Dr. Kate Wood
Arthritis (also known as Degenerative Joint Disease or Osteoarthritis) is the progressive and irreversible inflammation of joints and the tissues around them. Osteoarthritis is either a direct consequence of changes in the joint due to aging or it is secondary to an external event or force (trauma, joint misalignment or joint instability). In veterinary medicine it is difficult to pinpoint what percentage of our patients have arthritis, but some studies have shown that arthritis is present in approximately 20% of adult dogs and more than 90% of cats over the age of 12! This statistic, combined with the fact that I have discussions on a daily basis about this disease, made this topic a great one for the monthly blog. To start, I have listed some useful (and frequently asked) questions:
- How can I tell if my pet is sore? Signs of arthritis can be more subtle than what you would expect; most pets will not cry out due to arthritis pain. Watch for reluctance to move, stiffness, lameness, slowness to get up from laying down, lagging behind on walks (or seeming to tire out on walks sooner), reluctance to jump into/out of the car, or missing the jumps, “warming up” ie: stiff in the mornings but seems better as the day goes on, muscle loss, sleeping/lying around more and moving slower on cold/damp days. It can be tricky to see these signs in cats, but they have their own indicators which can include the above plus: urinating/defecating outside the box, decreased grooming (hair more matted and/or increased dander), resistance to brushing or handling, sleeping more, hiding, missing jumps, or reluctance to jump up or onto things.
- Is exercise good or bad? How do I know what the right amount is? The first answer is the same for all pets with arthritis- controlled exercise is IMPORTANT! However, the second answer can be trickier, as there is no rule and each pet will have different levels of what they can and should do. Note I used the word controlled; unlike us, our arthritic pets don’t understand the consequences of how they will feel the next day after chasing the ball for 5 hours straight (and thinking, “but it was so much fun!”). Exercise for arthritis is invaluable as it maintains muscle tone which, in turn, provides stability for the joint. It can also promote a healthier joint environment which reduces the pain and can actually slow the progression of arthritis.
So, what do I mean by controlled exercise?Controlled exercise generally means you are in charge – leash walks, walking in water, jogging, swimming, going up and down ramp inclines.The exercises to avoid are jumping, running on stairs, leaping, short fast stops, and rough play with other dogs.Avoid any activities on slick surfaces – indoors or out (rugs can make a world of difference to the arthritic dog who has a hard time keeping their feet under them on hardwood or laminate).The length of the exercise is where you will really have to watch your pet and determine what is best for them; controlled exercise should never increase their pain – so if they did a 30 min walk the day before and were slow getting up off the bed the next morning, that is a sign that it was too much.If possible, it is always better to do three 10 minute walks rather than one thirty minute walk.Exercise can be daily, or every other day, and if there was pain from the previous days’ walk, then decrease the length by half the following day.
- I don’t want to put my pet on drugs; is there anything else I can do for their arthritis? There is a point for some pets where NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication) may be required and can make a world of difference for that individual; however, arthritis is best approached with what we call a multi-modal approach. This means that the best solution for prevention and treatment is actually a combination of different therapies. I will briefly touch upon the different options, but overall there are many different choices available to our pets that allow us to cater to their individual needs.
- Weight control: Several studies have shown that the biggest factor that can affect your arthritic pet’s comfort level is their weight. These studies have shown that obesity can make animals more prone to arthritis in two ways: the first is that the increased weight on an overweight pet will result in an increased force being placed on a joint leading to excessive wear of the joint cartilage. The second is that fat cells actually release substances that are directly harmful to the joint. One study compared a litter of puppies that were all high risk for hip dysplasia (and therefore the arthritis associated with it); half of the litter were free choice fed and the remaining half were fed to a lean weight. The half that were lean had arthritis rates of 50% less than those who were free choice fed. As well, the controlled feeders did not show signs of arthritis until they were 12 years of age (versus an average of 6 years of age for the free choice fed dogs). This study tells us that, not only is weight loss an important aid to reducing arthritis pain for the already arthritic patient, but that keeping your pet a healthy weight all of its life will reduce the chances of developing arthritis and delay its onset.
- Glucosamine/Chondroitin Sulfate: most people have heard of these supplements as they are common in human medicine. This supplement comes in many different forms (pills, chews and powders) and from different sources (plants or animals); it is easy to give and has been shown to have beneficial effects on the health of the joint. The most important factor about this supplement is to ensure that you are giving enough; if you are unsure about the dose please ask your vet.
- Green lipped mussel: this is a supplement that has started to become more popular through the last few years; it is often added to arthritis diets or to combo supplements for joints.
- Omega fatty acids: these have been found to have significant anti-inflammatory effects on the joints and, again, supplementing at the correct dose is of paramount importance.
- Pentosan polysulfate (Cartrophen): this is an injection that is given under the skin on a schedule determined by your veterinarian; it is a supplement that improves joint health and can have some anti-inflammatory benefits as well.
- Mobility diets: these diets are specially formulated to contain therapeutic levels of some of the supplements previously mentioned.
- Acupuncture: this is often used in conjunction with other therapies and can reduce the pain associated with arthritis.
- Environmental modification: A network of rugs on slippery flooring, soft padded beds, warm and dry environments, and ramps to get into/out of vehicles will help your pet’s mobility. For those kitties, you can also purchase a low sided kitty litter box so they don’t have to jump to get in or out, and you can move furniture or provide steps for them to get up and down from their favorite perches.
- Physiotherapy: this can be done at a specialized clinic and, just like for people, it has been found to notably reduce lameness associated with injury and arthritis.
The biggest thing to remember about arthritis is that we can see it in any age group of animal and, even though it is more common to see it in our aging population, arthritis can also be found in pets less than a year of age. Because of this, it is always something to keep in mind if you start seeing the aforementioned changes. Remember, even though it is not a disease that can be cured, we have a multitude of therapeutic options that will allow your pet to have a happier and healthier life.