Our pets are living longer lives, due at least in part to better health care and nutrition. This means that we get more time with these companions who wag, purr, and otherwise burrow their way into our hearts and lives. With longer lives, however, come certain health concerns associated with age that have to be managed. My own dog, Pearl, is a vibrant scruffy 12-year-old terrier mix. Recently, I noticed that she was unwilling to jump into my arms, a favorite trick of hers, and was taking the stairs more slowly than she had in the past. When I examined her, I found that she had a condition that is very common in older pets. Pearl had signs of degenerative joint disease.
Degenerative joint disease, also known as osteoarthritis or commonly as just arthritis, is a progressive, degenerative disease of joints and can be either primary or secondary. Primary osteoarthritis occurs when cells in joint cartilage decrease the production of proteoglycan, a substance that helps lubricate and protect joint cartilage. This makes the cartilage lining joints more susceptible to wear and damage, resulting in inflammation. This inflammation releases factors that further damage joint cartilage resulting in a cycle that ultimately leads to joint damage and joint pain. Secondary osteoarthritis results from an underlying cause such as joint malalignment, previous joint injury, or anatomic irregularities that cause abnormal wear and stress on the joint. While primary arthritis usually affects many joints over time, secondary arthritis is often limited to a single joint.
Signs of degenerative joint disease can vary widely. In dogs, lameness is one of the most common signs. However, owners often note that their elderly pet seems to be “slowing down”, having difficulty rising, or they may find that their pet is less inclined to jump into the car or onto the sofa. Pets, especially dogs, may have difficulty walking or standing on smooth floors. Even though overt lameness is not as common a sign in cats as in dogs, owners may notice that their cats spend more time sedentary or resting, jump and play less, have difficulty grooming, or difficulty posturing to urinate and defecate in the litter box. Pets may show signs of pain or discomfort when being patted on the back if there is osteoarthritis in the spine or hips. Diagnosis of osteoarthritis is most often made on physical examination by your veterinarian and by radiographs, or x-rays, of affected joints.
There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but in most pets, the condition can be managed, resulting in a good quality of life. One of the most important aspects of managing osteoarthritis is maintaining a healthy, lean weight. Excess weight and obesity can severely aggravate existing arthritic conditions as the affected joints are under more stress. This can make it very difficult to make the animal comfortable and pain free. Managing the pet’s diet and keeping them active are good ways to keep their weight under control. In addition to weight management, low impact exercise such as walking and swimming are also very beneficial for pets with osteoarthritis. Daily exercise helps keep joints lubricated and helps to maintain muscle mass.
In many cases, supplementation with glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, or polysulfated glycosaminoglycans either through injections or daily oral supplements can help to protect cartilage and may have anti-inflammatory effects. Many animals improve with these supplements, at least early in the course of osteoarthritis. If osteoarthritis is advanced or if the pet’s pain is significant, these supplements will likely not be sufficient on their own to give good quality of life.
If your pet’s condition is quite painful or osteoarthritis is advanced, your veterinarian may recommend prescription medications in order to keep your pet happy and comfortable. The mainstay of drug therapy for osteoarthritis are anti-inflammatory drugs which provide pain control and help minimize inflammation occurring in the joints. When using some of these medications long term, periodic bloodwork will be important to make sure that your pet is able to continue taking the medication and check for any negative side effects that might occur. Your veterinarian may also prescribe additional medications for pain control if your pet cannot be made comfortable with anti-inflammatory medications alone.
Therapies such as acupuncture, laser therapy, and other alternative treatments are also gaining ground in the management of osteoarthritis as some pets find relief using these methods. Physical therapy can help to improve muscle mass and joint mobility. In other cases in which medical therapy is not providing good quality of life, surgeries such as joint replacements or arthrodesis, in which a joint is fused in position, may provide relief to pets suffering from osteoarthritis. For any pet suffering from osteoarthritis, having thick bedding for them to lie down on and placing area rugs on smooth floors may help to ease joint pain and make navigation of your home easier.
Treatment for osteoarthritis is many faceted and varies from pet to pet. For my Pearl, recognizing her problem and starting treatment for osteoarthritis has made a huge difference in her enjoyment of life. If you’re concerned that your pet may be suffering from osteoarthritis, please talk to your veterinarian. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, your veterinarian can help you devise a plan to keep your companion as comfortable as possible so that you can enjoy many happy days together!