Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis in dogs and cats. It is a progressive disorder of the joints caused by gradual loss of cartilage. The most common joints affected are elbows, hips and knees. It is estimated that around 20% of dogs and 50% of cats will be affected in their lives.
Isn’t Osteoarthritis Just Because Of Old Age?
OA used to be associated with “wear and tear” and was thought a normal feature of ageing. While age is a factor it is a little more complex than this.
Other factors include breed, excessive bodyweight, type of exercise, history or trauma or injury and in certain breeds the age at which they are neutered can play a role.
How Do Pets Get Osteoarthritis?
OA can be classified into two groups: primary and secondary.
- Primary OA has no identifiable joint abnormality but typically it comes from excessive loading of normal joints (e.g. overweight animals). It can also result from normal loading of weakened joints.
- Secondary OA is far more common and is secondary to an identifiable abnormality of the joint such as a developmental disorder, joint instability or trauma (e.g. osteochondritis dissecans, hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament rupture etc.)
Why Is Osteoarthritis A Problem For Pets?
As the disorder progresses, pain results from deformation of the bones and fluid accumulation in the joints. The pain is relieved by rest and made worse by moving the joint or placing weight on it.
In early OA, the pain isn’t too severe and may present as stiffness in the morning or long periods of inactivity.
In the later stages of OA, inflammation develops; they can experience pain even when the joint is not being used and can often lose the normal range of motion in that joint.
How Is Osteoarthritis Recognised?
The common symptoms of osteoarthritis are:
- Reluctance to exercise
- Exercise intolerance
- Pain (especially if joints are manipulated)
- Loss of muscle mass
- Inability to jump
- Sometimes behavioural changes or “grumpiness” associated with the pain.
Cats will show similar signs but may also spend less time grooming and can sometimes develop matted fur over the lower back.
How Is Osteoarthritis Recognised?
- History and clinical exam by a veterinarian will raise the suspicion for the condition.
- Radiographs (x-rays) will help display any bony changes to the joint.
- Joint fluid analysis (arthrocentesis) can help to differentiate OA from other types of arthritis.
What Can We Do About It?
Unfortunately OA is a progressive and irreversible condition but we can manage the symptoms with great success with a variety of techniques:
- Weight management: maintaining or achieving a lean body weight will help reduce the stress on the joints and therefore reduce the discomfort associated with exercise.
- Exercise management: it is still important to exercise with the condition. Low impact exercise such as swimming or hydrotherapy are great and help rebuild muscles. Keeping the exercise regime consistent is also very important (for example 7 x 20 minute walks a week rather than 2 x 65 minute walks a week).
- Medical therapy: medications are often needed to manage the painful side effects of the condition and sometimes they are needed for life. Thankfully there are a wide range of medications that can be used and most are well tolerated even in older animals.
How Can We Prevent Osteoarthritis In Pets?
It is important to realise that you cannot guarantee to prevent OA completely especially in some breeds of dog but some sensible steps can help to delay the age of onset.
- Weight management: Keeping a lean bodyweight throughout their life is important but even more so when they are young.
- Regular and consistent exercise. It is even worth considering swimming early in their life as an alternative to walking on paths.
- Joint supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate have an anecdotally beneficial effect and many owners see a positive impact.