By Erin West, DVM
Kulshan Veterinary Hospital
It happens to everyone. We get older and our joints begin to creak. One day we wake up stiff, then it progresses to occasional and then constant joint pain. Arthritis is “just one of those things” … or is it? In people, we don’t hesitate to reach for pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, but what about our aging canine and feline friends?
Arthritis is one of the most common disease conditions that occurs in our pets, alongside obesity and dental disease. We tend to think of arthritis as a disease of senior or geriatric pets but it can occur earlier than we’d think, especially in overweight animals or in breeds with genetic predispositions.
So how do we know if a pet has arthritis? Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell and signs can be very mild. It is important to remember that while some dogs are very good at telling us when something is wrong; others tend to ignore or even hide signs of discomfort. Signs may be intermittent, or change depending on activity level.
In dogs, signs may include: stiffness when getting up or laying down, hesitating to sit and going directly into a down or “play bow” position, not trying or hesitating to get up on furniture or into the car, slowing down, not wanting to walk, run, or play as much, sitting or laying with legs kicked out to side or behind, not jumping up as much or as well, licking over joints, a hopping or irregular gait, anxiety behavior, limping (this is actually less common, since they often hurt in more than one leg), rarely whining or vocalizing. Dogs may have one or many of these signs.
In cats, signs are even more subtle. They may be less likely to jump up on surfaces or may struggle to do so. They may spend more time in warm places, since heat can help soothe achy joints. They may spend more or less time grooming: more if they can reach a place that hurts, less if stiffness and inflexibility makes it too hard to reach. Sometimes they will react by biting or walking away when petted, especially over their back end. Sometimes they will have no visible signs at all.
If you think your dog may have signs of arthritis, there are lots of options. For mild arthritis, we often start with joint supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM. These help slow changes in the joint cartilage, but do not undo damage and do not provide pain relief. When pain relief is needed, anti-inflammatory pain relievers are often the first line of defense and there are several options. Weight loss is vitally important for overweight or obese animals, as this contributes significantly to joint pain. Other options to help manage arthritis include therapeutic laser, acupuncture, massage and therapeutic swimming, low grade daily exercise, omega fatty acids, diets specific for joint disease, etc. Some of the above are not good options for cats, but there are several ways to manage arthritis pain in cats also.
Never give your pet any medication or supplement without contacting your veterinarian. Many of the drugs we use to manage arthritis in people can be very dangerous for pets, and it is always best to ask first. If you think your pet may have arthritis, give us a call and we can have a personal consultation with you and your pet to figure out how to give your pet the best possible quality of life. We look forward to hearing from you.