Part 1: Arthritis in Pets

By: Cynthia Quezada, DVM

What is Osteoarthritis and What are its Causes?

This is taken of my elderly dog Cali riding in her Wagon. She had bad hips.Arthritis or Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease that affects as many as 1 in 5 dogs in the United States. Although it is most common in dogs, OA also affects cats. Degenerative joint disease is defined as the break down of the cartilage within a joint that serves to protect the articular surface of the bones. This in turn creates inflammation, swelling, and pain within the joint. Primary osteoarthritis occurs through normal wear and tear of an otherwise healthy joint. It affects mostly middle-aged and geriatric patients. Secondary osteoarthritis occurs in joints that are compromised either by trauma, congenital or conformation problems and other orthopedic diseases. Some examples include: cruciate ligament injuries, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and luxating patellas. These pre-existing conditions cause abnormal wear and tear of the joints and may pre-dispose patients to OA at an earlier age. Obesity is also an important risk factor in the development of degenerative joint disease. Maintaining your pets at a healthy weight is crucial in the management of this disease.

What are the Signs of Osteoarthritis?

Some pets with OA exhibit obvious signs of orthopedic pain such as limping. In other pets, OA may initially go unnoticed since clinical signs are often times vague and most owners may attribute these early signs to their pets simply “getting old”. In general dogs and cats are very good at masking pain. This makes it difficult for owners to realize that their pets may be in discomfort.  That is why it is important to be able to pick up on subtle changes in your pet’s behavior and daily routine. Symptoms that may indicate your pet is suffering from orthopedic pain include: slow or difficulty rising to a standing position, trouble jumping into the car or onto furniture, slowing down on walks, and spending more time lying down with reluctance to get up. Some pets may begin to inappropriately urinate and/or defecate in the house because it just takes too much effort for them to make it outdoors or to their litter box. This again can be misinterpreted by owners as their pets “misbehaving”. Other signs of pain include restlessness, whining, panting, pacing, aggression and insomnia.

My Dog or Cat May Have Osteoarthritis, but How Do I Know for Sure?

Since there are other medical conditions that can appear similar to OA it is important that your pet is evaluated by your veterinarian so that the correct course of treatment is initiated. Your veterinarian will begin by taking a thorough history and performing a complete physical exam. He or she may then recommend blood work and/or radiographs depending on the history and physical exam findings. Once OA has been confirmed, a medical plan that is most appropriate for your pet can be recommended.

Pain in pets can be difficult to recognize, but understanding the signs of  osteoarthritis is the first step in providing a more comfortable and healthier life for your pet. Please read our next article to learn about the treatment options available.