Triggers Lameness and Hurts Like Crazy, Do You Know the Signs?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

arthritis in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Arthritis in dogs and cats can be either a primary disease, typically as part of the aging process, or a secondary disease
  • There are several signs of arthritis in pets — the most common are limping and difficulty moving
  • Even some conventional veterinarians are beginning to recommend a multimodal treatment approach versus simply doling out the usual drugs
  • There are nontoxic pain control options that provide relief, especially for dogs and cats whose owners are also employing lifestyle modifications; a customized oral protocol is also necessary and must include chondroprotective agents
  • It’s important for both pet parents and veterinarians to continuously monitor arthritic pets and make adjustments as necessary to treatment protocols

Arthritis in dogs and cats can be a primary disease that often occurs as part of the aging process, or a secondary disease with a wide range of causes, including:

Abnormal wear and tear on joints and cartilage

Dislocation of the kneecap or subluxation of the kneecap or shoulder

Trauma

Osteochondrosis dissecans

Genetic defect (e.g., hip dysplasia)

Obesity

Excessive laxity of the joints

Certain drugs1

Abnormal development of the hip or elbow

Prolonged steroid therapy

7 Signs of Arthritis in Pets

Symptoms of arthritis vary and include the following seven as outlined by PetMD:2

    1. Limping — Limping is the No. 1 sign of arthritis in pets. If your dog or cat is favoring one or more limbs, especially when he stands up from a lying or seated position, there’s a good possibility he’s dealing with arthritic joints. Often the limp will be less pronounced after he’s been moving around for a while.

    2. Difficulty moving — Pets with arthritis often display reluctance or an inability to do certain things they once did with ease. For example, your dog may be hesitant to jump into or out of your car because he’s achy, or your kitty may try to jump up on a table or bed and not quite make it because painful joints have compromised her leaping ability.

    3. Spinal issues — Arthritic joints also occur in certain areas of the spine, which can cause your pet to hold his head lower than normal due to a sore neck, or adopt sort of a hunchback posture. Lameness in one or both back legs can also be a sign of arthritis in the spine.

    4. Fatigue — Pets with arthritis tend to tire more easily than animals with healthy joints, because pain and movement issues drain energy. You may notice your dog or cat is spending less time moving around and more time resting or sleeping.

    5. Irritability — The discomfort of arthritic joints can make even the most easygoing, friendly pet a bit snappish, especially if he’s being petted or handled in a way that increases his pain.

    6. Muscle atrophy — Left untreated, a dog or cat with arthritis will suffer muscle atrophy, which is the dying off of muscle tissue from lack of use. If one or more of your pet’s legs appears thinner than the others, it means the muscles of that leg are wasting away.

    7. Licking, chewing and biting at specific areas of the body — Some pets with arthritis lick, chew or bite at the skin overlying a painful joint, in an attempt to get some relief from discomfort. If this behavior becomes obsessive, your dog or cat can develop inflamed skin, hair loss and hot spots over affected areas.

Arthritic Pets Deserve a Multimodal Treatment Protocol

Recently I’ve been encouraged by some of my colleagues in the conventional veterinary community who are suggesting a paradigm shift is needed in treating pets with arthritis. They want veterinarians to move beyond the traditional approach of “… here's your pain reliever and your anti-inflammatory, see you later.”3

Veterinary surgeon and canine rehabilitation specialist Dr. David Dycus recommends determining a baseline with these patients through the use of joint supplements, diet and exercise. "Daily exercise is actually getting out and going on a walk," Dycus says. “What I want is for dogs to (walk for) at least 20 minutes, twice a day, level ground.”

He also makes the point that when arthritic pets visit the veterinarian, it’s usually during a flare-up of their condition. He suggests taking a step back with these patients to consider what can be done to get the flare-up under control quickly and aggressively.

In these situations, pharmaceuticals may be required, but especially in the case of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), Dycus suggests starting at the lowest dose possible, as infrequently as possible. He also recommends veterinarians use a range of treatment modalities, which might include cartilage-building joint injections, rehabilitation therapy and acupuncture.

