Arthritis in Pets

Judy Schroeder, DVM   June 4, 2014   Comments Off on Arthritis in Pets

Arthritic Elbow in Dog

An arthritic elbow in a dog. Note the fuzzy spicules around the elbow, which are not present around the wrist. (Click for an enlarged view.)

Arthritis is a generic term that means, simply, inflammation in a joint. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, and one of the most common diseases that pets face. This type of arthritis is usually seen in older pets, and is characterized by cartilage breakdown, bone remodeling, and fibrous tissue formation around the joint. Younger pets may develop arthritis as a result of injury, joint malformation or instability of a particular joint. Arthritis tends to be painful and progressive, and may severely limit mobility and quality of life for our pets. (Arthritis caused by infectious agents or immune-mediated disease, will not be discussed in this article.)

Symptoms of osteoarthritis may be subtle at first. Owners might notice a reluctance to jump into the car or negotiate stairs, or  mild stiffness after exercise. Older cats with arthritis often show decreased grooming behaviors or difficulty using the litter box. In advanced cases severe lameness, swelling, or decreased mobility in a limb may be seen. Radiographs are important in diagnosing arthritis and ruling out other potential causes of lameness or loss of mobility. Bone and soft tissue tumors,  fractures, infectious or immune-mediated arthritis, and ligament/tendon injuries need to be considered as possible causes of pain. Radiographs can also help localize the joint or joints affected if it is not clear from the physical exam.

Treatment for arthritis is often multi-modal, and must be tailored to each individual case. If an affected pet is overweight, weight loss should be a primary goal. Studies have shown that weight loss alone will decrease symptoms associated with arthritis. Young animals with joint malformations or injuries should also be kept at a lean body weight. Consistent but low-impact exercise such as walking (if possible) is important to maintain muscle mass and conditioning.

Oral medications are by far the most common therapy used for osteoarthritis. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) are commonly prescribed for dogs, as these address both the pain and inflammation in the joint. Rimadyl (carprofen) and Metacam (meloxicam) are in this class. These drugs are not recommended for cats, and may be expensive for large dogs.  Further, they cannot usually be given to animals with kidney, liver, or gastrointestinal disease. Other pain relievers such as tramadol and gabapentin, and joint supplements such as glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids may be used alone or in combination with NSAIDS. Some drugs may have side effects in individuals, and blood monitoring may be needed, but overall, medical treatment can vastly improve comfort and quality of life.

Acupuncture is a useful modality that can be used alone or in conjunction with other therapies. Acupuncture decreases pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, and is safe for even the most compromised patients. Physical therapy encompasses a broad class of treatment including massage, laser or ultrasound therapy, range of motion exercises, aquatherapy, and electromagnetic stimulation.

In certain cases, surgery may be a treatment option. Animals with an unstable or traumatized joint may benefit from surgical repair; in advanced cases of arthritis the surgical goal is primarily to reduce pain. Finally, external aids such as ramps or slings may help an older or disabled pet to remain active.

To effectively manage a pet’s arthritis, an individual treatment plan should be formulated. This may be as simple as a prescription, or involve a combination of therapies, diet and exercise programs. With a little help, a pet with arthritis can still enjoy and happy and comfortable life.