Osteoarthritis In Pets: What Is It And How Is It Treated?

Our pets can get arthritis too! Here's our vet advice on how it affects our pets and what we can do to help them feel better.

Osteoarthritis (i.e. arthritis) is a progressive, non-curable disease caused by inflammation of the joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs and research has shown it affects 20% of all dogs, this figure rising to 80% in older dogs. The University of Buenos Aires found that in more than 50% of osteoarthritis cases, the dog was aged 8-13 years. Furthermore, osteoarthritis in several joints (elbow, shoulder, hip, knee) in Labrador Retrievers over 8 years old is typical. Most commonly medium to large, overweight dogs are affected. Working dogs are also at increased risk due to increased pressure on their joints. Felcana Go can be used to monitor changes in your pet’s activity, which helps identify osteoarthritis earlier and more reliably. 

Osteoarthritis is often not diagnosed until it is more advanced because the initial changes will only cause subtle alterations in your dog’s willingness to exercise and move about. Furthermore, the pain is low intensity, and many dogs will not vocalise this discomfort. Osteoarthritis also affects cats, although it is underdiagnosed and under treated because assessing pain in cats is more difficult.

What happens in osteoarthritis?

1. Cartilage within the joints undergoes a change leading to damage or degeneration.

2. Consequently, rough bony surfaces rub against each other causing discomfort and further damage to the cartilage.

3. This process causes increased friction between the surfaces leading to new bone formation around the joint.

4. The joint stiffens, limiting movement further (degenerative joint disease).

5. Pain causes reduced use of the joint and limb causing the surrounding muscles, ligaments and tendons to weaken.

Why does do pets get osteoarthritis?

There are a number of reasons why a pet may develop osteoarthritis.

* After ligament damage, a joint may become unstable leading to abnormal rubbing within the joint.

* After damage to cartilage due to trauma or other injury.

* If the cartilage or joint itself simply does not develop normally due to a birth defect or disease.

* Where a pet has hip or elbow dysplasia.

* Wear on joints and cartilage in older pets. Obesity may cause early onset due to increased pressure on joints.

What are the signs to look out for?

The signs of osteoarthritis can be subtle, and some pets may not show any signs when the disease is in its early stages. Some helpful signs to look out for are: pain, depression, licking a particular joint, stiffness, lameness, behavioural changes, muscle changes (decreased hindlimb muscles) and hindlimb weakness. Other signs include: a reluctance to exercise, sleeping more and pacing at night. By monitoring your pet’s activity, Felcana Go can help you keep track of whether your pet is slowing down and showing signs of osteoarthritis. This will help you ensure you don’t miss even small changes in your pet’s behaviour.

Management and treatment

Osteoarthritis is a lifelong disease which often becomes more severe and acute episodes more frequent as your pet gets older. This means the key to reducing its progression and optimising the pet’s quality of life is management.

Medical management targets the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Pain killers and anti-inflammatories, for example non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, opioids and corticosteroids, are often used, particularly initially, to control the disease. Some pets may need them for the rest of their life, while others can have their dose gradually reduced and may end up not needing them at all or only needing them in acute flare-ups.

Weight management is important for all pets regardless of whether they have osteoarthritis or not. It is particularly important for reducing the risk of developing arthritis and managing the condition once it develops. Overweight animals put increased pressure and stress on their joints and are also less likely to be active. This means these animals have more painful episodes of osteoarthritis and often the disease progresses more quickly. Weight loss in overweight pets with osteoarthritis will reduce pain and improve mobility.

Exercise management in pets with osteoarthritis aims to maximise the range of movements and fitness of muscles around the joint. As a general rule it is best to avoid intense activity, for example chasing a ball or feather toy, performing agility, or playing with younger animals. This puts unnecessary stress on the joints. It is important that pets with osteoarthritis have regular gentle exercise that is tailored to each individual to optimise a good quality of life. Felcana Go can monitor your pet’s activity to help you achieve a consistent routine. When a dog has an acute osteoarthritis episode exercise should be reduced to short regular lead walks. This can be slowly increased back up again once the acute episode has been resolved. Low intensity activity, like exploring the garde, is also helpful for cats to maintain mobility and strengthen muscles. Hydrotherapy (under expert supervision) can be useful in some pets (even cats!) because it reduces the pressure on the joints, and it can help with weight loss.

Nutraceuticals and cartilage protectors include supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid. These may reduce cartilage degeneration, help joint structure repair, and reduce painful inflammation. Omega 3 fatty acids are also a natural source of anti-inflammatories. Your vet will often recommend these supplements to help your pet.

Surgical management is available for osteoarthritis in specific cases. If your pet does undergo surgery, Felcana Go can help you keep track of your pet’s recovery and rehabilitation after surgery by monitoring your pet’s activity levels. This will also help your vet ensure your pet is making the progress it needs to!

In the case of osteoarthritis, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure! Regular exercise, weight management, and proper preventative veterinary care are the best ways to keep your pet fit and healthy. Start theses habits when your pet is young to decrease the likelihood that they develop osteoarthritis, and to decrease the severity if they do.


This blog was written by Emily Atkinson, Veterinary Student from the University of Cambridge,

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