Animal Joint Care 101: Does Your Pet Have an Arthritis Treatment Checklist? (Part 2)

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: January 22, 2021
Published: April 12, 2010
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Ever heard the words,“There’s not much we can do for your pet’s arthritis?”

While that may well be true for some, the vast majority of dogs and cats CAN be treated for osteoarthritis (arthritis, for short). Though the inexorable progression of the disease may be unstoppable, their symptoms can be alleviated by a variety of not-necessarily-so-dramatic approaches to treatment.

Unfortunately, it’s my experience that the prevailing perception among pet owners, with respect to arthritis, is overwhelmingly one of downright pessimism. Convincing most of my clients that anything short of a hip replacement (or some other version of major surgery) will improve their pets is pretty much an uphill battle. Sadly, it’s this negativity — not biology — that most tends to stand in the way of their pets' improved comfort.

It’s my job in this post to prove to you, as I attempt to do for them, that positive approaches can reap big rewards. Here goes...

If you’ve got a pet over five years of age, chances are he or she is already in need of an arthritis assessment. This means you’ve got to honestly take stock of a variety of issues (Note: If you’re unsure of any of the following, take the time to make an extra appointment with your veterinarian to discuss the issue and determine your pet’s arthritis susceptibility status):

  • Is he large for his species (or a large breed)?
  • Is she overweight? If so, by how much?
  • Has he slowed down, or experienced exercise intolerance, reluctance to jump, muscle mass loss, or any of the other signs we discussed in the first post in this series?
  • Does she have any joint troubles? Ever suffered knee instability? Back pain? Orthopedic trauma?
  • Has your veterinarian expressed concern over any of these above issues, or ever mentioned that your pet is at high risk for osteoarthritis?

If you answered yes to any of these bullet points then you desperately need what I call an "arthritis therapy checklist." Yes, even cat owners should understand the critical importance of prevention, early detection and timely intervention when it comes to this common disease. But even if you’ve got a geriatric pet with advanced evidence of osteoarthritis, don’t despair … it’s never too late.

To that end, here’s the therapeutic checklist I urge you to examine and internalize:

1. Your veterinarian: The key to knowing how to use your veterinarian for osteoarthritis evaluation and treatment is to understand that it’s always best to see a veterinary specialist if you’ve got a pet with early signs and symptoms of orthopedic discomfort. (Board-certified veterinary surgeons are the ideal candidates for advanced orthopedic evaluations.)

Even if the symptoms arrive on cue with advancing age, it’s not always a given that arthritis cannot be mitigated by additional treatments like surgery or specific rehabilitation therapy.

2. Weight loss: This is the single biggest area in which our pets are under treated for their symptomatic arthritis, or for their yet-to-be-revealed-but-definitely-in-the-works arthritis. After all, we know that our afflicted or at-risk pets who carry excessive poundage are only compounding their current and future disease by doing so.

It’s for that reason that I strongly recommend that all of my at-risk or affected patients — even my very young but poorly built patients (think: hip dysplasia, dwarfed limbs or intervertebral disc disease) — stay on the lean side. It’s no longer good enough to attain a normal weight. Keeping them extra-lean is how their arthritis is best controlled. (Easier said than done, I know.)

3. Exercise: Unless their condition specifically dictates otherwise, exercise is a good thing. A very good thing. Keeping muscle mass at its bulkiest possible is always helpful for those whose weakness means more disuse, and a few rungs further down that downward spiral trend.

Swimming, of course, tops my go-to exercise list. Pools, underwater treadmills, lakes, rivers, bays, beaches — the bathtub, even — I could care less. Use a life vest if need be. Just start early … and do it often. Nothing works as well. But that doesn’t mean that other means to achieving the same end shouldn’t be applied if swimming is absolutely out. 

4. Supplements: For the last decade or two, glucosamine has been at the head of this category’s must-do list. Recently, however, fatty acids have proven themselves every bit as worthy. Here’s a study on this from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), published this past January.

The problem is, as many of my clients swear by these supplements as those that claim they do little to nothing. And while the veterinary literature supports the use of both of these supplements, the human medical literature offers a halfhearted lack thereof. All of which leads to lots of confusion among my clients, and plenty of poor compliance even when I think I’ve succeeded in convincing them that, on balance, both of these ingredients are VERY worthwhile.

5. "Alternative" therapies: Massage, acupuncture, and chiropractics have all been shown to be of benefit to arthritis patients of the canine and feline persuasion. But be warned: There are plenty of not-so-certified practitioners of these arts out there. Make sure you act on a solid recommendation, and that the highest levels of certification have been attained.

6. Simple home care: It’s my experience that most pet owners don’t recognize that plenty of factors in the home environment can make a huge difference to dogs and cats with osteoarthritis. Consider the lowly non-slip floor, for example. For dogs in particular, slippery floors and stairs make movement less safe, and definitely more stressful. Would you walk around as much as you might otherwise if you always felt like landing splay-legged and immobile might happen with any misstep? Booties and floor runners may work well in these cases. So too would be keeping all those things your pet needs on one level.

7. Drugs: There are lots and lots of choices here. Unfortunately, they’re the first approach too many of my colleagues reach for — not to mention the one too many pet owners assume is the only way to treat arthritis. Nonetheless, they are VERY helpful for most of my patients. But they’re never my first choice … that is, unless I’m faced with a patient whose parents absolutely refuse to look at things any other way. The only caveat to this is my use of Adequan. Here's more on this drug.

Except for the drugs, every other approach listed above deserves the "early and often" designation. In other words, knowing your pet's got a high risk factor for arthritis means you should be hitting all these high notes as soon as you're made aware. So what are you waiting for?


Dr. Patty Khuly

Art of the day: "A white dog." by Honou.