Osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a common diagnosis in dogs but also occurs quite frequently in cats. It is more common in senior pets, but can be seen in younger pets, especially if there is a history of injury or joint dysplasia. Osteoarthritis is a term describing a syndrome that leads to continued damaging of cartilage and related structures of the joints. It often involves bone remodeling and chronic low-grade inflammation. The condition is painful and progressive.
Understanding arthritis and how to help your pet cope begins with knowing what to look for and identifying your options. Connect with experienced vets in Apex for treatment options that fit your lifestyle.
Detection and Diagnosis
An osteoarthritis diagnosis is secondary to trauma, congenital joint instability or cartilage abnormalities. Early diagnosis and pain management can slow down the progression of the disease and muscle wasting that often accompanies chronic pain. Any joint can be susceptible to arthritis, but more common sites are shoulders and elbows in the front legs and hips and stifles (knees) in the back legs.
Early signs can be subtle. A change in gait is often only observed by stiffness or an occasional misstep or dragging of a paw every few steps. More obvious signs include difficulty rising, limping, or reduction in activity such as jumping or climbing stairs. You may see that your pet has more difficulty on colder days and first thing in the morning after resting. Regardless of the underlying cause and the final diagnosis, any of these changes indicate pain and should be mentioned to your vet in Apex.
Medications and Treatment
Treatment is multimodal and covers several approaches. Often your veterinarian will only implement a few treatment modes at the beginning and add on others as the need arises. The first step in treatment is to repair the primary underlying cause if possible. Surgical repair can be performed, if caught early, for some conditions such as ruptured cruciate ligaments, hip dysplasia, osteochondritis dissecans, and fractured coronoid process of the elbow. If surgery is determined as not possible or beneficial to your pet, non-surgical management is introduced.
Medical management involves pain management, weight management and exercise. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often the first choice for management of pain. NSAIDs are not without side effects so your veterinarian will try to find the smallest effective dose to provide your pet with pain relief. If more aggressive pain management is needed, your veterinarian may prescribe additional medications and supplements as needed.
Because of the potential for long-term side effects, many veterinarians will recommend supplementing your pet’s diet with other joint support agents to try to minimize the amount of medications needed. These chondroprotective agents include injectable polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (Adequan), omega fatty acids, and oral formulations containing glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate.
The goal of these supplements is to slow down or stop cartilage degradation, reduce inflammation, and to help protect the healthy joints that can be impacted by gait changes from a painful joint. It is important to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations on product and dosing since these products are not FDA regulated.
In addition to medications, it is important to institute an appropriate exercise regimen. Rehabilitation therapy can help provide low impact exercise to maintain muscle mass and keep joints moving. Underwater treadmills offer good muscle stimulation with less weight-bearing stresses on joints. Rehab and a specific exercise program for your pet’s injury, age, weight, and ability is an integral part of pain management.
Hiding food in chew toys can provide exercise and mental stimulation for your pet. Just be sure to take that into account for your pet’s daily caloric intake. Avoid exercises that implement sudden stops or changes in direction. Other methods of pain management include acupuncture, chiropractic PRP/stem cell therapy, dry needling, and therapeutic laser therapy. These are effective therapies for pain management that will supplement or possibly replace pain medications.
Another critically important aspect of arthritis treatment is weight management. The more weight your pet carries, the harder the joints have to work and the more pain and difficulty your pet will have with moving joints affected by arthritis. Your veterinarian can show you how to judge your pet’s body condition score (BCS) and help calculate a diet plan that includes type of diet and number of calories per day. Regular meal times should be implemented and any treats should be added into the total calorie count for the day. It is important to monitor your pet’s progress with regular weigh-ins to see if your efforts are effective. For pets that do not lose weight despite dieting attempts, your veterinarian may recommend blood work to check for an underlying cause of persistent weight gain. When weight management becomes difficult, we recommend working with a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a specific diet plan for your pet’s individual needs.
A thorough and descriptive history of your pet’s symptoms is also extremely helpful to your veterinarian. Document the length of duration of the signs. It is also helpful to the activities that seem to make the symptoms worse and if there is a certain time of day when the symptoms appear to be more significant. If you have a smartphone, a video of your pet showing the symptoms may be appropriate. Once treatment has started, it is also a good idea to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
Ask Your Vet
When you bring your pet to our experienced veterinarians in Apex we will perform a thorough physical exam, including the musculoskeletal system, to locate the source of the pain. We will check range of motion, thickening of the joint, musculature of the affected limbs and clicking or popping in the joints. Often, your veterinarian will likely recommend x-rays to rule out other underlying causes such as cancer, infection, fractures or spinal injury. Radiographs also provide a baseline of the injury or arthritis which can be monitored over time to help incorporate appropriate therapies as the condition progresses.
Depending on what x-rays show, further diagnostics may be required. Most likely, in cases of DJD, x-rays will confirm and/or rule out other diagnoses and treatment can be instituted.
Although osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, its adverse effects on your pet’s quality of life can be reduced and the process can be slowed down. It takes a committed owner to institute many of these changes, but in the end, it will be well worth the time and effort to see your dog or cat enjoying life every day.