Arthritis in Dogs and Cats: How to Help Prevent and Treat Creaky Joints

Senior dog lying on floor

I always say that if you’re lucky enough, your pet will live long enough to get arthritis. Whether you’ve got a large breed of dog or a small cat, chances are that you’ll be dealing with arthritis as your pet ages.

Arthritis is a disease of the joints that typically reduces a pet’s mobility and causes pain. The onset of arthritis can happen for a bevy of reasons, but the more common form results from simple joint wear and tear that's often accelerated by conditions like hip dysplasia. This type of arthritis is referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease.

Although you can't halt the progression of the disease, the onset of severe arthritis in pets can often be delayed and its symptoms — pain, weakness, difficulty rising, limping and muscle wasting — alleviated using a variety of accessible and effective approaches to both prevention and treatment.

Assess Your Pet's Arthritis Risk Early

Armed with the knowledge that you’ll have to deal with arthritis at some point in your pet’s future, ask your veterinarian for an honest assessment of her risk for the disease. Some factors that can come into play: breed, size, excess weight, current or past evidence of arthritis (slowing down, exercise intolerance, reluctance to jump and loss of muscle mass), past injuries and joint abnormalities such as luxating patellas.

If your pet shows early signs and symptoms of orthopedic discomfort, consult a specialist, such as a board-certified veterinary surgeon, for an advanced orthopedic evaluation. Specialists may be expensive, but they’re in the best position to offer you the skinny on high-tech surgical procedures that may reduce your pet's risk of developing arthritis.

Whittle That Waist With Exercise

Weight loss is mandatory for the majority of veterinary patients with arthritis. Whether you have an afflicted or an at-risk pet, I strongly recommend that all patients –– even very young pets who are either giant breeds or who have conditions like hip dysplasia and luxating patellas –– stay on the trim side. It’s no longer enough to just maintain a normal weight — keeping your pet lean is the best way to prevent and control arthritis.

Unless your pet's condition specifically dictates otherwise (such as acute flare-ups of spinal conditions), keeping muscle mass at its heftiest is always helpful when it comes to arthritis — and exercise is the best way to achieve it. Swimming tops my list, but there are plenty of other great exercise options, like going for regular walks, playing fetch and using a pet treadmill. Just be careful to watch for signs that your pet is starting to feel pain, such as limping or lagging behind on walks, and adjust the amount of time your pet spends exercising if necessary.

Consider Supplements and Alternative Treatments

For the last decade or two, glucosamine has been touted as a must-have supplement for arthritis sufferers. Recently, fatty acids have proven themselves to be useful in treating arthritis, as well. The problem is that these supplements don’t necessarily help all pets, but the veterinary literature supports the use of glucosamine and fatty acids, making them both worth trying. Your vet can also recommend therapeutic diets that include glucosamine and fatty acids.

Another worthwhile approach: alternative therapies such as massage and acupuncture, which can offer relief to arthritis patients. Just be warned that there are plenty of not-so-certified practitioners of these arts in the veterinary marketplace, so make sure that you act on solid recommendations and impressive credentials.

Make Your Home More Comfortable

Most pet owners don’t recognize that plenty of factors in their homes can have a huge impact on arthritic canines and cats. Slippery surfaces can pose a big problem for dogs, in particular. (If you had to worry about landing splay-legged with every step, you’d also walk around a lot less.) Some easy solutions: booties and inexpensive floor runners. You should also limit how often your pet climbs the stairs, and build or buy a ramp for access to the bed. In short, there's a lot you can do to help maintain your pet's quality of life in spite of arthritis.

Talk to Your Vet About Arthritis Drugs

The good news is that you have more choices than ever when it comes to arthritis medications, which are undeniably responsible for the increased longevity of many orthopedically challenged patients.

Still, drugs are seldom my first choice of treatment, unless it’s a short-term course or I have a patient whose symptoms have progressed beyond the point when weight loss and other first-line measures are sufficient. But I do recommend that you talk with your veterinarian about cartilage-supporting injectable products that may help your pet move and feel better.

Aside from drugs, each of these approaches deserves an "early and often" designation. So what are you waiting for? Get moving –– so she can, too.


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