Fortunately, there are many ways we can help a pets with arthritis.
Weight control is vital in arthritis management; most older pets have arthritis in their limb joints or spine, so carrying excess weight will increase their pain. Body weight is not always reliable as older animals lose muscle naturally but can still carry fat. Condition scoring can be more helpful. There are body condition scoring charts online for all our pet species (take a look here). Looking at these charts can help to determine if your pet is too heavy. Generally, pets should have small amount of fat over their ribcage so you can feel most of the ribs when you stroke the chest firmly. Also, dogs and cats should have a waist, be narrower behind their ribcage.
If their body condition score is high, cut back on treats and gradually change to a lower calorie food. In this way, they still feel full – if a large reduction in food is necessary you can use low calorie vegetables, such as carrots cauliflower, broccoli, or spinach to bulk out their food, but make sure it’s still a balanced diet – there are also commercial weight-loss diets available from the practice.
We can also make changes to their environment which can make life easier for them. For a dog with arthritis, jumping in or out of the car can be painful. A ramp can change this so that they can continue to travel by car. As an arthritic dog may not be able to walk very far, driving to new places can provide them with interesting smells and sights. In the car, a well-padded and restricted space can help them keep their balance without straining their joints. In the house, slippery floors can reduce their confidence to move around, so rugs or runners can be used to provide a safer surface. The floor around their bed should be non-slippery, the bed itself should be easy to get into and not too deep, a padded firm surface may be easier to get out of. In cold weather, arthritic dogs can become stiffer so warm coats can be used when walking or sleeping in low temperature.
It’s also not just dogs – cats with arthritis may find it difficult to get to feeding places and beds. They may need steps to help them get onto worktop surfaces, if fed there, or onto cat trees or radiator beds. Low sided litter trays reduce painful stepping over high edges and can stop them toileting inappropriately. Rabbits, rodents and birds may find ladders and steps more difficult as they age and experience stiff joints, so ramps can help them to move around more easily.
Exercise is important to keep muscle bulk and blood flow to joints, little and often is best. If an arthritis dog does a long walk on the weekend or plays energetically for too long they may be very sore the next day. So, pacing is important, trying to regularly do the same amount of exercise which suits them and keeps them well.
Supplements may be useful in reducing inflammation in arthritic joints. There are many veterinary mobility supplements on the market and your vet can advise you which would be best for your pet. Using these products can delay using medication to manage arthritis if they are effective. As arthritis is a ‘waxing and waning’ condition (some days it is better than others) it can be difficult to know if what we use to treat the disease is effective. It is worth observing an objective measure of their wellbeing, so that you know which interventions are effective. In the arthritic cat, this may mean less hiding, seeking more of your attention if they feel better, or going up or down stairs more readily, maybe jumping onto the bed when they had not done this for a while. Activity levels usually increase in all pets when arthritic pain is managed well. Dogs may play again and be more sociable with other dogs on walks.
Our pets tend to be expert at hiding discomfort and pain; they may simply become quieter and less active, which can look like normal aging. If you notice stiffness, or lack of mobility, or changed behaviour, it is worth seeking veterinary attention.
Anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to reduce arthritic pain. The medication will enable the pet to move around more without pain, reducing muscle loss and improving blood supply which slows the progress of the disease. If the pain has been present for a long time or the arthritis is advanced, then other pain medication may also be necessary. As medication is likely to be life long, blood tests may be necessary to monitor liver and kidney function to ensure there are no adverse effects.
Physiotherapy can be useful in managing pain and mobility in pets with arthritis. Our vets can recommend an ACPAT physiotherapist, these are highly trained professionals, initially trained to treat humans, who then carry out additional study to treat animals under veterinary direction. Some physiotherapists use hydrotherapy very effectively as the warm water helps to reduce pain and the water is partially weight bearing so joints can move more freely. Arthritis is the most common condition treated with acupuncture in veterinary medicine. This must be carried out by a vet and can be a useful treatment, and our vets can refer you if they think it might be a useful option for your pet.
There is increasing interest in treating arthritis by injecting medication into joints – as has been done in horses for many years, but is now starting to be used in dogs and cats too. Depending on the patient and disease involved, steroids or other medications may be injected to reduce inflammation. Stem cells or some blood components have also been found to be effective in reducing the progression of arthritis.
So, there are a number of measures we can take at home to help the pet with arthritis as well as effective treatments that can alleviate the symptoms effectively. The bottom line – if your pet seems a bit stiff, make an appointment to see one of our vets so we can work together to keep them comfortable.