Arthritis is a common ailment in dogs and cats that can be a source of chronic pain and negatively impact their quality of life. However, pets are experts at hiding their weaknesses, and arthritis often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Our team at Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital would like to help you recognize arthritic signs in your pet, so you can take steps to alleviate their pain.

Arthritis basics in pets

When your pet’s joints are healthy, cartilage acts as a cushion that allows the joint to move smoothly and comfortably through the full range of motion. If age, injury, or infection causes the cartilage to deteriorate, the condition is known as arthritis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD). As the protective cushion is lost, pain, inflammation, decreased range of motion, and bone spur development occurs. Any joint in your pet’s body can be affected, but arthritis most commonly affects the limbs and lower spine. Any pet can develop arthritis, especially as they age, but certain factors can increase your pet’s risk for this condition.

  • Obesity — Excess weight causes pressure on your pet’s joints, putting them at higher risk for cartilage degeneration.
  • Congenital abnormalities — Pets affected by conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia are predisposed to arthritis.
  • Injuries — Pets who sustain an injury, such as a fracture, dislocation, or ligament tear, may be more likely to develop arthritis where the injury occurred.
  • Large- or giant-breed dogs — Breeds such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers are at increased risk.

Recognizing arthritis in pets

In the early stages, arthritis can be difficult to detect, and your pet’s issue may not become apparent until the affected joint is significantly damaged. Signs to look for in dogs include:

  • Lameness — Your dog may exhibit a subtle or pronounced limp, or have stiffness or difficulty getting up.
  • Lethargy — Your dog may be less active and reluctant to run, jump, or play.
  • Weight gain — Your dog’s more sedentary lifestyle may lead to weight gain.
  • Behavior change — Your dog may be more subdued, or more irritable.
  • Pain — Your dog may exhibit pain when you pick them up or pet them.
  • Muscle mass loss — Your dog may start to lose muscling over their limbs and spine.
  • Difficulty posturing to urinate or defecate — Painful joints may make posturing to urinate or defecate difficult for your dog.

Signs to look for in cats include:

  • Difficulty jumping — Your cat may have difficulty jumping to a favorite high resting area.
  • Stiffness — Cats rarely limp, but they may be stiff after lying down.
  • Navigating stairs — Your cat may be reluctant or unable to navigate stairs.
  • Sleep habits — Your cat may sleep more frequently.
  • Unkempt hair coat — Your cat may be unable to appropriately groom themselves, leading to a dull or matted hair coat.
  • Longer claws — Your cat’s inactivity may mean they do not wear down their claws, leading to longer claw growth.
  • Behavior change — Your cat may be more subdued, or more irritable.
  • Inappropriate elimination — Your cat may eliminate outside their litter box, if discomfort prevents them from getting over the box’s ledge.

Diagnosing arthritis in pets

Our veterinary professionals will perform a thorough exam, analyzing your pet’s gait, and palpating their joints to look for swelling or sensitivity. Blood tests may be ordered to rule out other health issues or illnesses that could be affecting your pet’s joints. If arthritis is suspected, X-rays will be taken to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of your pet’s condition.

Treating arthritis in pets

Multiple arthritis treatments can be employed to help alleviate your pet’s discomfort.

  • Weight management — If your pet is overweight, a weight loss program will be recommended, to help them lose the excess weight putting pressure on their joints. If your pet is at a healthy weight, you must maintain this weight.
  • Environmental support — If your pet is arthritic, you can take steps to ensure your home is as comfortable for them as possible, including: 
    • Providing soft bedding, so they can comfortably rest their painful joints
    • Raising their food and water bowls, to alleviate any neck strain
    • Providing ramps to their favorite places, such as the couch or bed
    • Changing your cat’s litter box to one that has lower sides
    • Grooming them regularly, since their discomfort may prevent them from grooming themselves appropriately
  • Joint supplements — Many joint supplements are available that can help improve function, reduce inflammation, and slow joint damage progression. Our veterinary professionals will recommend the best supplement for your pet.
  • Pain medications — Medications to control pain and inflammation, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be prescribed. However, these medications have significant side effects, and your pet’s liver and kidney values will need regular monitoring.
  • Physical therapy — Daily exercise has been shown to help mobility in arthritic pets.
  • Surgery — Depending on the joint involved, the severity of your pet’s condition, and their response to medical management, surgery may be recommended, to remove damaged tissue from the joint, or replace the joint entirely.

Recognizing arthritis in the early stages can help slow the condition’s progression and improve your pet’s quality of life. If you are concerned your pet is exhibiting arthritis signs, contact our team at Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital, so we can get them up and running again.