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The Aches and Pains of Arthritis

Dr. Patton of Green Country Veterinary Hospital shares how to care and comfort your aging pet.

By: Value News | Category: Pets | Issue: January 2007

(L to R): Amber Williams Christine Collier, Dr. Jennifer Patton, Dr. Corinna ressler, Dr. Lissette Wigton and Janice Holt

Arthritis is a condition that affects more than 8 million of dogs and cats, it is believed that one in five adult dogs is affected. Arthritis is a general term for abnormal changes in a joint, that can result in great pain. It can affect dogs and cats of any age, breed or sex, but is most common in older, overweight, large breed dogs. Any joint can be affected, but the hips, elbows, knees, and vertebral column (back) are most commonly affected.

Arthritis can be the result of injury, such as the arthritis that develops after cruciate injuries; can be the result of breeding, such as congenital hip dysplasia; or may develop for unknown reasons as part of the aging process. Infection in joints and excessive weight also contribute to the development of arthritis. Arthritic changes occur when the cartilage of the joint is worn away faster than the body can replace or repair it. The cartilage is vital to joint health, as it acts as a cushion to protect the underlying bone. When it wears away, the joint becomes swollen and painful. Often, arthritis is progressive, in that it worsens with times, but the rate of progression can be variable. Initially, the animal is sore only occasionally, such as after strenuous exercise or on cold, damp days. As it progresses, the pet often becomes slow to get up or down and may be reluctant to walk up or down steps. At its worst, pets are often reluctant to move and when forced to, are often visibly lame.

Cats show more subtle signs of arthritis, and often show no signs at all. One sign may be reluctance to use the litterbox or inappropriate climination. Litterboxes that have high sides are difficult for cats with arthritis to get into, so they begin to go to the bathroom in other locations to prevent discomfort. Other signs can be pain when patted, especially along the back, reluctance to jump, and grouchiness.

A diagnosis of arthritis is made based upon the clinical signs that the pet shows and the history that the owner provides the veterinarian. Physical examination may reveal hot, swollen joints or pain when the joint is palpated. Often, radiographs (x-rays) are taken to determine the severity of the joint changes and to help track the changes in the joint over time.

While arthritis is not curable, it can be managed so that the pet can have improved mobility and relieve the pain. The most important part of managing arthritis is managing weight. A weight gain of as little as five pounds can mean the difference between being able to walk and being extremely painful for some dogs. Extremely obese pets benefit from prescription weight loss food to help them lose weight. Many products are available, and which product is best for your pet is determined by consulting with your veterinarian. If your pet is not overweight, a prescription arthritis diet may be recommended. These products contain balanced essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and are formulated to maintain a healthy weight. These diets are significantly different from over-the-counter foods that are touted to contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. The OTC foods do not contain enough of these products to reach therapeutic levels and therefore are usually not beneficial in joint maintenance.

Another important factor in maintaining pets with arthritis is exercise. Exercise helps to keep the bones and muscle healthy, which help to protect the joints. Exercise also helps to improve strength, endurance, flexibility, and weight control, which helps maintain healthy joints. Most people are reluctant to exercise pets with arthritis for fear of making them more painful. If the exercise is inappropriate, this can be a problem, but with the help of your veterinarian, you can devise an exercise program that will help your pet. The important things are to stay with low-impact activities. Swimming is the best, but is not available for all pets in all locations. Walking is the next best activity if swimming is not available. Avoid jogging, jumping, and playing catch, as these activities strain the joints and muscles. Consistency of activity is also important. Weekend warrior activity will make arthritis worse the following week. Ideally, the pet should have exercise on a daily basis.

Many pets can be successfully managed with food, weight control, and exercise. Some pets that are severely affected or as the disease progresses, medication may be needed to keep your pet comfortable. Many pets are maintained on neutraceuticals (natural products) very well.These products often contain glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, or polysulfated glycosaminoglycans. Most of these products are available in oral forms that may be chewable tablets, capsules, liquids and powders. There is also an injectable form of medication that can be used in pets that are difficult to give oral medications to or in addition to oral medications, as it works differently from the other medications. These types of products are best purchase from your veterinarian. While many of these medications are available over-the-counter, research has shown that the ingredients that make up the medications may not be in the amounts stated on the label. In some cases, over-the-counter medications did not contain any of the stated active ingredients. So, while these may be cheaper to purchase, they may not actually be of any benefit to your pet. Products purchased from your veterinarian should be guaranteed to provide the stated amount of medication in a form that is easy to administer to your pet. These products work by increasing the lubrication in the joints, helping to slow down wear of the cartilage and providing smoother function in the joint. These products are best when used early in the arthritis process, and some veterinarians actually recommend them to be used in pets that may be prone to develop arthritis.

Final medications are the pain relievers. These primarily include anti-inflammatory medications, though other pain relievers are also available. These medications can be used intermittently for dogs that have occasional pain, such as older hunting dogs that are painful after a weekend of hunting, or can be used daily for dogs with advanced arthritis. If long-term anti-inflammatory use is necessary, regular monitoring of bloodwork is recommended, as many of these products can result in liver, kidney or intestinal problems. By monitoring bloodwork, your veterinarian can catch these problems early and treat any problems or change medications as needed. You should NEVER give over-the counter pain medications to your pet without first consulting your veterinarian. Animals do not have the same capacity as humans to metabolize these medications, and they can quickly become toxic or even result in death. One dose of Tylenol can be enough to kill a cat, and one tablet of Aleve can result in the death of a Great Dane. Aspirin is commonly administered by owners, by should not be given without consulting your veterinarian. Aspirin can cause severe intestinal bleeding and can cause kidney problems. It can also cause excessive bleeding during surgical procedures. Medications prescribed by your veterinarian are less likely to cause such severe complications, but that is not to say they are without their own side-effects. Your veterinarian can discuss any complications that may arise and the signs you need to monitor for. The basic point of arthritis is that your pet does not need to needlessly suffer from this disease and can be managed easily, with a little help from your and your veterinarian.

For more information, contact

Green Country Veterinary Hospital

12226 A. Heywood Hill Rd., Sapulpa, OK 74066
(918) 224-6202


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