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Posted on 01-11-2017


The term "arthritis" simply means painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints, and quite often arthritis is more evident during the colder months.  

Arthritis is one of the most common ailments affecting middle aged to senior dogs and cats. It can be a source of chronic pain and negatively affect their quality of life. Also known as degenerative joint disease, arthritis occurs when a joint is unstable causing the bones to move abnormally within the joint. Cartilage lines the joints acting as a barrier between bones. Over time this abnormal movement erodes the cartilage and bone begins rubbing against bone creating chronic inflammation and pain.

Recognizing Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

The most obvious sign of arthritis is a limping dog or cat. However, there are numerous other subtle signs that may indicate your pet is uncomfortable. Often what people notice is that their older pet seems to be “slowing down.” Perhaps your dog doesn’t charge up the stairs like he used to or takes a bit longer to recover after a long day of playing. If your dog used to follow you around the house and now he just stays in one place this could also be a sign of mobility issues.

Since cats aren’t usually as active as dogs, their signs of arthritis may be revealed differently. Cats with arthritis may start urinating or defecating out of the litter box because it is too painful for them to jump into it. You may also notice that your cat is grooming excessively in one area, which could indicate focal arthritis pain. These are just a few examples. Bottom line: if you notice any changes in your pet’s behavior, talk with your veterinarian immediately.

Is My Pet Prone to Arthritis?

Large and giant breed dogs like Labrador retrievers and German Shepherds can have a genetic predisposition to develop joint disease in their hips and elbows.  Start your puppy off right by feeding a large breed puppy food specifically designed to make sure your pet receives the correct nutritional balance so his bones and joints develop at an appropriate rate. If growth occurs too quickly then the joints may form abnormally resulting in joint disease.

Ways to Prevent (and Treat) Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent arthritis from developing as well as to treat it once it has set in. The absolute best way to prevent arthritis in dogs and cats is to keep your pet at a healthy weight. This will reduce the stress that the body places on joints and help keep things moving like they should. If you notice that your dog or cat has some “extra padding” around the ribs or belly then you should speak with your veterinarian immediately to see if your pet is overweight. They will also be able to help you with a weight loss plan.

Therapeutic diets, found at your favorite pet food retailer, are another great option for pets with mobility issues. These diets can be specifically formulated to address many health issues, including arthritis. For example, therapeutic pet foods with Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids balanced in a specific ratio can help your pet by reducing inflammation and target pain pathways. When used properly under the supervision of a veterinarian, therapeutic diets given to arthritic pets may have them running, walking, and jumping in as little as a few weeks. Your veterinarian may also recommend a therapeutic diet with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, two commonly used nutritional supplements which support joint health by maintaining the cartilage and repairing any defects that might be present.

You may be tempted to supplement your pet’s current diet with fatty acids, glucosamine or chondroitin on your own, but be aware that it is difficult to get the proper balance with the diet. It will also add in unwanted calories which is undesirable when you are trying to keep your pet slim. The great thing about therapeutic diets specially formulated for arthritis is they have a lower overall calorie count and the additional calories from adding in the fatty acids have already been factored in. Therefore you have a much lower risk of overloading your pet with calories, which can lead to weight gain.

If the above methods don’t do the trick, then it may be time to discuss starting pain medication with your veterinarian. Joint disease should be addressed on multiple fronts in order to make your pet as comfortable as possible. But as the saying goes prevention is always the best medicine. Keep your pet slim and if you do notice some stiffness, limping or slowing down in your dog or cat, talk to a veterinarian right away about therapeutic diets and other arthritic treatments available for your pet.

Medications for arthritis pain are divided into two groups: Slow-acting drugs and fast-acting (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone-type drugs).

Slow-Acting Medications

Slow-acting drugs for arthritis ultimately improve joint function and help with pain relief, but they require a time frame of weeks to months to exert their effect. They may have disease-modifying properties such that their benefit continues even after their use has been curtailed. These products are typically what are called neutraceuticals, meaning that they are nutritional supplements that have medicinal properties. Most arthritis patients can benefit from their use and they are considered a basic starting level for joint care.

  • Because the FDA classifies these as neutraceuticals, (i.e. nutrients with medicinal properties) rather than as drugs, the usual rigorous testing for efficacy has not been required. As a result, the optimal dosage has not been determined and almost every product has a different dose recommendation. Some experimentation may be necessary.
  • These products are not likely to be helpful for spinal arthritis as the joint composition of an intervertebral disc (the joint of the spine) is totally different from those of other bones.
  • These products can be used in both dogs and cats.
  • These products often complement treatment with anti-inflammatory medications.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate
These products are cartilage components harvested chiefly from sea mollusks (i.e., cartilage is made up of chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine metabolites, among other things).  By taking these components orally (pills in the mouth), the patient is able to have plenty of the necessary building blocks needed to repair damaged cartilage. It is also felt that these products may have some anti-inflammatory properties separate from their structural uses. Unlike the anti-inflammatory medications described later on, these products do not produce rapid results; one to two months are needed for them to build up to adequate amounts.  There are numerous products available combining glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, assorted vitamins, creatine (a muscle building block), omega 3 fatty acids and more. Many senior or joint supporting diets are well fortified with glucosamine.

