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Arthritis and Joint Problems in Dogs and Cats

by Lauren Samet

Just like us, as animals age, they can start to experience issues with joint stiffness and inflammation and it is important not to underestimate the impact this can have on their quality of life.  Reduced mobility and changes in temperament or behaviour can be a sign of painful or inflamed joints, whether in the legs, back, neck or any other part of the body.

Fortunately, there is a range of options that can help your pet to live more comfortably. If you think your pet is suffering from any type of pain or joint stiffness, seeking veterinary treatment is essential for identifying the causes and solutions most appropriate for your pet. 

What is Arthritis?

The word arthritis describes an inflammation of the joints, though there are many different types, forms and causes of this condition. 

One example is osteoarthritis, which is most commonly seen in older animals and typically occurs in hips and shoulders. Osteoarthritis affects the smooth cartilage lining the joint, causing it to thin or roughen. This deterioration can make movement more difficult, causing stiffness or pain. Particularly severe cases can even result in bones rubbing together, changing their shape, and forcing them away from their normal position!

This gradual rubbing away of bone can, in turn, trigger the body to create new bone as a coping mechanism. Sadly, this new bone rarely solves the problem and further stiffness and inflexibility can result; a condition commonly referred to as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD).

Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis is most commonly experienced by older dogs, particularly in their knees, elbows, hips and spine. However, it is important to appreciate that dogs may experience the symptoms of arthritis at any age, particularly in breeds that are genetically predisposed to the condition. Large and giant breed dogs can be of particular concern, due to both their speed of growth and the weight their joints must support.

Signs of Joint Pain in Dogs

If effective support is to be given, an accurate diagnosis of arthritis is critical. The exact symptoms may vary from one dog to another and can change over time in response to new joint issues. 

Generally speaking, dog owners should keep a watchful eye out for any reduced mobility, or behavioural changes that may indicate underlying joint pain. Commonly observed signs of arthritis and joint deterioration in dogs include obvious stiffness in the joints (such as when waking up in the morning), a reluctance to play or scale stairs, and even seeming grumpier than normal. 

If you are in any doubt, a visit to your vet is advised. Here, a professional diagnosis can be made and effective pain relief options can be discussed. 

Joint Support for Dogs

If arthritis is confirmed in your dog there are a number of things you can try to make your dog more comfortable:

1.    Seeking veterinary advice is the number one priority in helping your dog with any medical issues. Pain relief should only be prescribed by a veterinarian and regular check-ups with a veterinarian will help you monitor for signs of pain and your dog’s progress in coping with the condition. Joint wear and tear caused by old age is unlikely to ever be cured, however, you can try to manage it to ensure your pet’s wellbeing.

2.    Try to reduce the amount of exposure your pet has to slippery floor surfaces such as laminate flooring. Arthritic dogs attempting to walk on such surfaces may risk slipping and causing further pain. Non-slip mats and rugs can be added to slippery floors to help your pet negotiate their home.

3.    Make sure your dog’s bed is well-padded and away from any damp and/or draughty areas. An old duvet folded over is especially good for larger dogs, which may otherwise struggle to curl up a small bed due to stiffness.

4.    If your dog still manages to climb the stairs then ensuring these are carpeted can reduce the risk of slipping. Ramps or additional steps can also provide easier access to the garden, the car or a favourite spot on the sofa.

5.    Keeping your dog at the correct weight for its size will prevent additional strain on already struggling joints. Most veterinary surgeries can assist with weighing your dog if you do not have scales at home, they can also provide advice on maintaining your pet at a healthy weight.  

6.    It is important to keep your dog active where possible, encouraging exercise little and often to keep their joints moving and supple. Exercise can also help keep their weight in check. One example of a joint-friendly exercise is canine hydrotherapy, which is non-weight bearing and a great alternative to walks. 

7.    For older dogs that may experience neck or spine stiffness and/or pain elevating their food and water bowls from the ground means they do not have to reach as far to access food and water, possibly saving them some discomfort around mealtimes.

