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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. It is important not to underestimate the impact this can have on your pet’s quality of life. Pain, reduced mobility and changes in temperament and behaviour are all possible symptoms of joint degeneration. 

Fortunately, there are a range of effective treatments that can help your pet to live more comfortably. If you think your pet is suffering from any type of pain, 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. Further stiffness and inflexibility can result; a condition known 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 a particular concern, due to both their speed of growth and the weight their joints must support.

Calcium and protein are very important in a puppy’s diet, however, research has shown that too much can cause just as many developmental issues as a deficiency. Therefore, always seek veterinary or nutritional advice if you are not sure what you should be feeding your pet. Generally speaking, complete puppy foods should adequately cover your puppy’s growth requirements. 

Signs of Arthritis in Dogs

If effective treatment 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), or a reluctance to play or scale stairs. 

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

Joint Pain Relief for Dogs

If arthritis is confirmed in your dog there are a number of treatments that may prove effective…

1.       Seeking veterinary advice is the number one priority in helping your dog with any medical issues and pain relief should only be prescribed by a veterinarian. Regular check-ups with a veterinarian will help monitor your dog’s progress. Joint wear from old age is unlikely to ever be cured, however, it can be managed to ensure your pet can live life to the fullest.

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.

3.       Make sure your dog’s bed is well-padded and away from damp and draughts. 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 the stairs then ensuring these are carpeted can reduce the risk of slipping. Ramps or additional steps can provide easy access to the garden.

5.      Specially certified canine massage therapists that can assist your dog’s wellbeing by stimulating blood flow to muscles and connective tissues, which can help reduce stiffness.

6.       Keeping your dog at the correct weight for its size will prevent additional weight on already struggling joints. Most vets can assist with weighing your dog and maintaining a correct weight.  

7.       It’s important you continue to keep your dog active, exercising little and often to keep their joints supple. Exercise can also help keep the dog’s weight in check. Canine hydrotherapy is a great alternative to walks as it reduces pressure on the joints. Speak to a certified practitioner or vet for more advice.

Supplements for Canine Arthritis & Joint Pain

Some canine supplements are believed to help with the joint pain associated with canine arthritis.   

Glucosamine, green lipped mussel, MSM, chondroitin and vitamin C are all ingredients that can promote healthy joints and may help with cartilage repair. Omega 3 fatty acids may also help to reduce inflammation in the body. 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 osteoarthritis and these include obesity, trauma or injury. Some breeds are also more prone to joint issues. Maine Coons, for example, often suffer from hip dysplasia, whereas Scottish Folds can suffer from genetic cartilage abnormalities resulting in multiple sites of osteoarthritis.

Signs of Arthritis 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 less tempted to jump or avoids scaling stairs then this may be an indication of arthritis. 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 make grooming more difficult, so caring cat owners should pay attention to a scruffy or matted appearance. Overgrown claws can 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 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 Pain Relief for Cats

As with dogs, there are a variety of steps that caring pet owners can take to ease the inflammation and discomfort that arthritic cats suffer from…

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

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

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

4.       Increase the number of litter trays, beds or water bowls in the home so that your cat doesn’t have to travel far to find these essentials. As an example, try to provide a litter tray both upstairs and down to reduce the distance your cat must move.

5.       Older cats are more prone to weight loss than older dogs, however, excess weight will be a further burden on worn down joints. Check with a vet if you are not sure how to go about a weight loss plan.

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 groom your cat and trim its claws if it is struggling to manage alone.

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

Supplements for Feline Arthritis & Joint Pain

Supplements aren’t an alternative to pain relief; however, they may help to support degenerative joints when taken regularly. Glucosamine is possibly the best-known joint supplement for cats, but chondroitin, vitamin C and cod liver oil are all believed to offer joint-related benefits. Speak to your vet to ensure you choose the right product that won’t 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.

Veterinary Treatment of Arthritis and Joint Pain in Pets

Your vet is best-placed to diagnose arthritis in your pet and suggest effective treatment. In some cases, painkillers such as Metacam may be prescribed. Alternatively, corticosteroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be recommended. Changes to your pet’s daily routine or the addition of complementary treatment such as physiotherapy can also be beneficial. Severe cases of arthritis, just as in humans, may require joint replacement or surgery to cut and realign bones. 

In Conclusion

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 used to help combat the general wear and tear that old age brings. If you notice that your pet seems to be suffering from reduced mobility, discomfort or behavioural changes then make an appointment with your vet. Thanks to the growing understanding of arthritis 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.   


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