About 30% of cats and dogs are affected with arthritis. Let’s discuss how we can help them. Please remember, arthritis cannot be assumed, it has to be proven (X-rays are one good way). Giving anti-inflammatory drugs to your pet just because somebody "thinks" (s)he is affected by arthritis is just not appropriate. There is no cure for arthritis, but it can be controlled. Let’s go over five ways to ease the pain...
1. Weight loss or weight control Carrying extra weight is especially tough on joints with arthritis. Losing weight is then critical. Your family vet can help your pet lose weight (with weight-loss food), or maintain the weight (with a “light” diet). One classic research study showed that "in overweight dogs, weight loss alone may improve lameness". It is important to remember that the front legs support 60% of the weight, whereas back legs carry 40%. Therefore, weight loss is even more important with arthritis in the front legs (shoulder, elbow or wrist).
2. "Arthritis" diet Once your pet has an ideal weight, you can switch to an arthritis diet. These diets are typically enriched in glucosamine, antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E) and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil). Such diets are perfectly balanced, i.e. they have all the necessary nutrients, vitamins and minerals, so they can be fed for life. However they are not appropriate for a growing pet, so they should be used in adults only.
3. Joint supplements Because there is never enough glucosamine in any pet food, it is important to give a supplement with glucosamine by mouth. They typically also contain chondroitin sulfate, and sometimes a supplement called MSM. Other supplements can be injected by your family vet.
4. Controlled exercise Lack of activity leads to muscle loss and a decreased range of motion in the joints. Despite the discomfort, it is very important to continue exercising. Generally, slow leash walks are ideal. You can progressively increase their duration. For example, start with 5 minutes 2-3 times daily for one week, then increase that by 5 minutes each week. Such walks help keep muscles strong and joints flexible. Supervised swimming is another great way of providing low impact exercise, as long as your dog doesn’t struggle to get into or out of the water. Encouraging exercise in a cat can be challenging, but some owners are able to train their cat to walk on a leash!
5. Physical therapy (PT) Done at home or at a physical therapy center, PT can make a dramatic difference. Most doggie physical therapists (officially called rehabilitation practitioners) will perform some exercises that can only be done at their facility, such as walking in an underwater treadmill, and will show you exercises to do at home. PT starts with a "warm up" and ends with a "cool down." If you have ever needed PT for yourself, you may appreciate how dramatic a difference it can make in your pet’s life. I have personally seen rehab practitioners perform small miracles on some patients!
6. Anti-inflammatory drugs The most commonly used pain medications used for arthritis pain are non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Ideally used on an as-needed basis, rather than every single day, modern NSAIDs are safer and more potent than aspirin & "people" drugs. By the way, please never use people drugs in your pet without your vet’s complete approval, especially in your cat. Such drugs can be deadly. Potential side-effects of veterinary NSAIDs include vomiting and/or diarrhea, with or without blood, lack of appetite, lethargy or jaundice (a sign of liver injury), or kidney disease. Your family vet will typically perform regular lab work, testing blood and urine, e.g. every 6 months or more, to monitor possible side-effects.
7. Pain medications When anti-inflammatory drugs cannot be used, or are not strong enough, other pain killers can be given, such as morphine-like drugs (tramadol, etc). There are other options, which need to be tailored to each individual patient. Sometimes, it is a matter of "trial and error" until the ideal drug combination is found.
8. Environment changes Many small tricks can help. Keeping your pet in a dry and warm place should help, just like it would help an arthritic person. It is important to keep your pet on thick, soft, clean padding at all times, rather than on tile or linoleum (although some pets seem to prefer those!). Minimize access to stairs. Elevate the food & water bowls. If you have a few steps on your deck, you could build a ramp. Some companies sell steps to help pets get onto furniture more easily. To get in the car or the truck, you can also use a ramp. Whether inside or outside, always provide good footing so your pet doesn't "do the splits". Hardwood floors may need to be covered with rugs. And be extra careful on ice during the winter time. Pets can get seriously hurt after slipping on ice. An easy solution is to use a sling under your dog’s belly. 9. Periodic re-evaluations Re-checks with your vet are critical to adjust the plan to your pet's progress. For example, if you are trying to make your pet lose weight, monthly weigh-ins are important to track your progress. The amount of food may need to be adjusted, otherwise the weight may just plateau if you continue feeding the same amount. Similarly, pain medications could be changed or the dosage adjusted depending on your pet's progress. 10. Surgery In some cases, surgery is an excellent way to treat arthritis. From simple procedures (removing a flap of cartilage or part of a bone) to more complicated surgeries (fusing a joint, or a total hip replacement), ask your family vet or your surgeon if your pet would benefit from surgery. So there you go: there are (at least) 10 ways to help a pet with arthritis. There are other modalities, such as acupuncture and stem cell therapy, which you can discuss with your family vet or your surgeon.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.