteophytes) may develop. Further, the volume and lubricating properties of the synovial fluid in the joint are often reduced. Eventually, the bone surfaces rub together. Osteoarthritis may affect one or any number of your pet’s joints. Osteoarthritis can be a source of chronic pain which negatively affects quality of life.
Typically, osteoarthritis is a problem in middle-aged and older pets. Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and companion animal care, many pets are living to an old age. The downside is that as longevity increases, the chances that pets will suffer from osteoarthritis also increases.
What causes osteoarthritis?
- Wear and tear
- Injury or trauma to a joint, such as a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or a fracture, often leads to osteoarthritis in that joint later in life. Cats, as well as dogs, can also incur injuries (e.g. an awkward fall or injury from a cat fight) that set them up for osteoarthritis. Many injuries occur when pets are young.
- Problems with bone and joint development. These also occur at an early age. Dogs that suffer from joint dysplasias (or abnormal joint formation), a genetic trait, usually develop osteoarthritis in the affected joints. In fact, hip dysplasia is the most common single cause of osteoarthritis of the hips of dogs. Cartilage deficits can be induced (mainly in large breed dogs) by high calorie diets that cause a young animal’s body to grow faster than the cartilage does.
Which pets are most prone to developing osteoarthritis?
- Large breed dogs are more at risk of developing osteoarthritis than smaller breeds or cats, and also tolerate the condition less well. They carry more weight, are therefore more likely to damage their joints, and they are also more prone to common canine bone problems like dysplasia of the hip (or less commonly, the elbow). However, small breed dogs and cats also suffer from osteoarthritis.
- Overweight/obese pets are more prone to develop osteoarthritis as there is more stress on the joints of these animals.
- Very active animals such as kelpies can simply wear out a joint by the time they reach middle to old age.
What are the signs that your pet has osteoarthritis?
- Limping or favouring a leg: you may see your pet limping, or favouring one or more legs, depending on which joints are arthritic. Often the limp is more noticeable when your pet first gets up (becoming less obvious after warming up by moving around), or when it is cold, or after strenuous exercise.
- Difficulty moving and posture changes: your pet may have difficulty moving, and/or difficulty standing from a sitting or lying position. The posture of pets with osteoarthritis may change and they may look ‘stiff’. Your pet may also become reluctant or unable to do things that were previously easy, for example, jumping onto higher areas, going up and down stairs, getting into and out of the car, or walking across slippery tiles or hardwood.
- Muscle atrophy (wasting): your pet may develop muscle atrophy (reduction in muscle mass) due to decreased use of the muscles/inactivity. The leg with atrophied muscles will look thinner than a normal leg.
- Tiredness: your pet may tire more easily, walk more slowly, spend more time sleeping and/or resting and become less alert. Walks may become shorter and your pet may play less.
- Decreased interest, irritability, aggression: animals in pain, including those suffering from osteoarthritis, may show decreased interest in family members and other pets, and they may become irritable. They may snap and/or bite when approached or handled, particularly if handling increases their pain. They might resist being touched.
- Licking, chewing and biting: your pet might also lick at, chew or bite at body areas that are painful. This may cause inflamed skin and hair loss over affected areas.
- Reduced self-grooming: your pet may reduce self-grooming since the movements involved may become painful. This is particularly the case for cats, but even dogs may find it more difficult to shake or lick excess hair off their bodies. Thus, a dog with osteoarthritis might need more frequent brushing to prevent matting. Another grooming problem with osteoarthritic dogs is that their nails may become long more quickly as they are not being worn down as quickly, due to walking less or walking on lower-impact surfaces (such as grass or dirt rather than pavement). If osteoarthritis is already causing some stability issues on slippery surfaces and nails are allowed to get too long, these problems will be exacerbated. Although uncommon, some dogs with seriously restricted mobility might have trouble adopting a normal posture to urinate or defaecate, which could result in them soiling themselves. Osteoarthritic cats may sometimes stop covering their urine or faeces with litter, or might eliminate outside the litter box, especially if the box is difficult to get in or out of.
- Vocalising: your pet may whimper, whine or cry out, particularly if being touched causes pain.
- Spinal Issues: osteoarthritis can affect not only in the legs but also the spine. Arthritic changes in the spine may cause your pet to have a sore neck, abnormal posture (hunched back), or lameness of one or both hind legs.
- Eating Less: some osteoarthritic pets suffer a change in appetite and sometimes they may eat less if they find it more difficult access their food bowl, particularly if bending their neck is difficult.
- Panting: some dogs that are in pain will pant excessively.
How are pets diagnosed with osteoarthritis?
- Physically examining the joint: your vet may be able to tell if a joint is affected by examining it, including joint flexion and extension.
- X-rays: a thorough investigation will usually involve further tests, most notably, x-rays, which help confirm and locate osteoarthritic changes, and sometimes also identify underlying causes.
