Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

I was fortunate to spend some time over the Christmas Holidays with my daughter and her family that includes Gus, their almost 15-year-old Brittany Spaniel family member. Gus, named after the Robert Duvall character in the television mini-series “Lonesome Dove”, became a member of my daughter’s family at the age of 10 weeks in March 2002 and has established himself as the ruler of the homestead. Gus has traveled as a partner with my son-in-law on dozens upon dozens of hunting, fishing, and vacation trips throughout those fifteen years. He has been ever present in each trip to the lake house or anyplace else that his masters decided to go, especially in the pickup truck. Until recently, Gus would jump into his position on the “shotgun seat” of the truck looking out the windshield to the activities that surrounded them. However, in the past year or two, Gus has had to rely on his masters to help boost him up into his established throne on the truck seat. Gus has developed arthritis in his hips, back, and hock joints and ruling his roost has become more of a chore for him to navigate. I feel so sorry for this proud, loving four-legged member of the family who cannot negotiate the vigor and playful antics of his past. Gus has felt the rigors of time that has robbed him of his youthful and spirited life that he and we all enjoyed very much. Gus has reached the ripe old age of 15 dog years which equates to approximately 83 years of age in human years. It just doesn’t seem fair!

Arthritis is a disorder of the joints marked by inflammation, degeneration of tissues, metabolic derangement of the connective tissues exhibiting similar symptoms in both humans and pets. Undiagnosed or untreated, arthritis can cause irreversible joint damage leading to pain, swelling, and restrictions in mobility. Osteoarthritis, sometimes called degenerative joint disease or degenerative arthritis, is a term usually attached to older animals characterized by degeneration of the articular cartilage, hypertrophy of bone and changes to the synovial membranes. These conditions are accompanied by pain, stiffness and swelling, particularly after prolonged activity. Arthritis is a common finding in older dogs and cats. A dog with arthritis may begin to show irritation when you touch or pet them, especially if you touch the arthritic joint. Dogs may sometimes become aggressive and even bite at the person touching them in these instances. Just like dogs and people, cats commonly develop osteoarthritis as they age. It is best to discover these signs of arthritis in cats early so you can alleviate this pain before more damage is done. Cats with arthritis have difficulty grooming themselves, so unkempt fur in hard to reach places can be indicative of arthritis in cats. If you notice these behaviors in your pets, take them to your veterinarian for a diagnosis. Veterinarians have many pharmaceuticals and supplements available to treat the symptoms of arthritis and alleviate pain.

Arthritis is likely more common in pets than currently reported. Signs can be hard to distinguish from those of other diseases. Pets are good at hiding discomfort, especially cats, and often the signs of arthritis are mistakenly dismissed as normal signs of aging. This tendency to hide pain and discomfort probably comes from the ancestral desire to hide issues from predators who may feel more inclined to attack the infirmed rather than a healthy individual. The onset of signs of arthritis may be discreet and progress very slowly; therefore, many owners miss the signs of decreased mobility and activity levels allowing the pet to suffer quietly for months or even years. Unfortunately, this problem is becoming more widespread in our family pets. According to a 2015 study done by the Banfield Pet Hospitals diagnosed joint discomfort has increased 38% in dogs since 2007. This may be due to several factors; however, one constant damaging factor is overweight and/or obese pets. In a 2014 Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) study, it was determined that 52.6% of dogs and 57.6% of cats are overweight or obese.

Signs that your pet is suffering from joint disease may include difficulty sitting or standing; refusal to run, jump or climb stairs; favoring one limb over the others; swelling and stiffness of joints; decreased range of motion; disinterest in playful activities or even walking to go to the bathroom and weight gain due to lack of activity. The signs of arthritis in cats can be reluctance to jump, decreased grooming, urinating outside the litter box, hiding, and avoiding human contact. As stated earlier, these signs may not all be evident and may progress very slowly, even years before becoming noticeable to the untrained eye. So, as your pet ages be sure to observe it closely to recognize even the faintest of symptoms so you can seek out veterinary help in minimizing the damage done to the joints and muscles that undergo changes. Annual visits to your veterinarian are extremely important in recognizing and maintaining joint health.

