Arthritis: How to recognize the signs and how to treat

Recognizing the signs of arthritis pain in our pets can be a difficult task.  While it’s true that pets can slow down with age, it can also be a sign that they are hurting.  It’s uncommon for dogs and cats to vocalize if they are experiencing arthritis pain.  Consider the following behaviors that could mean your dog or cat is in pain:

  1. Withdrawing from normal social interactions/Hiding or Attention seeking
  2. Licking a particular area on their body (especially the legs)
  3. Restlessness
  4. Difficulty rising from sitting or laying
  5. Circling repeatedly before laying down
  6. Trembling/Shaking
  7. Aggressiveness in a normally friendly dog or cat
  8. Limps/Non-weight bearing
  9. Loss of housetraining/Urinating outside of the litter box
  10. Groaning or grunting
  11. Unable to jump on or off things like normal
  12. Failure to groom normally-Coat will appear unkempt
  13. Decreased appetite
  14. Difficulty getting in or out of car
  15. Difficulty with stairs

An overall loss of muscle tone in the rear legs is a big sign that I look for in my patients.  Some animals with arthritis may cry out when the joint is manipulated while others are stoic and do not show an overt pain response.  Arthritis can be confirmed with X-rays although in many cases it is not 100% necessary.  The exception being if one leg is being affected more significantly than others.  In these cases I worry about underlying ligament issues or possible bone cancer.  Your Veterinarian can help to guide you on whether or not  X-rays are necessary.

Once we are confident that your pet has arthritis, there are many things we can do to help relieve pain.  Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are a first-line treatment for arthritis pain in dogs.  Unfortunately, our feline friends cannot tolerate long-term NSAID use.  We reserve the use of NSAIDs in cats for acute flare-ups of arthritis.  Fortunately there are many other options available to relieve arthritis pain for both our kitties and for dogs that cannot tolerate these drugs.

One of our favorite drugs to use for arthritis is Adequan.  It is an injection that works to increase the amount and viscosity of the joint fluid.  This helps to protect the cartilage from wear and tear and also helps create a cushion to prevent bone on bone contact which is painful.  Used when arthritis is first recognized, it can help to slow the progression of arthritis.  Some individuals with hunting dogs, service dogs, police dogs, etc. will use this drug as a preventative in the hopes that it will extend their longevity as a working dog.  Adequan is FDA approved for use in dogs but it is commonly used “off-label” in cats.  In our hospital, many times we instruct owners on how to administer so it can be easily done at home.  Initially it is given every 3-4 days for 8 injections then monthly.  It can safely be given every 2 weeks if needed but I find this is uncommon.

Another wonderful drug-free tool to use in cases of arthritis is the Companion Laser.  We have a Class IV Deep Tissue laser which penetrates tissue and reduces pain and inflammation by creating both a photothermal and photochemical reaction in the cells.  The exact mechanism is very complex and beyond the scope of this blog.  We use the laser for many different problems and issues including wounds, ear infections, hot spots, etc.  When we use it for chronic conditions such as arthritis, we recommend bringing your pet in every other day or three times a week initially during the induction phase.  We will then gradually decrease the frequency during the transition phase until we arrive at a frequency that works to keep your pet comfortable.  Most of the time we can decrease the number of treatments down to one every 3-4 weeks.  Keep in mind, all lasers are not created equal.  They are classified from 1-4 with Class 4 being the strongest and most effective.

Omega 3 fatty acids are a great addition to our pets with arthritis.  Make sure to obtain a high quality product.  We use Derma-3 and Ultra Oil in the hospital for the ease of administration and the confidence we have in the companies that make them.  For dogs, we commonly use 300 mg of combined DHA and EPA per 10# of body weight per day.  In cats, do not use more than 300 mg no matter the size.  Hill’s and Royal Canin both have prescription diets that are high in Omegas which can also be a good option.

There are multiple Glucosamine/Chondroitin supplements out in the market these days.  Some common ones are Cosequin, Dasiquin, Phycox and Flexadin.  I highly discourage the use of off-brand supplements as there is no oversight of these products and the ingredients cannot be verified.  The same is true when using human supplements.  It’s best to go with a reputable brand that you trust.  The efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin products is uncertain although I have many clients tell me they can tell a difference in mild cases of arthritis.  Whether this is placebo effect or not, I do not honestly know.  I generally recommend them but if finances are tight, this is one supplement I feel comfortable skipping.  They can’t hurt but they may not serve as anything else other than a treat.

We currently use a multitude of pain medications for our arthritis patients.  These include Tramadol, Gabapentin and Amantadine.  These are human drugs that we use in animals.  Keep in mind that it is never appropriate to use your own medications on your pets.  There is a huge dose range and it isn’t uncommon in human medicine for drugs to be combined with other drugs that are not appropriate for pets.  The above drugs are commonly prescribed along with NSAIDs.

There are other modalities that can be adopted depending on your pet’s response to treatment.  These include acupuncture, chiropractic care, pet rehabilitation/physical therapy and stem cell therapy.

It’s extremely important to keep your pet at his or her optimum weight.  Obese patients are a lot more prone to developing arthritis than their slender counterparts.  Patients with arthritis need to be encouraged to go on regular walks (20-60 minutes daily).  If there is access to a pool, swimming can be a wonderful exercise for those pets who enjoy swimming.

Seeing our pets age is heartbreaking but feel good about the fact that there are many things available to help them age with grace and comfort.  Please let us know if we can help answer any questions about your pet’s arthritis pain.

Advanced Pet Care of Clear Lake  281-486-1509

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