The term ‘osteoarthritis’ (OA) is one with which we are all generally familiar. As such, it

might be assumed to be part and parcel of getting older for both people and pets. Although OA is common in cats and dogs, it isn’t something which should be ignored. It has been reported that up to 80% of dogs over the age of eight have arthritis. Moreover, 35% of dogs of all ages may suffer the condition. OA in younger dogs tends to stem from developmental problems which result in poor conformation, or joints which are ‘badly put together’. So, it isn’t a problem which is wholly reserved for the elderly. The good news is that there is much that can be done to help these pets live happier, more comfortable lives. There are even relatively minor life and home adjustments that owners can make, which have a major, positive impact on quality of life.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a disease affecting all of the structures within synovial joints, and it involves an inflammatory process. Heat, pain, and swelling result from a break-down of the protective layer at the end of bones, known as cartilage. The degradation of cartilage, which is usually well designed for coating and protecting the ends of bones, causes it to become rough in appearance, and its ability to support the smooth movement of the joint is reduced. The joint capsule can also become thickened and fibrous, which significantly impairs range of movement, and the bone and bone marrow itself can become inflamed and painful.

This is painful, but then the phenomenon of ‘wind up’ can occur as nerves relay messages between the joint and the brain. Over time, pain receptors fire in larger numbers, and the pet becomes increasingly sensitive to the pain they experience in their joints. Pets with painful joints tend to protect those joints by not using them effectively. As a result, muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding the joint can weaken and begin to waste away. It is common for problems to develop in other areas of the body which are put under stress, as the pet attempts to compensate. For example, the left forelimb might be put under extra

strain when OA exists in the right forelimb. And so, the disease can be considered a whole- body problem and treatment should be directed as such.

Signs of OA

The decline associated with OA can be a slow one, and it isn’t always obvious within the early stages. The following are some indicators that there could be a problem:

  • Excessive sleeping/resting
  • Limping
  • Excessive licking of affected areas
  • Swollen, hot joints
  • Difficulty standing
  • Exercising less
  • Changes to behaviour/personality

What is the treatment for OA?

Treatments for OA have come on leaps and bounds in recent times. It is true to say that there is no cure, however with dietary changes, physiotherapy, anti-inflammatories, painkillers, supplements and other new advancements in medications, there is something that be done to help all pets. Often, this disease can be well managed through a

combination of medications, therapies, and lifestyle changes, and we can help owners devise a multi-modal treatment plan tailored specifically to their pet’s needs.

‘Rugways’ and other home help tips 

Slow, steady, even-footed movements are best suited to the arthritic pet; slippery floors can be a nightmare for them. Lining slippery floors with ‘rugways’ (runways of rugs) can be really useful for pets who have lost muscle tone in their limbs, helping them to be more sure- footed. In turn, having the confidence to get about a bit more might help maintain or develop a bit of muscle. Creating pathways in this way to all their necessary and favourite spots is a great idea, including their sleeping area, food and water, their spot in front of the fire, the sofa, and the garden.

Feeding stations

Being mindful of where and how we feed our pets can be invaluable. OA in the forelimbs and neck or spine can make it a real struggle for pets to crouch down and access food on the floor. Raising bowls a little can save a great deal of discomfort and help a pet to keep enjoying dietary delights. Cats with OA are likely to struggle to leap up to feed on worktops, and jumping back down can exert terrible pressure on the joints as well. Floor level feeding stations are likely best for these guys. Keeping pets slim and providing supplements to support joint health can pay dividends for OA pets too. These things can be achieved through special diets, and we would recommend that owners of OA pets talk to us about the options.

Exercising pets with arthritis 

Once again, steady, predictable movements are your arthritic pet’s best friend. Often, gentle exercise is a useful tool in the bid to help these animals. However, toy throwing and retrieving, leaping, twisting and turning are not what their joints need. Talk to our vets on how much and what type of exercise to give your cat or dog, because it can not only help joints, but it can also be invaluable for mental wellbeing and keeping them trim and healthy too. For dogs, swimming is often very helpful as an impact-free form of exercise. It is best carried out in a calm, controlled manner, and with a physiotherapist.

Sleeping arrangements

Soft yet supportive bedding creates the perfect environment for an arthritic pet to slumber in comfort. We already know that they spend extra time snoozing, so it is imperative that their joints and muscles are nicely supported. High-sided beds keep out cold drafts which can be problematic for painful joints as well.

Cat specific points

Arthritic toes don’t love harsh cat litter. A lighter, smaller substrate is easier on the feet and for digging in. Enclosed or ‘lidded’ litter boxes can be troublesome for sore joints; however, they are workable, provided they are easy to access. Cat flaps can also be rough on an arthritic spine, lightweight versions may be better.

Although OA is sadly an irreversible condition, it is one where owners can make a huge

impact upon their pet’s life experience. We, as vets, are always happy to help create a holistic plan for the good of these patients, because after all, “teamwork makes the dream work”.