Osteoarthritis, also known as arthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a condition that refers to the degradation of the cartilage in a joint. Cartilage is the protective layer that covers all the bones in a joint, and keeps things moving softly and comfortably. Unfortunately, arthritis is a common and painful disease in domestic dogs and cats that most often affects the hip, knee, and elbow joints, along with the spine. An estimated 15 million dogs are presented each year for signs such as joint pain, stiffness, or sensitive legs, and many are diagnosed with osteoarthritis. In addition, an estimated 90% of older cats suffer from some form of degenerative joint disease. 

What causes arthritis in pets?

Often, many factors combined lead to development of arthritis, including, but not limited to:

  • Age — As our pets age, many body parts begin to degenerate, including the soft, articular cartilage. Without a cartilage cushion, the joint bones begin rubbing against each other, causing inflammation and pain.

  • Breed — Arthritis can occur in virtually any dog or cat, but large-breed dogs tend to be more prone to the disease. A genetic inheritance or simply the physicality of larger-breed dogs could explain this relationship. Some commonly affected breeds include the Labrador retriever, golden retriever, Newfoundland, rottweiler, and German shepherd.

  • Obesity — Excess weight puts additional stress on joints and cartilages, which cause or exacerbate osteoarthritis.

  • Genetic defects — Inherited diseases, such as hip and elbow dysplasia, put pets at risk for developing arthritis. When a joint is dysplastic, the bones in the joint do not align properly, leading to dislocation or friction between bones.

  • Underlying disease or previous trauma — Injuries such as joint dislocation or fractures can lead to abnormal healing and eventual arthritis. Rarely, an infection inside the joint could cause arthritis. 

What are the signs of arthritis in pets?

Most pets are fairly good at masking pain so as not to appear weak or vulnerable. Cats are especially good at this. Therefore, take extra precaution and monitor for more subtle signs that your pet may be in pain, such as:

  • Limping or limb-favoring
  • Slowing down or unwillingness to go on walks
  • Aversion to jumping on furniture or into the car
  • Reluctance to play with toys
  • Difficulty rising
  • Difficulty with stairs or slick floors
  • Splaying out

If you notice any of these signs in your pet, schedule an appointment with us for an examination. 

How is arthritis diagnosed?

Arthritis diagnosis requires a comprehensive history, physical exam, and X-rays or other imaging modality. Other tests, such as blood work or joint fluid analysis, may be recommended to rule out other diseases. Your veterinarian will ask questions related to your pet’s mobility and willingness to do activities. A full physical exam will be performed, focusing on your pet’s range of motion of her joints, body condition, and a gait assessment. The exam often helps localize where osteoarthritis may be present, while X-rays provide a view below the surface and can reveal conditions like dysplasia, swelling, or osteophyte formation. 

How is arthritis in pets treated? Is it preventable?

Other than inherited diseases—in which case you shouldn’t breed your pet—most cases of arthritis are not preventable. However, many therapies are available that may help slow the process and keep your pet comfortable. These therapies can include:

  • Medications — Most pets with osteoarthritis require some type of pain medication, most commonly a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

  • Nutraceuticals — These are dietary supplements that are not as heavily regulated as medications. Nutraceuticals that may be beneficial for the joints include glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane), and essential fatty acids.

  • Harnesses or orthotics — Keeping your pet comfortable with a properly fitting harness or other device may help her get around more easily. Your veterinarian can help you decide whether one of these is a good option for your pet.

  • Physical rehabilitation — Many pets with degenerative joint disease greatly benefit from rehabilitative exercises, underwater treadmill therapy, and other therapies such as laser therapy. Your veterinarian can recommend a facility that provides these services. 

Arthritis is a common and painful disease in pets. Don’t ignore the subtle signs that your pet may be in discomfort. Call us if you think your pet may be experiencing pain.