Over 14 million pets in the U.S. have arthritis – some as young as one year of age – but only a small percentage of animals with the condition are receiving treatment.
Symptoms of arthritis in pets can include generalized weakness and unwillingness to exercise or play.
Dr. Becker’s Comments:
The video in the above link discusses a number of anti-inflammatory drugs as well as veterinarian-recommended foods to treat arthritic pets.
What isn’t discussed is why so many companion animals suffer from the disease, nor is the topic of prevention mentioned.
As a proactive, holistically-oriented veterinarian, my interest lies not only in alleviating the suffering of pets with arthritis, but also in helping pet owners prevent the disease in the first place.
I disagree with the premise of the video, which seems to suggest the only thing to be done for arthritic pets is to wait around for opportunities to test the latest potentially toxic drug or processed “prescription diet.”
Causes of Arthritis in Pets
The joints of your pet’s body are composed of soft connective tissue and cartilage. Their role is to provide cushioning between bones to allow normal movement.
Arthritis is an inflammation that causes damage to joints.
Arthritis in pets has different causes than arthritis in people. In humans, primary arthritis is generally thought to be an age-related condition. In pets, it’s most often caused by one of the following:
- Developmental disorders, for example hip or elbow dysplasia
- High calorie, carb-based diets that cause your pet’s body to grow faster than the cartilage does, inducing cartilage deficits
- Injury or trauma to a joint such as a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
- Bacterial or tick borne infection
- Autoimmune disorders that cause your pet’s immune system to attack itself
Older and large breed dogs are more apt to develop arthritis than young dogs, smaller breeds or cats, for obvious reasons. The longer a joint is used over a dog’s lifetime, the more apt it is to be injured.
An animal’s weight puts a corresponding amount of stress on his joints, so a large or giant breed dog will be more incapacitated by arthritis than a small dog. Also, common canine bone problems like hip or elbow dysplasia are disorders most often seen in large, fast-growing dogs.
If your dog or cat is overweight or obese it means more stress on his joints as well.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Dogs and Cats
The following are some early warning signs of arthritis in dogs:
- Difficulty standing from a sitting or lying position
- Resisting touch, whimpering or crying out when touched
- Sleeping more than usual or seeming less “with it”
- Weight gain from a decrease in physical activity
- Favoring a leg
- Loss of interest in exercise or play
- Moving slowly or stiffly
- Reluctance to jump, run or climb stairs
It can be trickier to spot arthritis in your cat. Cats are stoic when they don’t feel well, and unlike dogs, they don’t often limp even in the presence of a painful condition like arthritis.
If you have a kitty, you’ll need to look for behavior changes that signal an underlying problem like arthritis, including:
- Reluctance to jump up to his favorite spots on furniture or other surfaces, or an inability to gain the height needed
- Eliminating outside the litter box, especially if the box has high sides or for some other reason is difficult for your cat to get in or out of
- Decreased interest in family members and other pets
- No longer covering his urine or feces with litter when he relieves himself
- Lack of appetite
- Becoming less active
- Sleeping more
- Muscle wasting in the legs
Early Injuries Can Lead to Arthritis in a Pet’s Later Years
Many joint diseases in middle aged or older pets develop as a result of an earlier (sometimes much earlier), often seemingly minor injury or trauma.
Puppies are awkward, clumsy creatures, and a fall down the stairs or a jump to the ground from a high surface can be all it takes to set the stage for future joint degeneration.
One of the most common injuries I see in my practice is cervical damage in dogs prone to leap or jerk against the leash during walks.
I see similar injuries caused by ill-informed dog trainers and pet owners who believe jerking a dog’s neck when he’s leashed is a good way to correct leaping and straining behaviors. I do NOT recommend this practice, because it so often results in cervical trauma, which leads to degenerative joint disease as the dog ages.
Kitties can also incur injuries that set them up for arthritis and other joint diseases. As naturally graceful and athletic as your cat is, she can still take an awkward fall, or smack into something as she gallops through your house. Kitties also like to jam themselves into very tight spaces – removing a cat from behind the fridge, for example, can result in an unintentional injury. Outdoor cats can be struck by cars, and serious cat fights often result in injury or trauma as well.
