The Ultimate Guide to Joint Health in Pets

Joints are a complex organization of muscle, tendons, joint capsules, cartilage, and joint fluid which work in concert to keep us moving. They help our fur-kids every time they move – when they play, jump, kick, and scratch. Unfortunately, like us, our pets can get joint problems too. They can get this from getting injured, an infection, their own body attacking them like rheumatoid arthritis or, most commonly, osteoarthritis.

As the most common condition is osteoarthritis, we’ll explore that in this article.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a chronic change in the joint including loss of joint cartilage, decreased joint fluid, swelling of the joint, and eventual poor healing of the joint resulting in decreased range of motion and chronic pain.

How does osteoarthritis occur?

There’s not one reason. It can be from conditions present at birth such as joint instabilities like hip dysplasia or luxating patellas (unstable kneecaps). Trauma like a broken bone affecting the joint space or tears of joint ligaments can set the stage for chronic changes of arthritis. Also, long-term wear and tear can cause it – think jumping. Unfortunately, osteoarthritis –once it starts –is unstoppable and irreversible.

How often does this really occur?

In dogs, 20 percent of adult dogs have osteoarthritis and up to 80 percent of senior dogs have osteoarthritis. One study cites that up to 90 percent of older cats can have X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis. Wow!

What does it look like in our fur-kids?

Many dogs are what I call, “stoic.” They’re normally not complainers or whine about joint pain unless really pushed. They can show signs that some people think is just old age, but are really signs that they are in joint pain.

  • Decreased ability to walk up stairs
  • Decreased jumping up into the bed, car, or truck
  • Walking with shortened strides (like they’re keeping their legs right under them)
  • Increased sleeping
  • Liking sleeping on warm surfaces or next to a warm spot (most kitties)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Decreased playing
  • Unable to play as well (can’t run as far or for as long)
  • Loss of potty training

Cats are subtle creatures prone to napping hours on end (what a life!). We may not see right away how (s)he is hurting. Some of the signs are tough to distinguish from what we think may be old age changes. They may have some of, but not necessarily all of, these signs:

  • Not eating as much
  • Decreased playing
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Peeing or pooping outside of the litter box
  • Difficulty climbing stairs
  • Decreased grooming
  • Hair loss over the painful joint
  • More sleeping

What may really ring a bell is using a chair to get off a table, hesitancy to climb up stairs, not quite making it jumping up on a couch or bed, pulling themselves up to the bed or couch, or hesitancy to jump off a table. Your veterinarian may notice on examination decreased muscle mass of the leg that has joint pain, a painful back, decreased range of motion of the joint, increased joint size, or X-ray evidence of joint disease.

What works to help joints and pain from osteoarthritis?

The simplest steps involve weight loss and exercise. Decreasing weight can actually increase your fur-kid’s mobility dramatically. Exercise should be low impact (no sky-diving kitties!) and not too hard for your pet to do. Walks and swimming are great for dogs. Kitties may need a bit of help with slow laser pointer work or ball chases. Some pets may need physical therapy as well, depending on the extent of their joint disease.

Joints can also be helped like our joints –with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, omega 3 fatty acids, glycocaminoglycan therapy, and pain medication like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.

Since many of our fur-kids are older by the time we see the osteoarthritis, they can have other diseases at the same time which can influence which treatment they get. There are safe pet-labeled glucosamine and chondroitin and omega 3 fatty acid products available that can help.

Ask your veterinarian if you feel like your pet needs pain medication. Don’t give your medication as many human medications can be toxic to our pets. Also, talking with your veterinarian is important if anything you’re doing at home isn’t working.

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