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Caring for your senior pet

Just as in humans, as our pets grow older, so signs of aging start to creep into their everyday lives. One of the common ailments in older pets is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is defined as inflammation of a joint. In older animals, we classify it as degenerative joint disease or DJD, which is the permanent and progressive deterioration of the joint’s cartilage.

The common causes of osteoarthritis include:

  • degeneration of joints from everyday wear and tear

  • degeneration caused by trauma, injuries and some diseases

  • in younger animals it can develop from poor conformation or genetic factors e.g. hip and elbow dysplasia.

Other factors predisposing an animal to osteoarthritis include poor diet, especially during the growing years, and being overweight. All these factors affect the amount and distribution of stress on the cartilage as well as the joint’s ability to withstand it.

How do I know if my pet is suffering from osteoarthritis?

Clinical signs include:

  • struggling to get up or walk,

  • decreased activity,

  • change in gait,

  • limping,

  • creaking joints,

  • pain on joint manipulation,

  • decreased range of motion,

  • muscle loss

Signs are often worse in the morning after a long period of inactivity, after exercise and in cooler weather. Clinical signs are often less noticeable in smaller sized pets.

Cats can suffer from osteoarthritis too!

Cat also suffer for arthritis and this is often noticed as a reluctance to jump onto surfaces.

Additionally, as pet owners we must realise that an animal’s innate behaviour is to not show pain externally, and thus one may not notice that their pet is suffering.

How is osteoarthritis treated and can it be cured?

Prevention is always better than a cure and in the case of osteoarthritis preventative measures include ensuring your pet eats a good quality scientifically formulated pet food from the start! During a dog or cats growing years this ensures that the joint tissue gets the nutrients it requires to be as healthy as possible.

One should strive to keep our pets at their ideal weight to decrease the strain on the joints. Pet obesity does not just play a major factor in your pet’s joint health but has a major impact on other areas of your pets’ health too.

Exercise is healthy and good for your pets, but one should steer clear of extreme exercise until ones pet has fully developed. The body also needs to become accustomed to the intensity of exercise. Injuries, such as cruciate ligament ruptures, should be attended to as soon as possible to decrease the amount of arthritis that forms as a result of the bodies’ attempt to stabilize the joint.

Many veterinary practices run senior wellness clinics, where your pet can be assessed for DJD as well as other medical conditions that are commonly seen in older animals. It is often diagnosed based on a combination of clinical signs and joint manipulation. X-rays can also be taken to confirm a diagnosis in a mild case, to rule out other conditions or to assess the severity of joint destruction.

What should I do if my pet has already been diagnosed with osteoarthritis or DJD?

There are numerous options for animals which have already developed arthritis. Unfortunately DJD causes permanent damage to the animals joints and treatment is focused at controlling the signs and symptoms, as well as trying to delay the progression of the condition. This emphasizes why it is important to start treatment as promptly as possible.

Treatment may include medication to alleviate the pain and joint supplementation to aid in cartilage health, prevent degeneration and aid regeneration. Mild exercise and physiotherapy aid in maintaining joint mobility, with non weight bearing exercise such as swimming being the gold standard. Exercise also helps to keep weight down and prevent muscle wasting which is important as muscles aid in joint stabilization too. The use of joint supplements often allows one to be on a lower dose of anti-inflammatory pain killers, which is of advantage to your pet, as all medications have side effects.

Joint supplements usually include the nutraceuticals such chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine as a basic. Some have additional elements such as omega oils and MSM. Feeding a quality diet to your pet can also play a major role in maintaining and slowing down the effects of osteoarthritis. Apart from some of the high quality senior foods having some of these elements already incorporated into the kibble there are specially formulated foods made for arthritic animals which have high levels of these supplements and have been proven to reduce the effects of osteoarthritis.

If you believe that your pet may be suffering from osteoarthritis, it is important to visit your veterinarian and have your pet evaluated. In pets older than seven years we recommend a senior check up at least once or twice annually to monitor your pets health and identify any problems timeously.

Kind Regards,
Dr Lara Frampton
BSc BVSc