Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that occurs commonly in dogs and cats as they age and is characterized by abnormal wear on the joints, which causes the cartilage that cushions them to break down. As this happens, nerve endings are exposed, causing pain when the joint moves. The damage in the joint also induces an inflammatory response from the body and changes the structure of the bone. Remodeling of the bones leads to reduced flexibility. In dogs, the hips and knees are affected most often. Hip dysplasia and other developmental abnormalities are the typical causes, but poor conformation, excess weight, and orthopedic injuries also contribute to OA in dogs. In cats, the hips and lower spine are the most common sites affected. The cause is unknown, but nearly all cats over the age of ten will have some degree of arthritis.
The earlier we identify risk factors and signs of OA, the more successful we will be in preventing and alleviating pain. Recognizing signs of discomfort in our pets can be difficult. They don’t typically whine or cry with chronic pain and don’t always limp, so we have to observe their behavior. Pet parents often tell us that their companions are “slowing down” with age. What this may mean, though, is that they are less active because their joints are painful or feel unstable. Signs of OA in dogs may include difficulty standing up, hesitance to use stairs, inability to jump up, and decreased interest in walks and playtime. With cats, you may notice they no longer enjoy being picked up or petted, a decrease in grooming and resistance to being brushed, an inability to jump up onto high surfaces, and a decrease in social interaction. If your pet has any of these signs or has a history of an orthopedic injury or abnormality, you should discuss management strategies with your veterinarian.
The number one way to eliminate or reduce the signs associated with OA is to make sure your pet maintains a healthy weight. Being overweight not only increases stress on the joints, excess fat also produces substances that stimulate an inflammatory response within the body, which leads to more joint pain. Your veterinarian can determine your pet’s ideal weight and help develop a weight loss plan if needed. Exercise is another important component. Mild to moderate exercise helps control weight, keeps the joints flexible, and helps maintain muscle mass, which supports and stabilizes joints. There are also natural supplements that can aid in joint health. Omega 3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish oil, have natural anti-inflammatory properties. While studies are still inconclusive about the efficacy of joint supplements, anecdotal evidence suggests that many animals do respond positively to them. Those with glucosamine and MSM (such as Dasuquin or Glycoflex) appear to have the most benefit. Adequan is an injectable supplement that works directly in the joints to decrease the destruction of cartilage. There are also specially formulated therapeutic diets that contain multiple ingredients to aid in joint health.
If you feel your dog or cat may be suffering from OA, schedule a check-up with your veterinarian. He or she will likely recommend screening blood work to rule out any underlying health problems that may impact treatment. A management plan can then be developed using the above treatments and pain medications as needed. Osteoarthritis is a common problem we see in our furry friends, but with proper management, we can maintain a good quality of life for them.