, Salem, MA

November 1, 2013

Vet Connection: Arthritis is common in dogs and cats, too

Vet Connection
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt

---- — Have you ever experienced pain in your joints? One out of every six people in the United States has arthritis. Amazingly, this degenerative and painful condition is more prevalent in dogs than people. One out of every five dogs is affected.

As we age, more of us are affected. Fifty percent of people over 65 have arthritis. The incidence more than doubles in dogs over the age of 7, with more than 50 percent showing symptoms. Chronic arthritis is the No. 1 cause of pain in canine patients. Cats and other species also get arthritis and are even better at hiding the signs than dogs. Arthritis is a progressive disease that gets worse over time and is painful at every stage.

Frequently, pet owners overlook arthritis, calling it simply the “aches and pains” of an old dog. More than half (55 percent) of dogs with arthritis pain are going untreated because their owners often don’t recognize the signs of canine arthritis.

“Dog owners should realize that arthritis is probably just as painful for dogs as it is for humans,” says Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California.

Cruz recommends owners learn the early signs of canine arthritis pain.

“Pain and stiffness aren’t normal,” she says. “Subtle signs that might be passed off as ‘he’s just getting old’ could actually point to the first stages of arthritis. If you notice any behavioral changes suggesting pain, schedule an osteoarthritis exam with your veterinarian.”

How do you know if your dog is affected? Initial signs of pain may be subtle, but your dog may be telling you he is suffering from arthritis pain if he:

Tires easily on walks

Limps, lags behind or appears stiff after activity

Is reluctant to climb steps or jump up

Is slow to rise from a resting position

In the early stages of arthritis, painful flare-ups may be common, and you may notice discomfort with joint movement, occasional limping and subtle changes in walk. As the disease progresses, you will notice pain with joint movement, persistent limping, visible changes in walk, difficulty rising and soreness after exercise. In the late stages, there will be significant, constant pain and pronounced changes in walk. Your dog may need assistance to rise, have restricted range of motion and muscle atrophy.

As the pain increases, your pet may exhibit aggression or hiding behavior, or might even lick or gnaw at the offending joint.

Luckily there are a number of ways to make your pet more comfortable. Moderate exercise is a great way for a dog to loosen up stiff joints. Swimming and a moderate walk are best; running will put more pressure (and pain) on the joints.

Weight control also is important. Those extra pounds limit movement and put added stress on joints. In addition to exercise, owners should check with their veterinarian for diet recommendations.

A soft, warm bed helps soothe aches and pains (many pet stores even sell orthopedic beds). Our hospital cat Tippy loves her warm heated bed. A ramp to help the dog in and out of the car or up the stairs will make a dog’s difficult climb or jump easier. Elevated bowls allow eating and drinking without stooping.

Aspirin, ibuprofen and other human medications should not be given to pets because they can lead to painful stomach ulcers.

Veterinarians now have excellent treatments available to help manage arthritis. There are pain medications that are formulated to avoid ulcers. Special diets that are specifically formulated for the arthritic pet are also available and can help immensely. There are injectable treatments that help stabilize the cartilage in the joint. Some veterinarians use acupuncture and laser treatment.

Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but it can be managed with medication and tender, loving care. Working with a veterinarian, dog owners can improve their dog’s quality of life. You’d be surprised to see how the old dog can regain some of the vigor of its puppyhood.