This Can Emotionally and Physically Scar Your Pet for Life, Please Avoid

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

arthritic pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • One in four dogs in the U.S. develops osteoarthritis; over 90 percent of kitties age 10 and older have arthritis in at least one joint
  • Inflammation is a primary source of pain in arthritic patients, and must be well-managed to keep pets comfortable and mobile
  • The majority of arthritic pets are also overweight, and excess fat is a significant contributor to inflammation
  • Processed pet food is a primary cause of obesity in pets, so arthritic dogs and cats, in particular, should be fed an anti-inflammatory diet
  • A customized oral supplement protocol and natural therapies such as water exercise and acupuncture should also be part of a multimodal approach to effectively managing arthritis in dogs and cats

Like humans, pets can and do develop osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD). About 20 percent of dogs and cats of all ages suffer some degree of OA, including 1 in 4 dogs in the U.S.1,2 The risk increases with age, just as it does in humans. In fact, one study showed that more than 90 percent of kitties over the age of 10 have arthritis in at least one joint.3

Inflammation Is a Primary Source of Pain in Arthritic Pets

OA is a chronic inflammatory joint disease that causes pain, soreness, stiffness, swelling and lameness in pets. One of the most important ways we help dogs and cats with arthritis is managing their pain. As veterinary pain specialist Dr. Robin Downing explains it:

 “… [U]nmanaged (or undermanaged) pain leads us down a dark rabbit hole in which pain moves from a minor nuisance, to decreased quality of life, to unbearable suffering, and it can ultimately result in physical pathology that leads to death. In other words, it’s not an exaggeration to state that pain kills.”4

Inflammation is one of the pain-causing factors in arthritic pets, so decreasing it is of paramount importance in keeping your dog or cat comfortable and mobile. In addition, inflammation increases the risk for many other serious diseases, including insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory disease, cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) disease, kidney disease and decreased life expectancy.

Another disease associated with inflammation is cancer. Inflammation kills the cells of the body. It also surrounds cells with toxic inflammatory byproducts that inhibit the flow of oxygen, nutrients and waste products between cells and blood. This creates an environment in which abnormal cells proliferate.

Excess Fat Is a Primary Source of Inflammation

Unfortunately, most pets with arthritis are already, or become overweight, in part because they can no longer move around comfortably.

“The white fat that accumulates in overweight and obese patients secretes inflammatory and proinflammatory hormones that can enhance and amplify the chronic pain experience,” writes Downing. “For this reason, normalizing body composition — decreasing both the pet’s weight and the size of its fat compartment — is a critical component of any multimodal pain management strategy.”5

Downing makes the point that simply cutting back on the amount of food your pet eats isn’t enough, because while body mass will decrease, the fat compartment will remain (in proportion to the smaller body size). “In other words, a large marshmallow will simply become a smaller marshmallow,” she explains, which is why it’s necessary to feed a diet that allows the body to burn fat selectively for energy.

Veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), calls excess fat an "adipokine storm" inside your dog’s or cat’s body:

"Adipokines are signal proteins produced by fat tissue," says Ward. "Leptin, adiponectin and interleukin-6 (IL-6) are examples. We know adipokines cause or contribute to hundreds of harmful inflammatory processes throughout the body. Think of every fat cell as a little factory pumping out hundreds of potentially toxic compounds. Multiply that by millions or billions in an obese pet. The real danger of excess fat isn't the fat; it's the inflammation the fat causes."6

Ward firmly believes inflammation is the biggest threat pets face today. Scientific evidence of the damage excessive inflammation causes to the body continues to mount.

I agree, and I think toxic fat combined with a toxic environment (lawn chemicals, flame retardants/PBDEs, vaccines, and flea and tick pesticides, to name just a few) plus malnutrition, courtesy of the processed pet food industry, is a 100 percent guarantee pets will suffer from at least one degenerative condition such as arthritis in their lifetime.

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Processed Pet Food Is a Primary Source of Obesity in Dogs and Cats

Most integrative veterinarians, including me, believe processed diets are by far the biggest contributor to pet obesity. Most processed pet food isn’t biologically appropriate and contains exactly the types of ingredients that promote weight gain and inflammation in the body.

It’s also true that today’s dogs and cats are overfed and under-exercised, however, the first thing I scrutinize with any overweight patient is the type of food he’s eating. I look for things like the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the diet. Food high in omega-6 essential fatty acids and low in omega-3s (which is the case with most processed pet diets) is associated with inflammatory conditions.

Commercial pet food is also typically high in pro-inflammatory carbohydrates, including processed, high glycemic grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes or legumes, which contain lectins. If a pet is fed any dry food it’s a red flag, because all kibble contains some form of starch — it can’t be manufactured without it.

Arthritic Pets (and All Pets) Should Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

All dogs and cats, especially those with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, should be fed a moisture-rich, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet that is naturally anti-inflammatory, consisting of real, whole foods, preferably raw, organic and non-GMO. It should include:

High-quality protein, including muscle meat, organs and bone (protein coming from animal sources should make up more than 80 percent of a cat’s diet)

Low to moderate levels of animal fat (depending on your pet’s activity level)

High levels of EPA and DHA (omega-3 essential fatty acids)

A few fresh cut, fibrous vegetables, pureed

No grains or starches

A whole food vitamin/mineral supplement that meets the additional E, zinc, iron, copper, manganese and vitamin D deficiencies often found in homemade diets OR enough of these hard-to-source foods in whole food forms, daily

Beneficial additions such as probiotics, digestive enzymes and super green foods

Along with a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, it’s important to practice portion control at every meal. For most pets, this means a carefully measured morning and evening meal. And don't forget to factor in any calories from treats. You also need to know exactly how many calories your dog or cat should be eating per day. Use these calorie calculators to determine how many calories your pet should take in to lose weight or maintain his or her current weight.

Natural Supplements to Manage the Inflammation and Pain of Arthritis

Chondroprotective agents (CPAs) protect the joints and slow the rate of cartilage degeneration, and include glucosamine sulfate, collagen, MSM, eggshell membrane, perna mussel (green-lipped clam), Adequan and cetyl myristoleate.

Natural substances that can reduce or eliminate the need for painkillers in the early stages of arthritis include a high-quality omega-3 supplement (krill oil), ubiquinol, turmeric (or curcumin), supergreen foods (spirulina, astaxanthin), natural anti-inflammatory formulas (such as proteolytic enzymes and SOD), homeopathic remedies (Rhus tox, Bryonia and Arnica, for example), and Esterified Fatty Acid Complex (EFAC).

I have found CBD oil to be a very safe, long-term management strategy for chronic pain, and there are also Ayurvedic and Chinese herbs and nutraceuticals that can be very beneficial, depending on the animal’s specific symptoms.

Additional Beneficial Treatment Modalities for Arthritic Pets

Laser therapy

Maintenance chiropractic

Assisi loop

Underwater treadmill

Massage

Acupuncture

Daily stretching

I recommend bringing your arthritic pet for a wellness checkup with your integrative 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.