Caring for the Arthritic Pet
As the cold weather begins to bite a little, a lot of us are feeling aches and pains in our joints! For most of us, it’s probably just a reaction to the change in the weather (plus perhaps some old age creeping in – Ed.) but spare a thought for our pets – especially the older dogs, cats and rabbits who are starting to struggle a little with joint stiffness. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of lameness and joint discomfort in pets, but sadly we often don’t manage it very well – it’s very easy to say “they’re just slowing down” and assume it’s due to old age, rather than addressing their very real medical needs. In this blog, we’re going to explore arthritis in pets, and take a look at some of the things we can do to help these older pets have a better quality of life, and a pain-free retirement.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is, put simply, inflammation in the joints. In most cases, we’re talking about “wear and tear” arthritis due to old age – although it is accelerated by being overweight, joint damage, or abnormal conformation. This type is technically known as osteoarthritisor degenerative joint disease. There are other types as well, including immune arthritis (similar in some ways to rheumatic arthritis in humans, but much rarer) and septic arthritis (due to infection). However, osteoarthritis is by far the most common so that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
How do I know if my pet is affected?
The signs can be very obvious, or incredibly subtle – this is a disease that tends to develop very gradually over months and years, and as a result, it can be very hard to notice if you’re seeing them every day!
Typical signs include being “stiff”, especially when they’ve just got up, but the stiffness often wears off with gentle exercise. Other subtle signs can include being unwilling to jump up or climb steps, reduced exercise tolerance, and reduced interest in playing. Different species sometimes have different symptoms too – we sometimes see male dogs squatting to urinate rather than cocking a leg, for example. Likewise, cats may stop using the litter tray because it’s too hard to climb in, or start using a lower resting place rather than climbing to their favourite, but higher and harder to reach one; and often develop matts as it’s difficult to groom as they lack their previous flexibility. Rabbits are often less willing to hop and tending to walk more, and may develop a mucky back end – or even flystrike, in the warmer months – again due to the difficulty in grooming.
Of course, reduced exercise often leads to weight gain – which then makes the arthritis worse, resulting in a vicious cycle.
What can we do to help?
Sadly, there is no cure for arthritis. However, there are a huge range of things we can do to help:
- Weight loss -it’s been estimated that losing one body condition score point is as powerful at reducing pain in arthritis as a dose of a prescription-strength painkiller! So if your dog is a middle-of-the-road 5/9 body score, how about working with our vet nurses to get them down to a 4/9? The results can be amazing!
- Exercise– arthritic pets still need exercise – in fact, it’s even more important to keep the joint fluid moving freely around arthritic joints. However, overdoing it is counterproductive, so “little and often” is the rule. Lots of short walks with your dog, or frequent brief spells playing with your cat or rabbit, seem to be the best option.
- Diet– diets with the correct ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have been proven to reduce inflammation – there are a number of prescription “joint diets” available for dogs and cats, have a chat to our staff and see if there’s one that might suit your pet. There are also a wide range of joint supplements; although the effectiveness of these are less clear, many clients report small but significant improvements.
- Mobility– of course, if your pet is struggling to do something because their joints aren’t as supple as they used to be, forcing them isn’t going to help. So how about installing ramps, rather than steps for your pets? Especially useful for dogs to get in and out of cars, or any pet to get up stairs or slopes, a shallow ramp with good grip can make a huge difference to your pet’s quality of life.
- Warmth and coziness– even young and healthy animals like a warm snug place to sleep – but for arthritic animals it’s even more important, as cold and draughty places seem to worsen arthritic pain in many animals.
- Medications– ultimately, though, the vast majority of patients with arthritis will need some medical support. The most useful family of drugs are the anti-inflammatories, that reduce joint inflammation and also directly alleviate pain. However, there are a range of other medications we can, and do, use alongside them – just don’t try using human remedies, as using human medication is both illegal and often dangerous to pets!
Arthritic animals can live a long, happy and pain-free life if we get on top of their health. As a result, if you have any suspicion that your pet may have arthritis, please pop them down to see us and get checked out!