The below article was created with the help of Dr. Steve Mehler, who has been certified in surgery by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons since 2007. His special interests include minimally invasive surgery, interventional radiology, and surgical diseases of the extrahepatic biliary tract in dogs and cats. His work has been published in many textbooks on surgical diseases of cats and dogs as well as of exotic species.
What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a very common form of arthritis that affects people and their pets. In Latin, osteo refers to the bone, while arthritis is a compound word comprised of arthro, meaning joint, and itis, meaning inflammation. Thus, the condition impacts two areas at once, causing ongoing damage to the bone under the joint as well as inflammation within the joint itself. The most important thing that pet owners need to know about osteoarthritis is that the condition is progressive and incurable—meaning it gets worse with age and will never completely go away.
How Can I Tell if My Pet Has Osteoarthritis?
As our pets get older, we may start to notice them slowing down or experiencing difficulty when engaging in activities such as climbing stairs. Osteoarthritis may be one reason for this behavior, but it is not simply a natural result of aging and it does not solely impact adults—in almost all cases, the condition is brought on by a primary joint condition (either a disease such as hip dysplasia, which can be present at birth, or triggered by trauma later in life such as an ACL tear).
If your pet is experiencing visible stiffness, lethargy, weight gain, avoiding strenuous activities, or displaying any other significant behavioral change, seek out an opinion from your vet as soon as possible. It is extremely uncommon for osteoarthritis to cause an abrupt change in an animal’s condition, but it’s best to diagnose and address the issue before the symptoms worsen.
What Short-Term Treatment Options Are Available for Osteoarthritis?
The number one priority for pets suffering from osteoarthritis should be pain management. There is a vicious cycle that can occur as dysfunction of the limb causes the animal to shift weight off to the other side of their body, which can lead to loss of muscle mass in the affected limb, which can lead to the animal becoming less active and gaining weight—which in turn creates more dysfunction and discomfort, and the cycle repeats itself.
Be wary of products that promise more than they may be able to deliver. Though some drugs, treatment strategies, and supplements may claim to prevent or cure osteoarthritis, there is sadly no proven way to eliminate the condition outside of a complete replacement of the joint. Over-the-counter pain medication can be effective initially, but should not be administered long-term as it does not address or slow down the underlying cause of the osteoarthritis, or the ongoing degradation of the bone or the cartilage.
How Is Osteoarthritis Treated Long-Term?
Osteoarthritis progresses differently and at different rates in every animal. If the condition is being caused by a primary disease that hasn’t been addressed, the progression is often more severe and rapid. The type and breed of the animal can also have an impact; for example, Labradors tend to experience more acute symptoms and faster progression of osteoarthritis compared to other types of dogs.
Though osteoarthritis has no cure, vets can treat the underlying condition causing it and thus significantly slow down the progression of the disease and the ongoing damage to the cartilage and the inflammation of the joint associated with it. Once the animal’s pain is under control, pet owners second priority should be to help build up and preserve muscle mass and facilitate weight loss. This might include simply feeding your pet less, or putting them into a physical therapy program with a vet certified in rehabilitation medicine. Taken over a period of months, ingredients and supplements that contain EPA and DHA can also be very effective at keeping inflammation at bay in the joint.