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Arthritis in Senior Pets

Arthritis is a common issue in older pets—cats included—but pet owners often mistake changes for normal aging signs.

Dr. Felicity Moffatt
Arthritis in Senior Pets

Key takeaway

If your senior pet has slowed down, arthritis may be to blame, but a proper diagnosis and treatment can allow them to live an active and fulfilling life—instead of spending their last years watching from the sidelines. The following arthritis facts can help you recognize your pet’s signs, so you can address the problem, and they can enjoy a better quality of life.

A
s your pet’s muzzle grays, they may no longer join you for long walks, or jump up when you pull in the driveway.

Many pet owners assume their pet is slowing down simply as part of the aging process. However, while a less vigorous exercise routine is expected with age, significant behavior or activity changes can signal a medical problem. Arthritis is a common issue in older pets—cats included—but pet owners often mistake changes for normal aging signs.Arthritis in pets is more common than you may think. An estimated 20% of dogs older than 1 year have arthritis, with prevalence significantly increasing to nearly 80% for middle-aged and older dogs. Although arthritis has been historically considered a canine problem, recent studies show X-ray evidence that 90% of cats older than 12 years of age have arthritis. We now understand that cat arthritis signs are not as obvious, and cats tend to hide their pain, so cat owners—and veterinarians—may not notice.If your senior pet has slowed down, arthritis may be to blame, but a proper diagnosis and treatment can allow them to live an active and fulfilling life—instead of spending their last years watching from the sidelines. The following arthritis facts can help you recognize your pet’s signs, so you can address the problem, and they can enjoy a better quality of life.

What is arthritis in pets?

Arthritis, commonly referred to as osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD), causes inflammation that can affect any joint, although pets commonly develop arthritis in their hips, elbows, lower back, knees, and ankles (i.e., carpi or hocks). While early inflammation may cause only mild joint pain, progressive arthritis wears down joint cartilage and sometimes underlying bone, causing significant inflammation and pain.

Some arthritis causes, such as hip dysplasia, are genetically inherited, particularly in large-dog breeds like Labrador retrievers and German shepherds. However, any dog or cat can develop arthritis as they age. Other risk factors, such as obesity, abnormally fast bone growth in puppies, and joint injury, can predispose a pet to arthritis development.

How can I tell if my senior pet has arthritis?

Recognizing your pet’s pain is the first step toward helping them return to a more enjoyable life. In general, arthritis signs are more overt in dogs, and may include:

Dogs
  • Limping
  • Stiffness after resting or sleeping
  • Abnormal posture
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Hesitancy to jump onto furniture
  • Reluctance to go up or down stairs
  • Decreased interactions with family members
  • Irritability
  • Increased sleepingVocalizing
“Arthritis signs in cats tend to be more subtle, which explains why they are often missed by owners.”

Arthritis signs in cats tend to be more subtle, which explains why they are often missed by owners. Instead of watching for obvious limping, monitor your cat for behavior changes, such as:

Cats
  • Walking differently when going up and down stairs
  • Reluctance to jump onto furniture, or not clearing the jump, and then pulling themselves up with their front legs
  • Reluctance to jump off furniture, reaching down to the ground instead of leaping
  • Walking more slowly
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Irritability
  • Decreased interactions
  • Increased sleeping

During your senior pet’s semi-annual wellness exam, our veterinary team will ask about their activity level and behavior changes, to help determine if they could be experiencing arthritis-related pain.

How is arthritis diagnosed in senior pets?

If we suspect arthritis, our veterinarians will perform a thorough physical exam on your pet to identify any painful joints. Although we can often make a tentative arthritis diagnosis from a pet’s exam findings, history, and clinical signs, we need X-rays to make a definitive diagnosis. We may also require sedation to prevent pain as we gently position your pet for the images. Our veterinary professionals will evaluate your pet’s X-rays for arthritis-related changes, such as cartilage and bone deterioration, bone remodeling, and surrounding soft-tissue swelling. X-rays can also help determine the severity of your pet’s arthritis.

Can treatment help my senior pet’s arthritis?

Fortunately, a number of treatments are available for arthritic pets, including prescription anti-inflammatory and pain medications to help alleviate inflammation, swelling, and pain. Until recently, few anti-inflammatory medications were available for cats, but an increased awareness of feline arthritis has spurred the development of helpful new medications.

A number of adjunct therapies can work with these medications to keep your pet pain-free and active. Such treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Laser therapy
  • Therapeutic exercises
  • Underwater treadmill therapy

Can I prevent my pet from developing arthritis?

Although some arthritis causes, such as hip dysplasia, can be inherited, genetics make up only part of a pet’s risk profile, and you can help decrease your pet’s likelihood of developing arthritis in many ways, including:

  • Feeding your puppy a breed-appropriate diet — Large-breed puppies fed a diet high in calories and certain minerals can experience faster than normal bone growth, which can lead to hip dysplasia. Feeding a large-breed puppy diet can help regulate nutrient intake, and decrease hip dysplasia risk. This tip may not help your senior pet, but you can help by minimizing their arthritis development when they are younger.
  • Keeping your pet at a healthy weight — Only a few extra pounds can put a significant amount of stress on a pet’s joints, and worsen mild joint problems. Regulate your pet’s caloric intake to keep them fit and trim, and consult our veterinary team if your pet needs to lose weight.
  • Providing low-impact exercise — Exercise that causes repeated joint strain, such as running on pavement, can cause joint damage, especially in growing puppies. Stick to regular low-impact exercise, such as walking or swimming, to help keep your pet in shape.
  • Considering early supplementation — Some breeds are at increased risk of developing arthritis. Talk with your veterinarian about products that help to support healthy joint function, like CEVA Synovial Flex AdvancedTM.

Final Notes

Do you think your senior pet may have arthritis? With a Dr. Treat membership, your pet’s exams—in-hospital and virtual—are included, so finding out how to help them is easy. Additionally, genetic testing, which membership also includes, can help identify your dog’s likelihood of developing arthritis as they age. Sign up today to experience all the benefits a Dr. Treat membership provides your pet.

Written by:

Dr. Felicity Moffatt

Dr. Felicity Moffat is a Lead Veterinarian at Dr Treat. She also loves to write about veterinary care.

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