Recognizing that Your Pet has Arthritis

Arthritis is one of the most common conditions in older pets, and affects their joints and causes extreme pain, the same way arthritis often affects people. Our team at Ambleside Animal Hospital answers common questions about arthritis in pets, so you can identify the signs and get veterinary support to improve your pet’s comfort and quality of life.

Question: What is arthritis in pets?

Answer: Arthritis occurs when the articular cartilage (i.e., the tissue layer that cushions the bones in a joint) becomes damaged, over time leading to inflammation and pain in the arthritic joints. Arthritis most frequently affects the hips, elbows, knees, carpi (i.e., wrists), and lower back, but can occur in any joint. Also, arthritis commonly affects adult and senior pets, although younger pets, those with a genetic predisposition, and overweight pets are also at risk.

Q: What are arthritis signs in pets?

Answer: Arthritis is a progressive condition that causes increasingly more pain in a pet’s joints as the cartilage wears down. The disease signs of arthritis may not be obvious in the early stages because pets often hide the disease until their pain becomes severe. But, as joint pain increases, behavioral changes may more clearly signal identifiable signs, including:

  • Limping — An arthritic pet may favor certain limbs and walk with a distinct limp that is usually more pronounced when they wake up and then less noticeable as they move around.
  • Mobility issues — Because of the pain, arthritic pets are often reluctant to move around as before. For example, cats may stop jumping up on window ledges or using their litter box because they hurt when they step over the high sides, and dogs may struggle getting in and out of the car, or walking up and down stairs.
  • Abnormal posture — Arthritis can cause spinal issues, resulting in an abnormal posture, such as a hunched back, tight neck, or lameness in one or both hind legs.
  • Lethargy — An arthritic pet often tires easily and sleeps more.
  • Changes in temperament — Your pet may become more irritable because of their increased pain, and may sometimes bite, snap, or cry out when handled.
  • Muscle atrophy — Arthritic pets can lose muscle mass because of their inactivity, and their leg muscles may look thinner.
  • Licking, chewing, and biting — Arthritic pets may lick, chew, or bite their painful body areas, leading to hair loss and skin inflammation.

If you notice any of these signs in your pet, they need veterinary attention. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination and take X-rays to determine if your pet is suffering from arthritis or another underlying condition.

Q: What types of arthritis can affect pets?

Answer: Many arthritis types can affect your pet, including:

  • Osteoarthritis — Sometimes called degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthritis is the most common arthritis type in pets, and usually results from long-term wear and tear on the joint. Secondary osteoarthritis is often caused by hip or elbow dysplasia or joint trauma, where joint inflammation, pain, and eventually loss of motion occur as the cartilage wears down. Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but can sometimes be prevented from worsening.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis — Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints—meaning that the pet’s immune system attacks their body tissues, mistaking its own proteins for foreign proteins. The attack damages the joint lining and cartilage, as well as many other body parts. Rheumatoid arthritis can be caused by a genetic predisposition or be a complication of other conditions, such as digestive diseases, cancer, or distemper. Rheumatoid arthritis also is incurable, but can be managed with certain drugs.
  • Septic arthritis — Septic arthritis is an inflammation of one or more joints caused by infection—bacterial or fungal—in the fluid of the affected joints. Infections resulting from an injury, bite wound, or surgery can cause septic arthritis.

Q: How is arthritis treated in pets?

Answer: While arthritis cannot be cured, treatments are available for pain management and to help keep your pet comfortable. Arthritis management options include:

  • Pain-relieving medications — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and opioid derivatives can relieve arthritis pain.
  • Diet changes — Keeping your pet at the appropriate weight can greatly reduce their arthritis pain by reducing pressure on their joints.
  • Joint supplements — Supplements that contain ingredients such as glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate can reduce joint inflammation and support joint cartilage health.
  • Exercise — Exercise is important for managing arthritis pain by keeping muscles and tendons strong. Low-impact activities, like swimming or walking, are best for arthritic pets.
  • Surgery — Orthopedic surgery can repair or correct some conditions, such as a torn cranial cruciate ligament or hip dysplasia.
  • Physical and alternative therapies — Physical therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and electromagnetic field therapy are some alternative options that may help manage your pet’s pain.

An early diagnosis is key to managing your pet’s arthritis and pain, making regular wellness screenings vital, especially for older pets. If you are concerned your pet may have early arthritis, contact Ambleside Animal Hospital and schedule an appointment as soon as possible.