Osteoarthritis in Dogs & Cats

Kenton Taylor, D.V.M.

Inflammation within the joints, osteoarthritis, is common in dogs and cats with
about 20% of dogs suffering the effects and 64% of cats, 12 years or older having
changes on x-rays consistent with osteoarthritis.  It is a slowly evolving disease with
development of joint pain, stiffness and limitation of motion.  The most common
cause is abnormal stresses on normal cartilage.  Even tiny imperfections in the joints
can lead to mechanical breakdowns and the resultant inflammation.  The progression
of the disease can be affected by body weight, amount of exercise & genetic
influences.

The first symptom in dogs is loss of normal performance followed by stiffness after
rest that usually lasts only a few minutes.  Progressive disease leads to lameness of
a sudden or slow development.  In some dogs, there maybe behavioral effects of joint
discomfort including nervousness, aggression, depression and loss of appetite.  In
cats, the first symptoms may include reluctance or refusal to jump up onto surfaces
usually frequented, not wanting to go up/down stairs and reluctance to be held or
petted, alteration in grooming and seeking seclusion.

There is no cure for osteoarthrosis but rather the progressive condition is “managed.”  
In dogs, the therapy goals are influenced by the severity of the symptoms, the
intended activity, age and size and any concurrent disease or drug therapy that may
interfere with the use of anti-inflammatory drugs.

The most important treatment in overweight pets is weight loss.  Obese dogs and
cats can become free of symptoms once they have achieved ideal body weight or be
able to be managed with lower dosage of pain relieving and anti-inflammatory
medication.

Moderate exercise that avoids joint jarring activities like ball chasing and Frisbee play
but includes leash walking and swimming reduces inflammation and encourages
good muscle strength to stabilize joints.  For cats, distributing food and water bowls
throughout the house encourages exercise.

The mainstay of medical treatment is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which
block the inflammatory effects of prostaglandins, the body’s pro-inflammatory
mediators.  Pain relieving medications are typically used also, especially if a non-
steroidal anti-inflammatory drug alone is not adequate.  Typically corticosteroids are
used when non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are ineffective or causing
unacceptable side-effects.  They can be given by mouth or injected into the joint.  For
cats, holding and stroking around the head releases neurotransmitters that can
improve its mood and its ability to cope with chronic pain.

Nutritional supplements alone are not effective but can provide additional benefits.  
Omega-3 fatty acids supplements can prevent inflammatory and cartilage
degradation processes.  Scientific support for the effectiveness of glucosamine and
chondroitin is insufficient but they may be helpful in some individuals.  Quality control
of these products is questionable - in one study 84% of the products did not meet
label claims.  While inexpensive versions are available it is recommended to use a
reputable product.  There is a potential benefit to use these products in a
prophylactic fashion such as dogs with hip or elbow developmental abnormalities to
prevent or slow progression of osteoarthrosis.

Surgical treatments are available including replacement hip, elbow and knee joints.  
For some patients, arthroscopy can be helpful.

For most dogs and cats, symptoms associated with osteoarthrosis can be relieved
with weight loss if needed, exercise in moderation and pharmaceuticals with
potentially some additional benefit from nutritional supplements.  Your veterinarian
can help with catching early signs of this disease and guiding you with preventative
treatment and therapies to delay progression of arthritis and if needed medications to
relieve the debilitating pain associated with osteoarthritis.

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