Arthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a common ailment affecting our pets. Studies suggest it affects one in five of all pets of all ages with an increase in incidence with age. In dogs, owners will see lameness and exercise intolerance as well as stiffness when first rising from sleep. In cats there is a decrease in the cat’s willingness to jump both up and down as well as climbing stairs. These problems are not typically life-threatening, but they can be progressive, and they affect the pet’s quality of life.
Diagnosis is made from a combination of history, physical examination and radiographs. Because of the need to rule other metabolic, inflammatory and infectious conditions, a blood profile is recommended. The blood profile has the added advantage of screening the pet’s suitability for certain medications (see below).
There is no cure for arthritis, but we can do some things to manage the condition. Weight loss is as important as any medication if the pet is obese, as by decreasing the load on the joints we see significant improvement. Owners will find adjusting some of the pet’s activities within the home; limiting stair climbing or access and preventing jumping, also beneficial. Finally, consistent, daily low-impact exercise is important. This applies more to dogs than to cats, and the best activity for a dog with arthritis is simply walking on leash. If the dog is not used to walking then it should be gradually increased – literally 5 minute increments in each week. Another excellent low-impact activity is swimming. Owners should take care to avoid more strenuous activity such as ball fetching and should avoid inconsistency in activity (e.g. no 3-hour weekend hikes). Dogs do not think about consequences, and will attempt to chase a ball even if they pay for it later, so we should try to anticipate for them.
Medication has become extremely useful in the management of arthritis, especially in the later stages. In the early stages, glucosamine supplements that improve the quality of the joint fluid and diets with increased levels of omega 3 fatty acids that decrease inflammation levels in the body are helpful at decreasing mild signs of discomfort.
The most significant arthritis medications come from a drug class known as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs or NSAIDs. These medications provide both an anti-inflammatory effect within the joints and block moderate pain to make animals more comfortable. Medications for dogs in this drug class include Metacam, Deramaxx, Previcox and Rimadyl. Dogs receiving the medication need good function of the liver and kidneys for breakdown and secretion, hence a blood profile both prior to starting and one month after consistent daily administration are recommended. Of the different drugs we use, these seem to result in the most noticeable improvement. Cats have very sensitive kidneys and do not tolerate these compounds as well as dogs do.
Another drug class to consider is a polysulfonated glycosaminoglycan (PSGAG) – it’s a big word, but essentially these are compounds that make up the building blocks of the cartilage and when injected subcutaneously provide direct recuperative effects on the joints. Options include Adequan and Cartrophen. Both are given as a series of injections to build up levels over the course of month, and are then maintained on a regulatory or as needed basis. They are given as injections, so clients need to be able to administer them or come in to have them given by our technicians. These compounds are a good option for cats.
Finally, we can administer medications that are strictly directed at controlling pain. The most commonly used are Tramadol: a compound that converts into a mild opioid, and Gabapentin: a drug useful in treating neuropathic pain. These compounds are generally safe to give in animals with kidney or liver problems and can be given concurrently with any of the other medications listed above. There is no control of inflammation with these and there is a potential for sedation at higher doses. Owners should consult with a veterinarian to see if these drugs make sense for their pet.
In summary, if you suspect your pet has arthritis because they have difficulty rising in the morning and starting walks, hesitant going up or down stairs and jumping then you should schedule a consultation with your veterinarian to see if arthritis is present and if there are any treatment options to help manage the condition. For those that do have the condition, we can make a significant difference in their quality of life.