Arthritis and Your Pet

December 5, 2013
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Osteoarthritis or arthritis is a progressive and irreversible condition that results from the deterioration of the cartilage that allows joints to operate smoothly. This condition affects many of our senior pets and most commonly occurs due to misalignment of bones or abnormal forces placed on the joints due to a previous injury or a genetic disorder.

The ends of bones comprising a joint space (such as the elbow or the knee) are covered in very smooth cartilage that promotes a smooth painless range of motion. Unfortunately, this cartilage cannot heal itself well when it becomes damaged, and the progressive loss of normal cartilage then results in abnormal friction within the joint space that causes inflammation and pain.

While all older pets are susceptible to developing osteoarthritis, animals with certain genetic conditions (such as elbow and hip dysplasia), and animals that have sustained a previous injury (such as a knee ligament rupture or knee cap movement) have a much higher risk. Overweight dogs, working dogs, and athletic dogs are also at higher risk for developing arthritis at some point in their lifetime.

Arthritis is less common in cats than it is in dogs, but cats that are obese or that have sustained a previous injury are at higher risk.

Owners should suspect the development of arthritis if they notice that their pet is stiff or limping after a long exercise session or when waking up from sleep, has become reluctant to jump or climb stairs, or is irritable when approached or touched.


Pets will typically present to their veterinarian with some degree of lameness or a stiff gait, joint pain, crepitus, and/or decreased range of motion. Radiographs or x-rays of the painful joints may reveal fluid within the joint itself and abnormal bony growth around the joint(s) in question. There are infectious and immune-mediated causes of arthritis, as well as cancer that can also cause similar signs and must be ruled out by your veterinarian.

If applicable, surgical correction of the cause (eg torn cranial cruciate ligament) should occur. Conservative management includes weight loss for overweight pets, pain medication, administration of joint supplements, and gentle and consistent exercise. These conservative measures are discussed in greater detail below.

If your pet is overweight, weight loss is the number one thing owners can do to help prevent the development of arthritis and to help lessen the degree of pain of pre-existing arthritis. Excess weight puts undue forces and pressure on joints and if your pet already has elbow or hip dysplasia, keeping them on the lean side will help stave off the progression of arthritis.

Non-steroidal antiinflammatories (NSAIDs), such as the drugs Rimadyl and Deramaxx, have been shown to be very effective at decreasing joint inflammation associated with arthritis. Your veterinarian may prescribe an NSAID trial to determine if your pet’s stiff or painful gait is improved by medication. If it is, baseline and then regular (typically every 6 months) blood work will need to be performed to ensure that your pet’s kidneys and liver are functioning optimally to metabolize the drug.

There are several supplements your veterinarian may recommend that have been determined to have a positive effect on supporting joint health. An omega-3 fatty acid supplement (fish oil is a good source) contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which has been shown to decrease joint inflammation. Supplements containing glucosamine and/or chondroitin *may* be helpful in supporting joint health, but there are no conclusive studies that have been performed in dogs regarding their effects. As supplements are not regulated by the FDA, owners should take care to purchase a product from a reputable company. Nutramax is a company that makes the joint supplements Dasuquin and Cosequin and their product Cosequin has be independently verified in the past to contain ingredients at the percentages labeled on the packaging.

Finally, gentle and consistent exercise help improve the range of motion of arthritic joints and also help maintain an ideal body condition. Activities that involve jumping or running are discouraged, but swimming and walking are excellent activities to help keep your pet active and moving.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis once it develops, but the measures discussed in this blog can help alleviate the symptoms and slow the progression. Please schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you think your pet is at risk for developing arthritis or if you have already noticed the signs. The veterinarians at Groveway Veterinary Hospital are always happy to discuss your pet’s individual case!