Obesity + Lack of Exercise = Arthritis
The pet obesity epidemic in this country is having predictable results, one of which is an increase in arthritic dogs and cats.
An overweight pet is destined to suffer from the same obesity-related health problems as an overweight person. Chronic obesity puts tremendous stress on your dog’s or cat’s frame, which often results in permanent damage to tendons and ligaments.
In order to maintain a good weight and be optimally healthy, your dog or cat needs to eat a diet that is species-appropriate and nutritionally balanced. Dogs and cats are carnivores, so carb-based diets, even those marketed by pet food companies as “weight management” or low fat, are not what your pet should be eating.
Also, carbs promote inflammation and are the last thing your pet with an inflammatory joint problem needs.
If your pet is not well-exercised, even if her weight is good, it’s a set up for arthritis as she ages.
Animals are designed by nature for movement. If your pet doesn’t have the opportunity to go on walks with you, run, play and get regular aerobic exercise, she can end up with any number of debilitating conditions affecting her bones, joints, muscles and internal organs.
Your pet should get an absolute minimum of 20 minutes of sustained, heart-thumping exercise three times a week. Thirty minutes is better than 20 — six or seven days a week is better than three.
Some pet owners, dog parents in particular, assume lots of weekend activity will make up for their pup’s sedentary habits Monday through Friday.
The fact is you can actually create injury to your dog with a “weekend warrior” approach that encourages your pet to go from zero to sixty on Saturdays and Sundays only. If your dog’s body isn’t well conditioned, a sudden burst of activity can create the type of injuries that lead to long-term joint damage. Consistent, daily physical movement is much safer for your pup than trying to cram it all into weekends only.
Your cat needs exercise too, for both his physical and mental well-being. Getting a kitty physically active can be challenge, so prepare to get creative. We use a laser pointer at my house to encourage our kitties to exercise.
Most indoor cats will also make good use of climbing trees, scratching posts, hiding spots, elevated rest areas, and toys that encourage natural behaviors like stalking and hunting.
No matter the age of your pet, exercise is important. Even senior and geriatric cats and dogs need regular physical activity, just not at the same intensity as younger pets.
More Suggestions to Prevent or Manage Arthritis in Your Pet
There are many things you can do to help prevent debilitating arthritis in your pet or to vastly improve the quality of life of an arthritic dog or cat. Among them:
- If your dog or cat gets injured, take him to a pet chiropractor. Chiropractic treatments can be an effective, affordable way to realign your pet’s spine so that he will not develop a compensating injury along with his primary injury.
- Give your pet massages to alleviate inflammation of damaged tissues and prevent further injury through compensation. Giving your dog or cat regular massages is also a great way to increase the bond between you.
- Stretching your pet is another way to increase the health and mobility of his joints, tendons and ligaments.
- Low-level laser therapy is used to improve wound healing, reduce post-trauma swelling, and facilitate long lasting pain relief by stimulating the release of your dog’s own pain killing chemicals like endorphins.
- Acupuncture can be tremendously beneficial for both cats and dogs with degenerative joint disease.
- Aquatic therapy, also known as hydrotherapy, uses an underwater treadmill to take pressure off your dog’s injured or painful joints. Water therapy also improves your pet’s cardiovascular health, muscle strength and range of motion. Swimming uses natural canine motions to improve mobility.
- Adding certain supplements to your pet’s diet can provide the raw materials for cartilage repair and maintenance, among them:
- Glucosamine sulfate with MSM
- Homeopathic Rhus Tox
- Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)
- Work with your holistic veterinarian to determine how to best treat the inflammation and pain caused by your pet’s arthritis, as well as how to nourish remaining cartilage.
- Also ask your vet about Adequan injections, which can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis.
If your dog’s or cat’s arthritis is so progressed she must take medications to help alleviate pain and inflammation, I recommend you work with a holistic vet to determine what alternative treatments might also be of benefit. Often when an integrative approach is taken to managing an animal’s arthritis, safe supplements and therapies can reduce or replace the need for potentially toxic drugs.
There are no supplements or pills that help with range of motion, so I want to emphasize that massage, stretching and appropriate exercise play an enormous role in your arthritic pet’s comfort and quality of life.