Veterinarians have at their disposal several options for treating arthritis in dogs and cats. However, the same medications to treat dogs are not always good for cats, so you need a licensed professional to make these choices depending upon the extent of arthritis in the joints and how those symptoms are effecting the life of your pet. The class of medications most commonly used to treat arthritis in dogs are called NSAID’s or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. There are several NSAID’s available for use by your veterinarian that work well. Among the most used is Rimadyl which has been around for the last two decades or so. It is also sold under its generic name, Carprofen. Side effects of Rimadyl include loss of appetite, unwillingness to drink water, excessive urination and sometimes blood in the urine, diarrhea, vomiting, redness and itchy skin and change in temperament. Other NSAID’s include aspirin, ibuprofen (Tylenol), naproxen (Aleve) and many, many more. In both dogs and cats long term use of NSAID’s can bring complicating factors in other body systems such as the digestive system, kidneys, liver, and heart. Contact your veterinarian if your pet is being administered a NSAID and has bloody, black, or tarry stools as these symptoms could indicate damage to the stomach or intestines which could be dangerous. These medications in cats can cause side effects that are serious and generally precludes their use long term. Before giving your pet any prescription or over-the-counter medications be sure to check with your veterinarian, as the use of NSAID’s should be monitored closely by your professional veterinary team.

Other treatment products and processes for treating arthritis in pets include corticosteroids, such as Prednisone, Prednisolone, and Fludrocortisone. There is a wide variety of other alternate therapeutic methods of treating arthritis in pets. Physical therapy, including both table-top stretching and underwater treadmill exercises, is many times an effective alternative to pharmaceutical treatment. Sometimes, physical therapy in conjunction with the medications is utilized and effective. It may be necessary, due to the potential side effects of long-term medication therapy, that a treatment plan that begins with NSAID’s for a shorter period to help relieve the pain, is followed by a longer-term physical therapy treatment routine. Also, acupuncture and chiropractic modalities of treatment are sometimes used to help relieve the pain and motion restrictions of arthritis in pets. In recent years, with the advent of medical marijuana being rendered legal in several states, I am told some are using cannabidiol or CBD oil to help relieve the pain of arthritis.

It has been determined that one in five dogs will show symptoms of arthritis at some time in their life. It is normal for dogs and cats to slow down as they age; however, when they begin to have difficulty walking or lowering their heads to eat, they may be exhibiting signs of arthritis. This disease can be painful and sometimes debilitating, but it can usually be managed. Veterinarians can prescribe pain killers or anti-inflammatory medications to help ease our pets’ discomfort. There are some risks associated with long-term use of these medications so pet owners should talk to their veterinarians to make sure they understand how to administer the medications and what problems to look for in managing the condition. Pet owners should never give over-the-counter human arthritis or pain medications to their pet for arthritis or any other condition. The risks of untoward side effects are too great if the medications are toxic to the pet or conflict with other medications, as many medications reserved for humans are blatantly toxic to dogs and cats.

Along with a pain management protocol from your veterinarian, pet owners can help make their pets more comfortable with soft bedding, gentle play periods, massages and manually grooming areas that are hard for pets to reach. It also helps to build ramps that make it easier for pets to get up and down to and from high places. Finally, make a conscious attempt to provide proper nutrition and moderate exercise to reach the pet’s optimum weight. Overweight or obese dogs and cats exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis and make it much more difficult for them to live a healthy and normal life, especially in their senior years. I will attest to the fact that overweight conditions or obesity were at no time in his life a problem with Gus. He has weighed about 30 to 32 pounds since he was a puppy, so arthritis can and does effect dogs and cats of all ages, breeds, and inherited conditions. If you find any signs of arthritis in your pet, contact your veterinary professionals immediately. Your pets will appreciate your loving care and attention to their well-being.

Bruce W. Little, DVM