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Arthritis

Arthritis occurs when an animal’s joints become inflamed, often accompanied by pain, heat, and swelling in the joints. It usually results in increasing stiffness and immobility, but proper treatment can improve his or her quality of life.  There are medications, therapies, and ways you can accommodate your home to help your pet be more comfortable and enjoy their life with you.

If you are concerned that your pet is suffering from arthritis, the first step is to make an appointment with your veterinarian. The symptoms of arthritis can be hard to distinguish—animals can’t complain about their aching joints, so all that pet “parents” see is a response to pain.  Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose arthritis versus another condition that may be causing discomfort in your pet. Animals with arthritis might avoid the activities they used to enjoy, stop jumping onto furniture, or they might nip or seem upset when touched. Some animals may become depressed or change their eating habits; others may simply seem grumpier than usual.

Your veterinarian may need to perform several diagnostic tests to determine if your pet has arthritis. Though it is relatively uncommon, sometimes arthritis can be caused by a bacterial infection inside a joint or an autoimmune disorder. These are treated with a different medical protocol than the more common osteoarthritis.  Arthritis caused by hip or elbow dysplasia can sometimes be treated surgically. Your veterinarian needs to rule out these options before treating your pet’s arthritis.

Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis in animals (as well as in humans). Most elderly dogs and cats suffer from osteoarthritis to some degree. As dogs age, the cartilage that cushions the joint degenerates, and the bones start to rub against one another.  This is what causes discomfort, and if it progresses, can cause damage to the bone itself. This kind of arthritis can occur anywhere there is a joint, though it is most common and causes the most pain in the weight-bearing joints like the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, and ankles. This is very common in large breed dogs since their frame has to carry more weight, but small breed dogs, and cats can still suffer from arthritis.  Though there is no cure for osteoarthritis, it can be managed well through medical treatment, environmental adaptation, and diet and exercise.

After diagnosing your pet’s arthritis and determining the severity of the disease, your veterinarian will decide which treatment will be most effective. In recent years, many new medications have made the treatment of arthritis much more promising. Your veterinarian might prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs to decrease the swelling in joints and make movement easier. Some veterinarians also recommend dietary supplements, which fortify the cartilage in damaged joints.

Many pet owners and veterinarians are turning to holistic therapies to reduce arthritis symptoms. Acupuncture is becoming increasingly popular as a treatment for chronic pain. Some veterinarians support the use of herbal supplements and antioxidant vitamins.

Arthritis can make your pet’s life more difficult; however, along with treatment from your veterinarian, there are things you can do to make your pet’s life easier.

  • Keep litter boxes and food and water dishes at a comfortable height, easily accessible, and on a non-slip surface such as a rubber bathmat or a piece of indoor-outdoor carpet. In a multi-level house, keep them on every floor.
  • Supply a padded surface to cushion your pet’s joints while she sits and sleeps. Dog and cat beds will work, as will bean bag chairs and old mattresses. Place the padding in a warm, draft-free spot.
  • Make slippery surfaces like wood or linoleum floors safer with non-skid runners, available at most home improvement and hardware stores.
  • If your cat’s litter box has high sides, cut a cat-sized opening in one side to let him step in and out easily, leaving one to two inches at the bottom to keep litter from spilling out.
  • Ramps can help animals make it up and down stairs, on and off the porch, on and off the couch, and anywhere else where the jump may be too far for their sore joints.
  • Some pets that are too stiff to use the stairs will try to use them anyway, possibly falling and hurting themselves. Supervise your pet when she is using the stairs and use a baby gate or sheet of plywood to keep the steps off limits the rest of the time.
  • A little warmth can help a sore animal get through a long night. Consider wrapping a hot water bottle in towels or tucking a microwaveable heating pad into your pet’s bed.
  • Don’t let your pet spend time alone in the yard. Pets with arthritis are vulnerable to attacks from other animals; they can fall and injure themselves easily, and they can become very stiff in cold or damp weather. Sit outside with them any time they go outside.
  • Groom your pet regularly. As animals lose flexibility in their joints, they can’t reach around to scratch or groom themselves the way they used to. Cats, particularly, may develop matted or dirty fur.  Regular brushing will help your pet feel comfortable and allow you to spend some quiet time with her.

Increasing your arthritic pet’s exercise can do many things to help them be more comfortable.  Exercise keeps weight down, and promotes muscle strength, which helps support the tendons and ligaments.

Your pet may be reluctant at first, so warm up gently and take it slowly.  Discuss an exercise regimen with your vet to make sure that you’re not over doing it.  Too much exercise can cause joint damage so monitor your pet closely.

Frequently, arthritic pets gain weight due to inactivity, so keeping your pet active is important for preventing obesity. The extra weight will be hard on your pet and may increase the joint damage caused by arthritis.