Have you seen the video of the otter playing basketball? He has arthritis, and his veterinarian recommended he get more exercise to help keep his joints as healthy as possible. The otter’s caretakers came up with the ingenious idea of training him to dunk a basketball.

I bring up the otter video, not just because it’ll put a smile on your face, but also because it serves as a good reminder of the importance of exercise in the treatment of arthritis. The old phrase "use it or lose it" certainly applies.

There’s no doubt that an arthritic joint is painful, and our natural reaction is to avoid the activities that cause the pain. We treat our pets in the same way. If it hurts a dog to go for a walk, wouldn’t it be better to avoid the walk? Absolutely not.

Exercise has too many positive effects to ignore:

  • Exercise keeps the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that surround joints strong. Weak supportive tissues promote joint laxity (looseness), which can worsen arthritis.
  • Exercise promotes a normal range of motion of a joint, preventing stiffness.
  • Exercise helps keep pets slim. Extra weight increases the load that the animal has to bear on a joint, making movement even more painful. We are also just beginning to understand the adverse physiological effect that excess fat can have on the body (e.g., increasing inflammation).
  • Exercise stimulates the production of high-quality joint fluid which lubricates the joint and nourishes cartilage.

The solution to keeping pets comfortable in the face of arthritis is not to limit their activity level (or allow them to limit it themselves) but to treat their pain. One of the greatest advances in veterinary medicine in the last decade or so is our ability to safely and more effectively eliminate pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), opioid derivatives, nutraceuticals, acupuncture, low-level laser therapy, and other options can all be used, ideally in combination, to allow pets to enjoy the benefits of exercise without significant discomfort.

Initially, treatment for pain may need to be quite aggressive, particularly if the pet has been sedentary for awhile. Once the benefits of exercise start to kick in (weight loss, increased strength, better joint mobility, etc.), the need for pain relievers often decreases.

I have put many an inactive, arthritic dog on a NSAID, tramadol, and/or joint supplements; prescribed acupuncture; come up with a weight loss program; etc. (each plan’s details are specific to the case). After a few days to a week of treatment, owners often report that their pets are "acting like a puppies again." With time and continued exercise, I have been able to wean many of these individuals off most of their pain relievers, oftentimes only keeping an NSAID or some tramadol on hand for the occasional "bad day."

And as the video of the otter makes clear, in addition to being good for an animal’s joints, exercise can also be a whole lot of fun.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: lightpoet / via Shutterstock