Arthritis is a familiar term—but do pets experience the same aches and pains as their two-legged guardians? How can you tell if your pet has arthritis? And, can anything be done to help them? 

Learn the answers to these questions and more in this Town & Country Animal Hospital guide to arthritis in pets. 

Arthritis causes in pets

Arthritis is a chronic and degenerative condition that affects pets in one or more joints, including the hips, stifles (i.e., knees), elbows, spine, carpi (i.e., wrists), and tarsi (i.e., ankles). In a healthy joint, smooth cartilage covers each bone end, which is continuously bathed in nutrient-rich joint fluid and lubricated for effortless movement. Arthritic inflammation eats away the shock-absorbing joint cartilage and reduces joint fluid production, and over time, the body lays down bone—an inferior and uneven cartilage replacement—that causes painful, grinding movements. To avoid discomfort, pets and people often restrict their movements (e.g., take shorter steps), leading to further stiffness and limited mobility.

Arthritis onset can be influenced by various factors, including:

  • Obesity
  • Physical structure or conformation
  • Developmental issues (e.g., hip or elbow dysplasia, luxating patellas)
  • Age
  • Trauma
  • Chronic strain or injury (e.g., athletic or working dogs)
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Lyme disease
  • Orthopedic surgery

Arthritis signs in pets

Dogs and cats can’t tell us where they hurt—or can they? Although pets instinctively hide visible pain and weakness—a survival mechanism once used to protect wild dogs and cats from larger predators—observing your pet’s behavior can provide valuable clues about their internal state.

Expected signs, such as limping or vocalizing, are generally reserved for severe and dire pain, but these subtle changes act as early warning signs:

  • Slow-motion movements
  • Stiffness when rising
  • Reluctance to jump up or down
  • Reluctance to use stairs
  • Weight gain
  • Exercise intolerance (e.g., sitting or lying down on walks, leaving the area during play)
  • Reduced grooming 
  • Increased sleeping
  • Heat-seeking
  • Self-isolation (i.e., not seeking attention or interacting with family)
  • Personality change (e.g., irritability, anxiety, depression, or shyness)
  • Abnormal posture (e.g., arched back or leaning to one side)
  • Shuffling or bunny-hopping gait

Diagnosing pet arthritis

If your pet’s veterinarian suspects arthritis, they will observe your pet’s natural posture and gait, and then perform a complete physical assessment, including joint palpation and range-of-motion, looking for pain or restriction. Depending on the exam findings, additional diagnostic testing, such as X-ray imaging or blood work, may be necessary to stage disease severity and rule out causes such as orthopedic injury, or immune-mediated or tick-borne disease.

Ease the ache—help for arthritic pets

Arthritis cannot be cured or its damage reversed, but your pet’s life need not be limited. Multimodal treatment plans can relieve arthritis pain by reducing joint inflammation, which promotes increased pet movement, which in turn halts muscle atrophy, improves emotional health, maintains flexibility, and helps preserve key fitness skills, such as balance and coordination.

Arthritis treatments will vary throughout the pet’s aging process. Your veterinarian will periodically modify or adjust your pet’s treatment protocol to meet their individual needs with treatment tools that include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) — NSAIDs work by blocking prostaglandins, substances in the body that influence pain and inflammation. However, NSAIDs also prevent healthy prostaglandin functions, such as protecting the stomach and intestinal lining, and maintaining blood flow to the kidneys.
  • Cartilage protectants — Injectable disease-modifying medications (i.e., DMOAs) such as Adequan can be helpful for preserving—but not rebuilding—cartilage in dogs.
  • Nutritional therapy — Veterinary joint diets support mobility with high omega-3, glucosamine, and chondroitin levels, as well as a healthy protein-to-fat ratio.
  • Weight loss or maintenance — Obesity compounds arthritis joint pain and causes chronic internal inflammation. A healthy weight enhances your pet’s quality of life.
  • Joint supplements — Veterinary-approved supplements can promote cartilage production and decrease inflammatory processes. We recommend omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamine-based products that contain methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and avocado unsaponifiables (ASU).
  • Pain-relieving therapies — Non-pharmaceutical therapies, such as laser therapy, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), massage, veterinary rehabilitation, and heat and cold packs, can help keep arthritic pets comfortable. 
  • Low-impact exercise — Once your pet’s pain is managed, encourage regular exercise that is safe and appropriate for your pet. Low-impact options include leash walks, gentle toy play, underwater treadmill therapy, and supported swimming.
  • LIfestyle modifications — Help your arthritic pet maintain their independence by installing ramps or pet stairs around the home and covering slick floors with non-slip rugs or mats. Ensure your cat has access to a litter box and water on every floor to minimize unnecessary travel and stress.

Promoting joint health throughout your pet’s life

Arthritis isn’t entirely preventable, but you can decrease disease severity with conscious decisions to protect your pet’s joint health, including:

  • Keep your pet lean Lean pets experience fewer hip dysplasia signs, with later onset and less severe incidence of arthritis.
  • Encourage regular and appropriate physical activity — Avoid repetitive or concussive activities, such as long fetch games, jumping or diving for a ball or disc, and prolonged exercise on concrete or asphalt.
  • Visit the veterinarian at least once per year — Annual wellness exams allow your veterinarian to detect subtle changes in your pet’s mobility and recommend early intervention.

We share a lot in common with our pets and, sadly, this includes arthritis. Don’t let your pet’s life be limited by chronic pain—contact Town & Country Animal Hospital to schedule an appointment, and let us explore treatment options for your furry friend.