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What help is available if your pet has arthritis?

Many pets start to show changes in their appearance, health and behaviour as they age. One disease which is very common and causes significant suffering is arthritis. Arthritis is a debilitating degenerative joint disease that can make normal behaviour such as standing, walking, grooming themselves, getting up, jumping or playing painful for your pet.

Not all cases of arthritis are obvious, and the disease can affect a variety of joints in the body, not just the limbs. Many pets don’t limp at all, but will show reluctance to play or engage in activities they used to enjoy or perform regularly (such as jumping up onto a couch or bed, or going up or down stairs). Although arthritis can’t be cured, the good news is that its onset and progress can be managed. Keeping note of any changes in your pet’s activity levels and behaviour is helpful, so you can alert your vet.

Arthritis in pets

As our pets get older, we may notice them acting withdrawn, slowing down on walks, having trouble climbing or descending stairs or seeming reluctant to play. They may even repeatedly lick certain areas on their legs or cry out in pain when we try to touch them. Some pets will limp or walk with a slow, stiff gait, or struggle to get up. Many dogs and cats will hide their pain, making it difficult to know just how much they are suffering. So, what is arthritis and what can we do to help our pets?

What is Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis, commonly referred to as arthritis, is often seen in companion animals. It is a progressive disease in which joint pain, stiffness and limitation of movement worsens over time due to the deterioration and destruction of joint cartilage, abnormal changes the other tissues around the joint (such as bone, joint fluid and lining, supporting structures), and associated inflammation. It not only affects joints in the limbs, but also other parts of the skeleton such as the neck and back.

Senior animals, overweight animals and those with orthopaedic issues like hip and elbow dysplasia are also commonly affected, as are those with a history of joint trauma. Booking in regular vet visits is vital so your pet can have a full health check and you can discuss any concerns.

Treatment options

If your pet has arthritis, there are several ways you can help them feel more comfortable:

1. Consult your vet for effective treatments

If appropriate, a vet can give your pet a course of injections to help combat the effects of arthritis by increasing joint fluid production and help the body repair joint cartilage, making your pet feel much more comfortable. These injections are generally given as an initial course of one a week for four weeks, with repeat injections at intervals that are considered best for your pet. Your vet may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or pain relief to ease your pet’s discomfort.

Special diets for pets with arthritis (enriched with nutrients such as omega fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin) are now available and your vet can recommend the best one for your dog or cat. Joint care supplements can be beneficial as they can help reduce joint inflammation and stimulate the synthesis of cartilage. Joint care supplements are available as flavoured chews, powder and liquid formulations. In some cases, surgery is an option, for example hip replacements for dogs with hip dysplasia.

2. Ensure your pet is the right weight

Being overweight puts extra strain on already painful limbs. With the help of your vet, it may be appropriate to start a gradual weight reduction diet and also gently and progressively work towards increasing the amount of exercise your pet gets. This may seem difficult in some cases, but not being the correct weight can cause your pet significant pain and distress. Similarly, a thin animal may be particularly uncomfortable if they don’t have bedding with extra thick cushioning to lay on as they have less soft tissue padding. Your vet is the best source of nutritional advice and will give you an honest answer about whether your pet needs to be a healthier weight. Body condition charts for dogs and cats are available to help determine if your pet is over or underweight, but it is best to consult your vet for advice.

3. Offer soft bedding in a warm place

Soft and well-padded bedding and a warm, draft-free spot to sleep in winter are important for pets who may have arthritis. Available in pet supply stores, a memory foam bed is well worth the investment for arthritic pets. Coats for colder weather are also a good option for those pets who accept them.

4. Install ramps and non-slip flooring

If possible, use a ramp to help your dog get in and out of the car. Ramps or pet stairs can be used to help your dog or cat access higher places they frequent, such as the couch or bed. Non-slip flooring (even old yoga mats or rubber-backed mats) in the house can be helpful to prevent slipping, especially if you have slippery flooring like polished wood, concrete or tiles.

Cats having difficulty getting into and out of their litter trays may benefit from a tray with a lower ‘lip’. These can be bought, or you can make your own with something like a shallow baking tray or plastic container. Just remember that the litter tray needs to be large enough for your cat to comfortably dig, turn around and squat (for more information, see the RSPCA’s Safe and Happy Cats page). If you have a multi-level home, you should also make sure that your arthritic cat has at least one litter tray on each level that is easy to access.

5. Gentle massage and grooming

Your pet may be less likely to be able to keep themselves clean when they have arthritis. Daily soft brushing and a gentle massage may help them feel better, but be extra careful around the areas where they are sore and stop if they seem uncomfortable. Keep their claws trimmed, either at home or at the vet clinic or groomer. Use warm water to gently wash your pet when needed, or consider a visit to a groomer or vet clinic for a hydrobath. Take extra care to make sure they don’t slip on wet surfaces.

Keeping pets mobile and pain-free

Arthritis is a common condition in dogs and cats, especially as they age. With veterinary guidance, arthritis can be well managed to keep our pets as mobile and pain-free as possible, so they can still enjoy a good quality of life well into their senior years.

Pet insurance can be a great way to help your dog or cat receive the veterinary treatment they need for eligible illnesses and accidental injuries. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the valuable work of the RSPCA.

Dr Catherine Tiplady bio image

Dr Catherine Tiplady

Dr Catherine Tiplady studied veterinary science at the University of Queensland. After graduation, Dr Catherine worked in veterinary practice whilst undertaking postgraduate research in Animal Welfare, gaining additional degrees in Bachelor of Applied Science (Animal Studies) (Hons 1) and a PhD. Dr Catherine has published widely in peer reviewed scientific journals and has also authored a book, ‘Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People’. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Catherine also has her own business performing gentle in-home pet euthanasia and provides veterinary care and desexing services for animal welfare charities. Dr Catherine brings her passion for animal welfare, love of writing and scientific training together to contribute quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance’s Pet Care blog.