While there are different types of arthritis, the most common is osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease. Osteoarthritis is a painful, progressive disease that can affect one or more joints, such as the hips, knees, elbows, shoulders and areas of the spine.
Usually, it starts when some kind of stress damages the protective layer of cartilage covering the bone within the joint. This can result from trauma or joint instability, or from an underlying orthopedic condition, such as hip dysplasia or patellar luxation (floating knee caps). In many cases, it occurs with age.The damaged cartilage releases enzymes that can lead to inflammation. And the underlying bone responds by producing extra bone around the margins where the injury occurred. Extra weight can put extra stress on the joint, further exacerbating the problem.The pain comes from the nerve endings in the exposed bone and from the inflamed tissues in and around the joint, including the ligaments, tendons and joint capsule. To help reduce pain, your pet may favor that joint or simply be less active, which can lead to muscle wasting and reduced overall mobility.

Your arthritic pet can’t give you specific information about their pain, like where it hurts, when it started or just how bad it is, but they’re certainly suffering.The signs of arthritis can vary, depending on the joints affected and the severity of the disease. Dogs may lag behind on walks or even show a periodic limp. Often, they may struggle when trying to rise from a resting position. They may appear stiff, especially in the morning, but may improve as the day goes on. If they go on a longer walk than usual or play an extended game of fetch, it may take longer to recover. You may notice that they’re more hesitant to climb or descend stairs, or may be more reluctant to jump into or out of the car, or onto and off of furniture.

Because cats are generally better at masking pain or illness than dogs, their signs are more subtle. Unlike dogs, cats are less likely to show an obvious limp. Instead, you might notice that your cat doesn’t jump to the heights they used to. They may use other objects, such as a footstool, to help them reach the couch. And they may slowly ease themself off the table instead of leaping to the floor. You might notice that your cat grooms themself less, often resulting in mats of fur forming. Or they may be more irritable when petted in certain areas, such as the lower back. They may also have accidents outside the litterbox if the sides of the box are too high, or if they need to go up or down stairs to reach the box.

Many people assume their dog or cat will slow down with old age and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not true. Your pet’s quality of life can be improved through multi-modal pain management.

In addition to a physical exam, diagnosis may require X-rays or a short trial to see if signs subside when the pet is given pain medication. For chubby pets, weight loss can go a long way toward reducing stress on arthritic joints. Providing soft, comfortable beds, litter boxes with lower sides and ramps to help cats get on the couch or bed without jumping can help, too.
Conservative treatment can include a variety of elements, such as medication for pain and inflammation, keeping the pet’s weight down, attending to injuries, and maintaining a program of controlled exercise. Low-impact exercise such as walking or swimming can help many pets with arthritis. Provide a soft bed with lots of thick padding for sleeping. A warm bed often helps the joints feel better, but if using a heating pad, be sure to use a low setting to reduce the risk of accidental burns. There are many pet-safe warming pads on the market. Massage and physical therapy can also be helpful for some pets.

There are drugs that can alleviate some of the signs of arthritis. Typically, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), drug made especially for dogs/cats, will be prescribed. These drugs reduce inflammation, which in turn reduces pain. Do not give your pet human arthritis medications unless directed; most human NSAIDs are dangerous or deadly in pets. Some owners are concerned about side effects of certain NSAIDs in their pets. They should only be taken under a veterinarian’s supervision. Blood testing before use and periodically is recommended to look for conditions where NSAIDs would be contraindicated and to make sure no adverse effects are occurring. If such effects are seen, another drug may be recommended. In cases of severe, painful arthritis, quality of life is affected, so it’s not fair to the pet to withhold medication out of fear of adverse effects. Some newer products modify the joint fluid and help the joint to heal, but do not necessarily provide pain relief. They may be taken in conjunction with NSAIDs.

Supplements, such as polysulfated glycosaminoglycan, may improve the condition of joint cartilage and fluid. Glucosamine may promote the synthesis of collagen and some other joint components. Chondroitin sulfate may helpsto shield cartilage from destructive enzymes. Another supplement showing promise is New Zealand green lipped mussel. Omega 3 (fish oil) has the best clinical evidence of any supplement. Be certain to use a high quality oil that has been molecularly distilled. Fish oil doses should be reduced prior to any surgical event. There are also herbal formulas that can reduce inflammation and provide comfort. Some pet foods, prescription brands only available through a veterinarian, include supplements that can help improve joint function. While use of these supplements may be somewhat controversial, many owners and veterinarians have had good results with them. 

Finally, many owners have found that their pets show fewer signs and seem to feel better when treated with acupuncture. 

Watch your pet for signs of arthritis, and don’t ignore them. The sooner you can address them, the better you can control them. Your pet will be more comfortable, more active, and happier if their joints don’t hurt.