Many people consider osteoarthritis an old pet’s disease, but osteoarthritis can appear at an early age. Estimates from 200 veterinarians report that osteoarthritis signs are present in 20 percent of dogs older than a year, and up to 80 percent of dogs older than 8 years have osteoarthritis evidence, based on radiographic and clinical data. In cats, osteoarthritis diagnosis is challenging, leading many cats to remain undiagnosed. Take a look at the causes, signs, and treatments of osteoarthritis in pets, so you are better prepared to help your own pet should they develop this joint condition.

What is osteoarthritis in pets?

The word “osteoarthritis” is often used interchangeably with degenerative joint disease (DJD) and the overarching term of arthritis. However, osteoarthritis is the best term, and refers to the degeneration and inflammation that develops in joints over time. This irreversible condition progresses with age. Pets with osteoarthritis lose cartilage between the joints, and have excess bone growth (i.e., bone spurs), so that the bones’ surface is no longer smooth. As the surfaces become rough and irregular and the cartilage deteriorates, the bones grind against each other, causing significant pain with disease progression. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, but most commonly appears in the stifles (i.e., knees), hips, lower spine, elbows, carpal joints (i.e., wrists), and tarsal joints (i.e., ankles). 

What causes osteoarthritis in pets?

Osteoarthritis is typically caused by developmental issues that are present from birth and worsen with age. A lifetime of wear and tear can make the following conditions painful for older pets:

  • Hip and elbow dysplasia — In pets with hip or elbow dysplasia, the bones in the joint are misformed, and do not align correctly. These conditions can lead to joint laxity, cartilage loss, scar tissue, bone spurs, and pain.  
  • Cranial cruciate ligament rupture — Similar to an ACL tear in human athletes, pets can also suffer from a ligament rupture. Without the ligament holding the bones in place as they walk, the bones will abnormally shift and cause pain and lameness in your pet. With time, this motion will cause cartilage degeneration and osteoarthritis. 
  • Osteochondrosis — Osteochondrosis is the abnormal development of the joint cartilage on the end of a bone of rapidly growing large dogs. Cartilage cracks, fissures, and cartilage flaps can occur because of abnormal joint pressure, ultimately leading to osteoarthritis.
  • Luxating patella — The patella is a small bone that sits inside the femoral groove in the knee. As your pet’s knee flexes, the kneecap can pop out of place, causing lameness.
  • Trauma — Injuries to bones, joints, and cartilage can cause osteoarthritis in the affected area.

What are osteoarthritis signs in pets?

Osteoarthritis signs tend to appear slowly and subtly, and then progress with age. Signs your furry pal may be suffering from osteoarthritis include:

  • Lameness or limping
  • Stiffness and difficulty getting up
  • Lethargy 
  • Reluctance to run, jump, or play
  • Weight gain
  • Irritable behavior, especially when petted
  • Hiding
  • Difficulty posturing to urinate or defecate
  • Loss of muscle mass, particularly in the hind end

How is osteoarthritis diagnosed in pets?

If Dr. Shannon suspects your pet has osteoarthritis, we’ll recommend the following tests to confirm our diagnosis:

  • Orthopedic exam — While an orthopedic exam is difficult to perform on cats, this exam type helps evaluate your pet’s range of motion and gait.
  • X-rays — X-rays are used to detect bony changes, so, although they can’t show cartilage degeneration, they can show bone spurs, thickened bone, and swelling.

In some cases, additional diagnostic testing is needed to rule out other potential causes for lameness or limping. These tests can include:

  • Joint tap — If your pet’s joint is excessively swollen, our veterinarian will take a sample from the swollen area, to check for infection or autoimmune disease.
  • Arthroscopy — An invasive procedure, arthroscopy uses a small camera to look inside your pet’s joint.
  • Advanced imaging — An MRI can provide information about the joint’s soft tissues, such as ligaments and menisci. A CT better assesses bone structural changes in joints.

How is osteoarthritis in pets treated?

Osteoarthritis cannot be treated, but can be successfully managed to provide a good quality of life for your pet. A multimodal treatment plan works best, and regular re-evaluation of what does and doesn’t work can keep your furry pal comfortable for years to come. Some osteoarthritis management options in pets include:

  • Pain medication — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), opioids, and medications that work on various pain pathways can minimize painful inflammation, but may have organ-related side effects.
  • Joint supplements — Supplements that contain ingredients such as glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and green-lipped mussel have been proven to boost a pet’s joint health and decrease inflammation.
  • Weight loss — Keeping your pet at a lean, healthy weight reduces the pressure placed on aching joints.
  • Stem cell therapy — By harvesting the stem cells found in your pet’s fat tissue, we can encourage these cells to become new cartilage cells, reducing pain and increasing mobility.
  • Laser therapy — A therapeutic laser’s lightwaves have healing powers that can reduce inflammation and promote repair in arthritic joints.
  • Platelet-rich plasma therapy — By separating the components of your pet’s blood sample, a hefty amount of platelets and growth factors can speed healing at the pain and injury site.
  • Assisi Loop treatment — The Assisi Loop emits bursts of microcurrent electricity that cause a chemical cascade, which activates the nitric oxide cycle. Nitric oxide is a key molecule for healing.

If your four-legged friend isn’t getting around on all fours as well as they used to, they may have developed arthritis. Contact our Cherry Knolls Veterinary Clinic team, to schedule an appointment to learn your pet’s treatment options.