Does my pet have arthritis?
Arthritis is a really common condition in old age - and sadly, a lot of people don’t recognise it in their pets. What we perceive as “slowing down a bit” or “getting older” can, in fact, be a painful underlying disease - but one that can respond really well to modern therapies and medications.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis just means inflammation in a joint, and there are several types. Septic arthritis occurs when a joint becomes infected, usually after a bite or penetrating wound. Immune-mediated arthritis occurs when the animal’s own immune system starts to attack the joint - perhaps because of an infection (such as Lyme’s Disease) or as part of a wider immune condition.
However, by far the most common is Osteoarthritis, sometimes also called degenerative joint disease. This occurs due to wear and tear and is most common in older animals, or those with existing joint problems (such as hip or elbow dysplasia in dogs, or recovered road traffic accident victims in cats). In this condition, the cartilage (the “Teflon” non-stick coating in the joints) becomes eroded, resulting in the bones grinding together. This damage stimulates an inflammatory reaction, resulting in overproduction of thin joint fluid that is less capable of absorbing shocks and other forces, which then, in turn, makes the erosion worse. This is the type we’re going to be talking about in this blog.
What are the symptoms?
To some extent, it depends on your pet’s personality - the more friendly and outgoing they are, the more likely they are to exhibit signs of frank pain. However, many of the signs are very subtle. Symptoms often include:
- Reduced activity.
- Unwillingness to jump or climb.
- Difficulty rising after lying.
- Stiffness first thing in the morning, wearing off with gentle exercise.
- Severe stiffness or lethargy a day or so after strenuous exercise (usually dogs).
- Limping or bunny-hopping (mainly dogs, cats in more extreme cases).
- Reduced appetite and playfulness (all species, especially cats and rabbits).
- “Incontinence” as a result of being unable to squat or cock a leg properly, or (in cats) not being able to access a tall-sided litter tray.
- Swollen or painful joints that don’t seem to move comfortably as far as they used to.
- Increased “grumpiness” or irritability; perhaps even aggression (a common sign of pain in all species, especially cats and dogs).
If your pet is showing any of these signs, make an appointment to see one of our vets to get them checked out. Strictly speaking, arthritis can only be diagnosed following X-rays and other diagnostic tests to rule out other problems. However, in practice our vets are very experienced and don’t usually need to go down that (potentially expensive) route.
The next question, of course, is…
OK, your pet’s arthritic. What can be done about it?
Fortunately, there’s a HUGE range of things we can do that can help!
Firstly, of course, there’s adaptation - making everyday life easier for them. So, we often recommend:
- Frequent short walks for your dog, instead of one long one.
- Using ramps to help a dog get into the car, a cat get up onto their favourite sunning spot, or a rabbit get into their hutch.
- Use a low-sided litter tray for your cat.
- Make sure your pet has a really warm, snug, draught-proof bed to keep them warm at night (cold joints often seem to be more prone to stiffening up).
There are also dietary changes that can be really effective:
- Using nutraceuticals such as glucosamine or chondroitin. While the effectiveness of these is quite variable, some animals seem to do really well on them, and they act to help the body repair the daily damage to the cartilage.
- Weight loss - did you know that losing 1 body condition score point (in dogs and cats, or half a point in rabbits) is as effective at managing arthritis as a dose of a painkiller daily? So make an appointment for one of our nurse-led diet clinics!
Physical manipulations are often very important as well.
- Physio- or Hydrotherapy techniques are useful to help maintain muscle tone and balance as well as joint health.
- We especially recommend Galen Myotherapy, which is a massage-based technique that aims to loosen and relieve stiff muscles. Although the problem in arthritis is in the joints, any animal with pain will alter the way they walk and move to relieve that pain, and that causes tensions and stress in muscles that may be a long way away from the affected joint. We perform Myotherapy here in the practice, and it usually requires several hour-long sessions about a week apart with regular top-ups.
Of course, many (probably most) animals need some medication as well - usually as anti-inflammatory painkillers. These are very effective and safe, as long as you use them carefully as recommended; in most cases, they are MORE effective if given every day, rather than “as needed”, because the beneficial effect builds up over time.