Signs of Arthritis

retriever-348572_1920Arthritis is a common progressive condition affecting the joints of both dogs and cats. It’s more common in older animals, and can happen in many different ways. It’s not curable, but we have many ways to successfully manage the pain and discomfort arthritis causes.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis simply means inflammation of a joint. The most common form of arthritis seen in pet animals is related to degenerative changes in the cartilage within the joint, and commonly affects multiple joints. Degenerative changes happen secondary to other problems; this can be anything from previous surgery in the joint, instability due to ligament damage, or abnormal alignment of the joint such as hip or elbow dysplasia. Often the original problem isn’t a symptom, and the signs of secondary arthritis may be the first time you see something wrong.

What are the signs of arthritis?

Inflammation in one or more joints causes pain and discomfort.  Some animals will limp, or may seem stiff especially after resting. Other signs can be more subtle; dogs may be less willing to go for walks or walk more slowly, they may play less or change how they go to the toilet. Some dogs may become irritable. Cats don’t commonly limp, but may sleep more than normal and be less willing to jump. Eventually both cats and dogs will experience some muscle loss, however this can be difficult to detect as it’s often symmetrical on both legs. Symptoms may be worse in cold or wet weather.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

Arthritis is diagnosed with x-rays, taken under sedation or anaesthetic. This can be important as the underlying cause may itself need treating (for example a ruptured cruciate ligament) to prevent progression of the arthritis. Occasionally the suspicion of arthritis is high enough from examination that treatment can be trialled without x-rays.

How is arthritis treated?

There are many effective ways to manage arthritis, and the resulting discomfort. Many animals with arthritis are overweight, often due to gradually reduced activity levels. Weight loss can make a surprising difference to comfort levels. Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin may improve joint health, though this is not proven in dogs.

Exercise must be considered carefully in dogs with arthritis; although too much will exacerbate symptoms, too little can lead to the joints stiffening up. Regular, controlled exercise is advisable at a level to suit the individual patient. Specific exercises, such as those provided by physiotherapy or hydrotherapy, can also be an excellent addition to treatment. They work by strengthening muscles supporting the joints and improving range of motion.

Cartilage protectors such as pentosan polysulphate (Cartrophen Vet®) can improve the condition of cartilage within the joint, thereby reducing pain and discomfort.  They’re given as a series of injections and symptoms are often seen to improve within a matter of weeks.

Anti-inflammatories are highly effective at treating arthritis in dogs and cats. As well as reducing inflammation they provide pain relief, and dosage can be adjusted on a daily basis dependant on need.  Some pets may only need anti-inflammatories when they have a flare up of symptoms, though they can be given daily.  Rarely, daily administration may exacerbate liver or kidney disease, so regular monitoring of blood work is advisable.

Occasionally, some arthritis may be able to have surgery.  For example, arthritis in the hip joint could be cured with a total hip replacement. This procedure is much less common in dogs than in people and, due to the potential complications, is considered a last resort. Unfortunately not all joints can be replaced.

Although arthritis is a progressive disease, early detection and treatment can greatly decrease progression.  There are many treatment options available, some of which can be used in combination.

If you are concerned your pet may have signs of arthritis please contact your local veterinary surgery.