How Do I Know If My Pet Really Has Arthritis?

Cat Laying Down
For many years, it was assumed that cats weren’t affected by arthritis. But now we know that isn’t true.

She spends more time snoozing in her bed. She lags behind on walks. She’s less interested in her toys. She doesn’t jump up on the bed anymore. Could these be signs that your pet has arthritis? Could she have some other health condition? Or is she just slowing down with age?

It can be difficult for a pet owner to know exactly what is going on with one's beloved dog or cat. While some arthritic pets may show obvious signs, such as a limp, the signs of pain are often more subtle and easily mistaken for those of many other health conditions.

That’s why, if you suspect your pet might be in pain, you should seek veterinary help as soon as possible. Your veterinarian can determine if it really is arthritis, or another condition, and recommend the right treatment to help your pet be more comfortable.

What Causes Arthritis?

While there are different types of arthritis, the most common is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis is a painful, progressive disease that can affect one or more joints, such as the hips, knees, elbows, shoulders and areas of the spine.

Usually, it starts when some kind of stress damages the protective layer of cartilage covering the bone within the joint. This can result from trauma or joint instability, or from an underlying orthopedic condition, such as hip dysplasia. In some cases, it occurs with age.

The damaged cartilage releases enzymes that can lead to inflammation. And the underlying bone responds by producing extra bone around the margins where the injury occurred. Obesity can put extra stress on the joint, further exacerbating the problem.

The pain comes from the nerve endings in the exposed bone and from the inflamed tissues in and around the joint, including the ligaments, tendons and joint capsule. To help reduce pain, your pet may favor that joint or simply be less active, which can lead to muscle wasting and reduced overall mobility.

What Are the Signs of Arthritis in Dogs?

The signs can vary, depending on the joints affected and the severity of the disease. Your dog may lag behind on walks or even show a periodic limp. Often, she may struggle when trying to rise from a resting position. She may appear stiff, especially in the morning, but may improve as the day goes on.

If she goes on a longer walk than usual or plays an extended game of fetch, it may take her longer to recover. You may notice that she’s more hesitant to climb or descend stairs, or she may be more reluctant to jump into or out of the car, or onto and off of furniture.

Are the Signs of Arthritis Different in Cats?

Because cats are generally better at masking pain or illness than dogs, for many years, it was assumed that cats weren’t affected by arthritis. But now we know that isn’t true.

Unlike dogs, cats are less likely to show an obvious limp. Instead, you might notice that your cat doesn’t jump to the heights she used to. She may use other objects, such as a footstool, to help her reach the couch. And she may slowly ease herself off the table instead of leaping to the floor.

You might notice that your cat grooms herself less, often resulting in mats of fur forming. Or she may be more irritable when petted in certain areas, such as the lower back. She may also have accidents outside the litterbox if the sides of the box are too high, or she needs to go up or down stairs to reach the box.

Could It Be Something Other Than Arthritis?

Because the signs of arthritis can be similar to those of other medical conditions, the right diagnosis is important to make sure your pet receives the most effective treatment.

Vague signs, such as a general decrease in activity, could be the result of many diseases. But even more specific signs, such as periodic limping or a decrease in jumping, can be associated with other medical conditions including:

  • Infectious arthritis caused by bacteria (such as those transmitted through tick bites), viruses, fungi or other organisms.
  • Immune-mediated arthritis (cells of the body's immune system damage joint cartilage).
  • Cancer, typically involving the bone or cartilage.
  • Conditions that cause muscle weakness or lethargy (such as thyroid disease in dogs).
  • Injuries to muscles, tendons or ligaments. 

How Is a Diagnosis Made?

Your veterinarian will start by taking a thorough medical history and performing a physical exam. She may recommend blood tests and other diagnostics to help rule out other diseases. X-rays are often helpful in diagnosing arthritis, but other tests, such as an analysis of joint fluid, may also be recommended.

Although there’s no cure for arthritis; your veterinarian can recommend ways to help reduce the pain, slow the progression of disease and help your pet be more comfortable. That way, your pet will be more likely to feel up to more of the toy-chasing, walking and snuggling-on-the-couch activities that make you both happy.

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