As your pet ages, they’ll likely develop arthritis, but young cats and dogs can also suffer from this degenerative joint condition. Although this progressive disease has no cure, identifying the problem, and beginning appropriate management measures early, can help keep your furry pal active, healthy, and happy. 

What is arthritis in pets?

Arthritis, which is also referred to as degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a progressively worsening joint inflammation caused by cartilage deterioration. In a healthy joint, cartilage acts as a cushion that allows the joint to move smoothly through its full range of motion. In pets with arthritis, this cartilage cushion breaks down because of age, injury, repetitive stress, or disease. As the joint loses its protective cushion, your pet will likely experience pain, inflammation, a decreased range of motion, and bone spur development. Although any joint can develop arthritis, problems are most commonly seen in the elbows, knees, hips, and lower spine.

Is my pet at risk for developing arthritis?

Any pet can develop arthritis, particularly as they age, but a few factors may predispose your pet to this condition. They include:

  • Obesity
  • Age
  • Repetitive stress from athletic activities (e.g., agility, flyball, diving, hunting)
  • Joint, ligament, and bone injuries
  • Hip or elbow dysplasia
  • Systemic infections that can affect joints (e.g., Lyme disease)
  • Poor nutrition
  • Genetics
  • Poor conformation

While cat breeds appear to develop arthritis at the same rate, the incidence is higher in large- and giant-breed dogs. The larger the pet, the more pressure is placed on the joints, leading to faster cartilage deterioration.

What are arthritis signs in pets?

Arthritis is often difficult to detect in the early stages, as most pets do not complain about minor discomfort. Signs appear only when the damaged joint causes the pet significant discomfort. Since your pet may not let you know they’re in pain, monitoring them for early signs of joint disease through regular wellness exams with your primary care veterinarian is critical. Arthritis signs in pets may include:

  • Stiffness
  • Lameness, or limping
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Lethargy
  • Trouble navigating stairs, or furniture
  • Reluctance to perform normal activities and exercise
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability 
  • Pain when petted or touched in certain spots (e.g., the lower back)
  • Difficulty posturing to urinate or defecate
  • Loss of muscle mass, particularly in the hind end

If your pet is displaying potential arthritis signs, schedule an appointment with your primary care veterinarian. They will perform a full physical examination, and assess your pet’s range of motion and pain level. They will likely recommend X-rays, to determine the extent of the joint damage, and to rule out other potential causes with similar signs. 

How is arthritis treated in pets?

Unfortunately, arthritis is a progressive joint disease that has no cure, but the condition can be managed, and its progression slowed, in numerous ways. Plus, with proper management from a young age, you may be able to prevent your four-legged friend from severe arthritis development. Arthritis management that provides the most pain relief typically entails several different methods combined, and may include the following:

  • Joint supplements — A joint supplement regimen begun early in life can help support cartilage and joint function for as long as possible, protecting joints from the inevitable wear and tear from daily activities. Joint supplements can improve mobility, reduce inflammation, and slow joint damage progression. When choosing a joint supplement for your pet, ensure the ingredient list contains glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussel, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), avocado soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs), hyaluronic acid, or omega-3 fatty acids. Your primary care veterinarian can recommend the best joint supplement to suit your pet’s needs.
  • Weight management — Keeping your pet at a healthy weight is perhaps the most important method of warding off arthritis. Those extra pounds not only create additional stress on overburdened joints, but fat itself is also an inflammatory substance, which contributes to total-body inflammation. Maintain your pet’s ideal weight through low-impact, daily exercise, and a proper diet, and check their body condition score regularly, to see if changes are needed. 
  • Pain medication — Pain control is a key component of arthritis management, particularly with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which not only reduce pain, but also decrease joint inflammation, making your pet more comfortable in multiple ways. 
  • Alternative therapies — Treatment modalities like laser therapy, hydrotherapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic care are a few alternative therapies that can help keep an arthritic pet comfortable and mobile.

Arthritis is a painful condition, but management with a multimodal treatment plan can be successful. Knowing what risk factors may predispose your pet to developing arthritis can help you begin a joint protection regimen early in life, and keep your furry pal happy, comfortable, and mobile for years to come.

Is your furry pal limping more than usual, or whining in pain? If so, contact our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center team to check whether your pet is suffering acute pain from their arthritis condition.