Which dog breeds are most prone to developing osteoarthritis?
All breeds of dogs and cats develop osteoarthritis, but the following breeds are particularly prone:
- German Shepherds
- Great Danes
- Old English Sheep Dogs
How is osteoarthritis treated in pets?
First of all, you need to recognise that your pet may have osteoarthritis. Some pet owners do not realise that their pet is suffering from osteoarthritis, attributing the symptoms to simply slowing down with old age. If you suspect that your pet has osteoarthritis, check with your vet to get a definitive diagnosis.
Osteoarthritis cannot be cured. However, there are various management and treatment options that can help ease the pain of the condition for your pet. Unless the condition has become severe, it is usually preferable to use an integrative, multifaceted approach to maximise your pet’s comfort and well-being, rather than opting to use a pharmaceutical.
- Environment modification – around the house: Provide well-padded bedding away from drafts. Keep your pet warm and cosy on cold, damp days. Where surfaces are slippery, non-skid flooring is helpful. A gently sloped ramp is easier to negotiate than steps. It may also help to raise your pet’s food and water bowls. Give your pet the extra time needed to walk, climb stairs or get in and out of the car, and support and help them if required. Ensure that your pet has some peace and quiet away from noisy family activities.
- Weight management: Maintain your pet at an optimal lean body weight. Overweight pets with osteoarthritis generally benefit from weight loss. There can be a vicious cycle with weight and osteoarthritis: the pain of the condition means that animals do not want to exercise, so unless they are eating less, they may put on weight, and more weight on an osteoarthritic joint means more damage and more pain.
- Exercise management: Maintain mobility through reasonable exercise such as moderate, low-impact aerobic activities (e.g. controlled leash walking). Swimming or aquatherapy (walking underwater) are also beneficial. Such activity builds the strength of the muscles around injured joints, which in turn, helps maintain a more stable joint. Vigorous activities that lead to increased pain and limping should be avoided.
- Diet: Ensure that your pet has a high quality diet. Regeneration of all body tissues is highly dependent on the availability of essential nutrientssuch essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. TotalPet nutritional supplements that are a concentrated source of these nutrients can be beneficial. The older your pet gets, the more important it becomes to ensure that the right building blocks are available.
- Nutraceuticals: Although seriously affected pets may require pharmaceuticals (see below) for powerful pain relief, using natural medications that are specifically formulated for the treatment/prevention of osteoarthritis is generally less costly and reduces the risk of a serious side effect (such as liver and kidney damage) that may be associated with pharmaceuticals. TotalPet offers a number of nutraceuticals to promote healthy cartilage and joints. These contain varying combinations of substances that protect cartilage such as green-lipped mussel and flaxseed oil (both excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids), glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM, turmeric, rosehip, marine collagen and vitamin C, and others. Some of these substances might be included in some canine diets for osteoarthritis, but to be effective, higher levels via separate nutraceuticals are generally needed.
- Muscle massage: Muscle massages stimulate blood flow to atrophying muscles, increase flexibility, calmness and provide a general sense of wellbeing.
- Maintenance/restoration of range of movement around joints: This can be achieved for example by active and passive stretching and specific exercises.
- Acupuncture: Many dogs suffering from osteoarthritis can be made more comfortable and mobile by acupuncture.
- Laser treatment: Therapeutic laser is a newer form of treatment that stimulates blood flow to tissues and can improve osteoarthritis.
- Pharmaceuticals: The most common drugs used to treat osteoarthritis are the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Surgery: In severe cases of osteoarthritis, surgery may be required. For example, as in humans, total hip replacement can be done in dogs.
- Euthanasia: If nothing can be done to relieve the pain of severe osteoarthritis, sadly the only option may be euthanasia.
Can the development of osteoarthritis be prevented?
There are a number of things that you can do (and a number of things that you should not do) to help prevent the development of osteoarthritis in your pet. These include:
- feeding your pet a high-quality diet throughout life. Again, TotalPet nutritional supplements which provide a concentrated source of essential nutrients can be beneficial.
- maintaining your pet at an optimal lean body weight
- ensuring your pet undertakes regular physical activity. Start a good exercise regime at an early age if possible. If your pet is not well-exercised, even if its weight is good, it’s a risk factor for osteoarthritis. If your pet isn’t well conditioned, a sudden burst of activity can create the type of injuries that lead to long-term joint damage. Consistent, daily physical movement is much safer for your pet than trying to cram it all into weekends only. Exercise is important even for older cats and dogs (just not at the same intensity as younger pets).
- avoiding rapid movements which put additional stress on joints
- avoiding your pet leaping or jerking against a leash, as this results in trauma to the neck vertebrae, which leads to degenerative joint disease in these joints with age
- resting your pet following injury, then gradually increasing the level of exercise.Impatience leads to chronic injuries.