As your pet ages, you may notice that the easy, graceful movements that were so common have now become more difficult. The lope across the backyard has become a stiff walk, the jump to a favorite couch becomes impossible, and the eagerness to chase a tennis ball or go for a walk vanishes. Like humans, many elderly pets develop arthritis (also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease). There are many different forms of arthritis, but the most common is caused by simple wear and tear on the joints over time. As pets age, their bodies’ ability to repair itself become less effective, and the cartilage that lines the joints begins to thin and die. When cartilage cells die, they stimulate inflammation in the joint, causing the bone underlying the cartilage to deteriorate and the joint space to narrow. Often new bony outgrowths develop in the joint as well. All of these changes lead to pain and lameness in the affected joint.
Although arthritis is the most common cause of lameness and weakness in elderly pets, it is not the only condition that causes these symptoms. Your veterinarian can diagnose arthritis through a physical exam and sometimes with x-rays of the affected joint. Unfortunately, there is no way to cure or reverse arthritis, but there are many ways to slow down the progress of this disease and to relieve your pet’s pain. Here are some of the most successful strategies for managing arthritis:
- Weight loss or weight management: If your pet is overweight, shedding pounds can help alleviate stress on arthritic joints. It’s important to remember that arthritic pets are moving around less and therefore burning fewer calories. Even if your pet is at the correct weight, it’s important to monitor his or her diet and watch for weight gain. Your veterinarian can help you develop an individualized nutrition plan to achieve weight loss or maintenance goals.
- Low-Impact Exercise: If your elderly pet is mobile, taking short, controlled walks, multiple times a day or swimming will help maintain and build muscle to support arthritic joints.
- Make your home user- friendly: There are a number of strategies you can use to make both your home and yard more navigable for arthritic pets. For pets with severe arthritis, our loss of mobility article can provide you with helpful tips on coping with mobility loss.
- Massage: Many arthritic pets benefit from a gentle massage to relax and loosen tight muscles. To see an example of massage please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tghk42R0QHU. You can also schedule an in-home visit with our certified animal massage practitioner, Aimee Johnson. Warm compresses can also be placed over sore joints to relieve pain, but be careful to avoid burning your pet with excessive heat.
- Nutritional Supplements: There are countless supplements on the market which claim to support joint health. Supplements typically contain the building blocks of cartilage or contain molecules which decrease inflammation in the joint to slow cartilage degradation. A small number of these products have been tested in clinical research trials and shown to be effective in slowing arthritis progression. Most supplements, however, cannot reverse structural changes to the joint, so they are most useful when used early in the course of the disease. The most commonly used supplements include glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. Injections under the skin, containing polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAG’s), can also be administered to assist in cartilage repair. Omega-3 fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory effects and are often included in veterinary arthritis diets or can be added to your pet’s normal diet in the form of fish oil. Choosing the right supplement can be overwhelming, but your veterinarian can help you select products that are most likely to benefit your pet.
- Pain medication: Your veterinarian may choose to prescribe a number of different medications to alleviate arthritis pain, including opioids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). Although these drugs are very effective at relieving pain and inflammation, they can cause a number of side effects, and may be contraindicated in your pet. No matter how uncomfortable your pet may seem, never give over the counter medications to animals without consulting your veterinarian.
- Alternative therapies: A number of other alternative therapies, such as laser treatments, underwater treadmill exercises and physical therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture, can be used to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation. Our certified veterinary acupuncturist, Dr. Catherine Hageman, can provide services to help relieve pain in elderly pets.
When it comes to relieving arthritis pain, reaching for pain medication alone is rarely the most effective approach. Instead, the best way to maximize your pet’s comfort and well-being is to work with your veterinarian to develop a personalized treatment plan encompassing multiple strategies.