The goal should be to keep arthritic pets active to help them maintain range of motion and lean body weight. I applaud Dr. Dycus’s less-is-more approach to NSAIDs and other drugs for pets with arthritis. As a general rule, in non-emergency situations, I always try safer, nontoxic approaches first. Drugs have their place, but in my opinion they’re overused to the point of abuse in conventional human and veterinary medicine.

Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in developing and selling their products, and sadly, many veterinarians are all too happy to help them out by prescribing drugs when there are safer options, and often without addressing the root cause of the animal’s condition.

Pain Control Options for Arthritic Pets

Pain can sometimes be managed with cold and heat therapy, and acupuncture. But as especially arthritic pets age, anti-inflammatory and pain medications are often prescribed to manage day-to-day discomfort. However, there are many wonderful natural treatments and remedies for arthritis that can reduce or eliminate the need for painkillers, including:

A high-quality omega-3 supplement (krill oil)

CBD oil

Ubiquinol

Supergreen foods (spirulina, astaxanthin)

Turmeric

Homeopathic remedies (Rhus tox, Arnica)

Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes, nutraceuticals, TCM formulas)

Esterified Fatty Acid Complex (EFAC) complex

Critical Lifestyle Recommendations

In my experience, physical therapy is an absolute must for arthritic pets and should be designed to maintain and increase joint strength, muscle tone and range of motion. This can be accomplished with therapeutic exercises, swimming and massage. Keeping your pet at a lean, healthy weight is also absolutely crucial in preventing or alleviating arthritis symptoms. An overweight dog or kitty with arthritis can have noticeable improvement in symptoms after losing just a small amount of body weight.

Pets need to move their bodies more, not less, as they age. Although the intensity, duration and type of exercise will change, daily activity is still crucial to prevent profound musculoskeletal weakness with age. Muscles maintain your pet's frame, so preserving muscle tone will also slow the amount of joint laxity (which causes arthritis) as well.

Other crucial factors in maintaining the health of an arthritic pet include feeding a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, and avoiding unnecessary re-vaccinations (titer test instead).

In addition to therapies such as laser treatments and the Assisi loop, I’ve found that incorporating maintenance chiropractic, acupuncture, daily stretching and mild exercise along with an oral protocol to manage pain and inflammation will yield the best results possible for an arthritic dog.

Oral Joint Support Recommendations

Chondroprotective agents (CPAs) that protect the joints, including glucosamine sulfate, MSM, eggshell membrane, perna mussel (green-lipped clam), Adequan and cetyl myristoleate are essential for pets with arthritis. CPAs slow the rate of cartilage degeneration, which is critical.

The form, dose and type of CPA your veterinarian prescribes should be based on a careful assessment of your dog's or cat’s individual needs. CPAs should be blended with pain control options (listed above) as necessary.

There are also Ayurvedic and Chinese herbs and nutraceuticals that can be very beneficial for dogs and cats with arthritis, depending on their individual symptoms. It's important to monitor your pet's symptoms on an ongoing basis, because arthritis progresses over time. Your dog's or cat’s body is constantly changing, and her treatment protocol will need to evolve as well.

In the vast majority of mild to moderate joint pain cases, if CPAs and natural pain control options are initiated early, the need for intermittent NSAID therapy can be minimized to those occasional “bad days” when the weather or the day’s activities temporarily exacerbate your pet’s discomfort.

Moderate to severe joint pain cases (requiring consistent NSAID drug administration to maintain quality of life) can rely on lower drug doses by using an integrative protocol. It’s also important to note that many painkillers are highly toxic to kitties.

I recommend finding an integrative or holistic veterinarian to work with you to customize a comprehensive protocol for your pet. Practitioners who’ve gone beyond their traditional veterinary school training to learn and incorporate complimentary therapies into their practice will have many more options to offer your arthritic dog or kitty.

I also recommend bringing your pet for a wellness checkup with your veterinarian at least twice a year to review the status of her health, and to check the range of motion in her joints, the muscle mass she’s either gaining or losing and to make adjustments to her protocol as necessary to ensure her quality of life is optimal.