Joint disease, which many of our pets develop as they age, can range from mild levels of pain with hardly any signs of discomfort to a severely debilitating condition affecting quality of life and even complete lameness.
Dogs are more susceptible to arthritis than cats and the larger dogs breeds are more likely to suffer than smaller breeds. However taking time to consider subtle changes in their habits and behaviour can help you assess their changing needs.
Signs of Joint Disease
Joint disease may present as altered gait, stiffness and exercise intolerance. You may notice your pet is more cautious when walking up and down stairs, is more reluctant to jump onto the windowsill, is finding getting into the car increasingly challenging and requires assistance. Some pets will walk by your side more or sit with you rather than explore their territory. There may be a reluctance to move to go out to toilet, start having accidents in the house or missing the litter tray. Over time muscle mass will reduce as the affected limbs are used less and less. Sometimes it is easy to put their slightly dull mental state and reduced enthusiasm for exercise down to their age rather than the chronic pain they are experiencing but there are many things we can do to help our pets.
Causes of Joint Disease: Some of the many reasons include:
Post fracture complications
Ligament, tendon or muscle disease
Developmental disorders such as hip/elbow dysplasia.
Cancers of the bone
Degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis)
Inflammatory joint disease such as Lyme disease, rheumatoid arthritis
Degenerative spinal joint disease (intervertebral disc disease)
Ensure your pet maintains a lean figure to help reduce pressure on the painful areas. This is also important if you wish to reduce anaesthetic risk should surgery be necessary.
Regular controlled low impact exercise will help maintain muscle mass and encourage a good range of movement. Leash walking, swimming, slow jogging and going steadily up and down stairs are excellent exercises. Sudden jerking exercises such as chasing after a ball will only exacerbate the problem and cause excessive wear and tear on the joints. Physiotherapy can be used too as it builds up muscle mass which will support the joint.
In the Home
Mats and non-slip flooring prevents your pets from slipping and jarring themselves and ensures the limbs are placed with confidence and with equal weight distribution. For large dogs place the feeding bowls at a higher level to avoid the neck overstretching. With cats ensure you have a shallow litter tray to make getting in and out more easy. Padded bedding such as orthopaedic mats should be utilised and cold damp areas that will exacerbate arthritic signs should be avoided. Ramps for stairs and into car boots help, particularly with more severe cases, as do front or hind limb slings if necessary. Stair gates may be necessary if you need to restrict your dog’s access to upstairs areas of the house.
Pharmaceutical and Nutraceutical Aids
There are many products on the market which really can help keep your pet comfortable. In the early stages nutraceuticals containing glucosamine, chondroitin and green lipped mussel extracts may be enough. Mobility diets also contain these ingredients.
As the signs worsen it will become necessary to use one or a combination of prescription only medications to control the pain associated with arthritis. Discuss with your vet if a course of injections or daily oral medications are more suitable. In particularly severe cases corticosteroids or morphine-based drugs may be indicated. Three-monthly assessments are also important to ensure side effects are minimal and that the best protocol is in place to minimise your pet’s suffering.
Do not give human drugs such as asprin, paracetamol or ibuprofen products to your pet without consulting your veterinary surgeon first as they can cause organ failure.