Joint Support Supplements for Dogs

Adding a joint supplement to your dog’s diet allows you to provide the nutritional support your pet needs for assistance with joint health. 

Omega 3 fatty acids, glucosamine, green-lipped mussel, MSM, chondroitin and vitamin C are all ingredients that can promote healthy joints and support cartilage repair. If in doubt, your vet can help you to determine which supplements could be beneficial for your pet.

Arthritis in Cats

Cats can be much better than dogs at hiding the signs of pain associated with arthritis. As a result, diagnosing arthritis in cats can be much more difficult. All the same, it is thought that 90% of cats over the age of 12 years have some form of degenerative joint disease (International Cat Care, 2017) so keeping an eye out for signs of pain in your cat is important. 

Ankles, hips, shoulders, elbows, knees and even the spine can be sites of degenerative joint disease in our feline pets. There are a number of risk factors that may increase your cat’s chances of developing joint issues and these include obesity, trauma or injury. Some breeds are also more prone to joint issues, for example, Maine Coons often suffer from hip dysplasia, whereas Scottish Folds can suffer from genetic cartilage abnormalities resulting in multiple sites of osteoarthritis.

Signs of Joint Pain in Cats

Whilst cats may try to hide joint discomfort there are some indications that your cat may be suffering. Most commonly, joint problems are reflected in reduced activity or mobility. If you notice that your pet is sleeping more, less tempted to jump up where it did before, avoids being picked up or is less likely to scale the stairs then these might be signs that there is an issue with the joints. Stiffness in the legs, especially after being curled up asleep for some time, and difficulty using litter trays or cat flaps can be further signs of discomfort.

Joint problems can also make cats grooming themselves more difficult, so pay attention to if your cat’s preening routines start to decline and their usually well-kept coats start to develop a scruffy or matted appearance. Overgrown claws can also indicate less scratching behaviour, whilst sleeping in unusual places may suggest that your cat is unable to access their normal haunts. 

Lastly, pay attention to any changes in behaviour that can arise from joint discomfort. If you notice that your pet is avoiding contact, appears grumpier than usual or tries to avoid you then this too may indicate problems. 

Joint Support for Cats

As with dogs, there are a variety of steps that pet owners can take to make their cat’s life easier if living with stiff or painful joints:

1.       Ensure food, water and beds are all easily accessible to your cat, reducing their need to jump or climb.

2.       Check cat flaps are easily accessible and if not then find an alternative solution.

3.       Provide soft padded bedding away from dampness and draughts to support joints and keep your pet comfortable.

4.       Increase the number of litter trays, beds, and water bowls in the home so that your cat doesn’t have to travel far to find these essentials. For example, consider providing a litter tray both upstairs and down for your cat to reduce the distance they must travel for access.

5.       Older cats are more prone to weight loss than are older dogs, however, excess weight will be a further burden to weary joints. Check with a vet to see if your cat is an appropriate weight for their age and how to optimise their diet if necessary.

6.       Provide your cat with an easily-accessed quiet area where they can rest without being disturbed by children or other pets.

7.       Steps or ramps can help arthritic cats to access favourite parts of your home.

8.       Regularly grooming your cat and trimming their claws can assist them in staying in good condition if they're struggling to manage alone.

9.       Seek regular veterinary check-ups to monitor your cat’s condition.

Joint Support Supplements for Cats

Supplements are not an alternative to pain relief; however, they may help to nutritionally support joints when taken regularly. Glucosamine and chondroitin, is are believed to offer joint-related benefits however speak to your vet to ensure you choose the right product for your cat that is designed specifically for felines and will not contradict any medication your cat may be taking simultaneously. They will also be able to advise on available prescription diets that are designed to support joint health.


It’s really important to look after your pet’s joints, just like it is our own. Good nutritional management and a suitable exercise regime can be useful to help combat the general wear and tear that old age brings. If you notice that your pet seems to be moving around less, is showing discomfort, or has sudden behavioural changes then make an appointment with your vet. Thanks to the growing understanding of joint health in pets and the range of effective treatments now available, you can help your dog or cat reach their senior years with their best paw forward.