Omega Three Fatty Acids
Certain dietary fats, typically cold water fish oils, have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. While this finding has primarily been used in the treatment of itchy skin, many arthritic dogs and cats have also benefited from supplementation.  While there are no toxic issues to be concerned with, these products require at least one month to build up to adequate amounts. Effects are not usually dramatic but can be helpful.
It should be noted that the flax seed oil is readily converted to omega three fatty acids in the human body. This conversion is not so easy in the canine or feline body; only about 10% of the oil is converted. It is a waste to add flax seed oil to pet food; fish oils are needed. Numerous brands are available and chances are your veterinarian stocks one. The appropriate dose is still somewhat controversial but the ratio of EPA (eicosapentenoic acid) to DHA (docosahexenoic acid) should be 3:2.

MSM stands for methyl sulfonyl methane and represents another nutraceutical anti-inflammatory agent.  MSM is in most plant and animal tissues and is a natural source of sulfur; however, for commercial sale MSM is derived from DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), a solvent that comes in both medical grade and industrial grade.  One might wonder why a sulfur source would be helpful in treating arthritis. The glycosaminoglycans that enable cartilage to soak up water and thus act as a cushion for articulating bones are all sulfates. The idea is to provide nutritional building blocks for cartilage repair. Beyond this, MSM seems to have anti-inflammatory properties and may act as an anti-oxidant (see below).

Anti-oxidants and Free Radical Scavengers
Free radicals are harmful biochemicals that can attack us from external sources (such as pollution, sunlight, etc.) or we make them ourselves as by-products of oxygen use. These harmful little molecules are highly reactive and attack our structural proteins as well as cause production of assorted inflammatory proteins. One prominent theory of aging centers on free radicals with the idea that the damage free radicals cause to our brains, skin, joints etc. is the foundation of age-related debilitation. Normally, our bodies use natural anti-oxidants to inactivate free radicals; in this theory, supplementing with additional anti-oxidants can retard age-related change.

Fast-Acting Drugs

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
Most pets with arthritis pain need relief now, not in 1 to 2 months when the cartilage building blocks and nutritional anti-inflammatories have had a chance to build up. The next mode of therapy is the NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

These medications act quickly by suppressing the inflammatory biochemicals that ultimately lead not only to the pain of arthritis but also to cartilage damage. None of these medications can safely be combined with one another. Furthermore, human NSAIDs tend to be toxic to pets, especially cats. While aspirin has some potential use in relieving joint pain, safer medications developed specifically for pet use have become the standard for joint pain management. Never use a human medication of any kind in a pet without specific instructions on how to do so from your veterinarian.

Pre-treatment screening blood tests are still important before using an NSAID as a pre-existing kidney or liver condition may preclude their use. Monitoring tests typically are recommended every six months for pets on NSAIDs.

If a pet has or comes to develop a condition that is not compatible with NSAID use, one of the analgesics listed below would be a fair alternative.

It is important to mention that cats are uniquely sensitive to all NSAIDs and it is tricky to find one that is appropriate. Of the list presented here, only meloxicam is appropriate for long-term feline use and only with some dose modification.

The corticosteroid hormones (prednisonedexamethasone, etc.) inhibit all production not only of prostaglandins but of leukotrienes as well. What this means in plain English is that these hormones create broad spectrum inflammation inhibition including wiping out some biochemical mediators it would be best not to wipe out. The result is relief from just about any type of inflammation: arthritis, itchy skin, immune-mediated disease and more, but in the long run side effects are problematic:

  • immune suppression
  • poor wound healing
  • poor ability to grow hair 
  • excessive thirst
  • muscle weakness
  • predisposition towards the development of diabetes mellitus

Using these medications to control arthritis pain is not desirable in the long term and one of the other medications mentioned would be a better idea.

Analgesics that are not Anti-Inflammatory
Sometimes the combination of a cartilage-protecting agent and an anti-inflammatory drug is not adequate for pain control. There are several appropriate pain relievers that can be used in pets. These medications are strictly analgesics and do not modify the inflammation in the joint.  These medications can be used in cats and dogs alike and are compatible with all other the other medications listed. A synergism occurs when these medications are combined with NSAIDs such that the combination of both drugs produces greater results than one would expect.