Dogs and cats are athletic creatures, and a lifetime of movement and play can be hard on their joints. Arthritis is extremely common among middle-aged and older pets, although severity can vary greatly. The Neighborhood Vet recommends twice yearly wellness visits to identify early arthritis or other diseases in senior pets, but you can also keep an eye out for arthritis signs at home. Once joint changes are identified, many treatment options are available to improve your pet’s comfort and mobility.

What is pet arthritis?

Arthritis in pets—or more specifically, osteoarthritis—is a pathologic, progressive joint breakdown that causes pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility in one or more joints. The condition is usually associated with aging and “wear-and-tear,” but can be accelerated in malformed or previously injured joints. Hips, elbows, shoulders, knees, wrists, and the spine are commonly affected, but nearly any joint can be involved. 

Arthritis begins when joint cartilage between bones breaks down and triggers an inflammatory reaction that causes further inflammation and joint damage. Joint degeneration continues to progress, and eventually results in bone spurs, abnormal joint stiffness or laxity, decreased muscle strength and mass, impaired mobility, and—most importantly—pain.

How do I know if my pet has arthritis?

Early arthritis stages likely begin in middle age, but these pets often show few or no outward signs until the disease progresses. Then, signs may include:

  • Stiffness and difficulty rising after rest
  • Limping or weight-shifting
  • Slower gait, or refusal to take long walks
  • Hesitancy on stairs
  • Sitting or lying differently
  • Decreased appetite
  • Behavior changes
  • In cats only:
    • Trouble using the litter box or having accidents outside the box
    • Taking steps one at a time
    • No longer jumping on furniture or countertops without having pauses, or staggered climbing up or down

How is pet arthritis diagnosed?

Our team will physically examine your pet to detect joint changes, including decreased range-of-motion, pain, muscle wasting, and crunching or popping (i.e., crepitus). Their exam findings, along with signs you may notice at home, will lead us to suspect an arthritis diagnosis. X-rays can then confirm the condition, but depending on the joint involved, your pet may require sedation for their comfort. Sometimes, arthritis is “accidentally” diagnosed when we take X-rays for a different problem, such as vomiting.

Can my pet’s arthritis be cured?

Pet arthritis is a chronic, progressive disease that, unfortunately, cannot be cured. Existing joint damage cannot be reversed, although arthritis can be successfully managed with long-term treatments that can reduce inflammation, protect against future damage, reduce pain, improve muscle strength, and improve overall mobility and quality of life.

Arthritis treatments for pets have come a long way in recent years, especially for cats, who previously had few effective and safe options. Commonly used arthritis treatments include:

  • Anti-inflammatories — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are useful for dogs to reduce inflammation and pain, but must be used very cautiously with cats long term 
  • Pain medications — Medications that work on pain affect only the brain and nerves and do not directly counteract arthritis inflammation, but they can make pets more comfortable.
  • Injectable medications — A new monoclonal antibody injectable therapy can counteract arthritis pain in cats. Dogs and cats can also receive injections of polysulfated glycosaminoglycans—safe molecules that protect joint cartilage.
  • Laser therapy — Cold laser uses specific light wavelengths to penetrate and heal inflamed tissues in and around joints.
  • Acupuncture & Herbal Therapy — This ancient therapy that uses a series of tiny needles placed on specific body points has been proven effective for arthritis and other painful conditions.  When using certain herbs, make sure to research/verfity there are no negative interactions between the eastern and western medicines.
  • Rehabilitation — Physical therapy and rehabilitation, which includes therapeutic exercise, water exercise, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and more, improve mobility and strength.
  • Weight management — Losing weight through proper diet and controlled exercise takes immense pressure off damaged joints.
  • Joint supplements — Glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and omega-3 fatty acids are powerful tools that reduce inflammation and protect the remaining cartilage.
  • Therapeutic diets — Prescription joint diets contain added supplements and are calorie-controlled to assist with weight loss.
  • Regenerative therapies — Stem cell and platelet-rich plasma therapies are available only through specialty centers, but can help many pets whose pain has not been alleviated by other therapies.
  • Surgery — Joint fusions, joint replacements, or amputation are sometimes used to relieve arthritis pain.
  • Other supplements — Other supplements, such Osteobenefits, from can be helpful to both dogs and cats.  

How do I prevent my pet from developing arthritis?

There sadly is no prevention of the development of arthritis.  However, steps can be made to place less trauma onto the joint. The development of some joint disease is related to genetics.  Overweight or obese pets are more likely to develop inflammatory conditions, and extra weight can place extra stress on joints. You can also encourage your pet to perform slow, controlled exercises, including swimming, walks, and playing with other pets, that will keep their muscles and joints strong and resilient.

We can extrapolate from human arthritis that pets with joint disease experience significant and sometimes debilitating pain, but early detection and treatment can provide long-term comfort and improve mobility. Call us to schedule a visit with The Neighborhood Vet team if your older pet is overdue for a routine wellness visit, or if your pet is slowing down or showing other arthritis pain signs.