As the most common form of arthritis in pets, osteoarthritis (OA) affects 25% of dogs. OA is often used interchangeably with arthritis, but it’s more complex than arthritis, which is simple joint inflammation. With OA, the cartilage in one or more joints slowly degenerates, accompanied by thickening and overgrowth of nearby bone. As the protective cartilage that surrounds the ends of the joint bones deteriorates, the increased instability and inflammation in the diseased joint causes new bone formation. The bone continues to remodel as the disease progresses, and the surrounding soft tissue, such as muscles and ligaments, also changes. In contrast to an acute injury, like a broken bone, low-level inflammation is always present, contributing to further joint disease and pain.

In dogs, OA often affects the hips, elbows, and knees. It is usually secondary to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and cranial cruciate ligament injuries. In cats, OA occurs as a primary disease that affects their joints on both sides, most commonly hips and elbows.  

What are the signs of osteoarthritis in pets?

You may believe your pet is getting old and slowing down, when she may be suffering as her OA progresses. Depending on the joint affected and the disease severity, you may notice any of the following signs:  

  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Stiffness
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Pain on manipulation of affected joints
  • Difficulty getting up, lying down, or using stairs
  • Lameness
  • Decreased activity
  • Changes in gait
  • Decreased jump height or refusing to jump
  • Limited grooming
  • Behavioral changes, such as less tolerance for grooming or petting, hiding, less interaction with the family, snapping when touched

How is osteoarthritis in pets diagnosed?

Cats are masters at hiding illness and pain, so it may be difficult to pick up on signs of their discomfort. When their innate ability to disguise pain is compounded with a trip to the veterinary clinic that is outside their comfort zone, an accurate OA diagnosis in cats can be a challenge. We often rely on a detailed history of your cat’s behavior at home, such as activity level changes or reluctance to jump. Cats with OA also experience litter box issues as they age and begin to view their litter box negatively, since it’s painful to climb in and out of the box or posture to eliminate.

OA diagnosis in dogs is easier because we can assess their gait and elicit pain by palpating their arthritic joints. We can often identify thickened joint capsules, joint fluid accumulation, and muscle wasting in dogs suffering from OA.

Diagnostic imaging benefits both cats and dogs by pinpointing the bony changes in the joints and changes in the surrounding soft tissue. We frequently take X-rays to help identify affected hips or knees, or a painful area in the vertebral column. We also use computed tomography (CT), which is excellent for picking up bony changes within complex joints, such as elbows, wrists, or ankles, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify soft-tissue changes in ligaments and menisci.

How are osteoarthritic pets treated?

OA is a progressive disease and must be caught early to slow it down. We have a full arsenal of tools to help manage this painful condition, and may recommend any of the following methods to alleviate your pet’s discomfort:

  • Pain medication — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and opioids are effective in reducing OA pain.
  • Joint supplements — Glucosamine, chondroitin, ASU, and many other supplements may protect your pet’s existing joint cartilage and reduce inflammation and pain. We can help you choose the best option for your pet.
  • Joint injections — Platelet-rich plasma, hyaluronic acid, or corticosteroids injected directly into the affected joint may alleviate pain.
  • Surgical repair — Joint replacement surgery, cruciate repair, or stabilization of diseased joints may be options for your pet.
  • Weight control — Low-calorie foods are beneficial for overweight pets, and prescription foods are available in diet and joint-health formulations.
  • Environmental changes — Place ramps by beds and furniture, or to replace stairs. Invest in a heated, well-padded bed to help relieve joint pain. Cover slick floors with carpet runners. For cats, replace a standard litter box with a shallow tray that enables easier access.
  • Exercise regimen — Consider a low-impact exercise, such as swimming, instead of an intense game of fetch.
  • Holistic care — Acupuncture, chiropractic care, and laser therapy are excellent drug-free and surgery-free options for reducing inflammation and pain.

Most importantly, keep your pet at a healthy weight to help reduce her OA pain. More than half the pets in the U.S. are considered overweight or obese and at risk from the extra weight. In people, each additional pound over an ideal body weight adds three to five pounds of extra pressure to joints. It’s difficult to equate that to pets because of the difference in breed sizes and species, but the additional pressure that extra weight must put on pets’ joints is clear.

Do you think your older pet is slowing down? Her difficulty rising in the morning and slow pace when walking may indicate OA. Schedule an appointment at our hospital to let us relieve your four-legged friend’s pain.