Hannah Curwood has been doing some research into arthritis after her own dog, Hayes, was diagnosed with the disease.
Osteoarthritis is a very common affliction, affecting a large proportion of our older pets as well as some younger animals who may have suffered an injury, undergone surgery or been born with a joint defect. As the owner of an elderly arthritic dog myself, I have seen firsthand how severe OA can affect not only the life of a pet but also the life of an owner as we struggle to find ways to accommodate Hayes’ pain and stiffness. This has spurred me on to research the latest treatment regimes for OA in an effort to not only treat but improve her condition. Since integrating some changes into her lifestyle we have seen a large improvement, she is a much happier and more active dog and we can rest easy knowing we are doing all we can for her (until the next therapeutic development!).
While traditionally, stiffness, soreness and the resulting changes in lifestyle and mobility have often been seen as ‘a part of getting old’, there are many things we can do to slow the progression of this disease while also making our pets more comfortable. At its pinnacle, treatment for OA can expand both the quality and quantity of our lovely old pets’ lives. An effective, holistic treatment plan for arthritis will take a multi-modal approach to encompass weight management, diet, exercise and lifestyle as well as prescription drugs and holistic treatments or supplements.
Signs of OA
Some owners may be unaware that their pet is suffering from OA and so it is helpful to examine some of the signs that arthritic pets may exhibit.
• Slowing down, not being as interested in usual activities as they used to.
• Having trouble jumping on and off the bed or into the car.
• Difficulty going up and down stairs.
• Licking of joints.
• Exhibiting ‘grumpiness’ with people or other pets which is out of character.
• Looking stiff when they get up in the morning.
• Lameness or change in gait.
• Jumping up onto surfaces less/jumping onto lower surfaces than usual.
• Loss of interest in scratching poles or going outside.
• Exhibiting ‘grumpiness’ with people or other pets which is out of character, particularly when stroked.
• Decreased activity or lethargy.
• Swelling of the joints.
• Difficulty going up or down stairs, using the litter tray or the cat flap.
• Inappropriate toileting.
• Lameness or change in gait.
If you suspect your pet may be suffering from OA then the next step is to book them in to see the vet. Your vet may be able to diagnose arthritis from a physical exam or may suggest imaging such as x-rays or a CT scan so that we can ascertain exactly what is going on with the joints. Having a complete picture of how advanced the disease is enables your vet to tailor the treatment plan accordingly as well as monitor the progression of the disease accurately.
Managing your pet’s weight well costs nothing and is one of the most important things you can do to prevent and alleviate OA. Excess weight not only puts extra strain on the joints causing more pain, the fatty tissue actually causes an inflammatory response within the body which can lead to or worsen arthritis. Studies have shown that slim pets not only suffer less from OA (and many other diseases), they can also live up to two years longer. Talk to your vet nurse about a healthy weight for your pet, if your pet is overweight your nurse can help you develop a weight loss regime.
Multi-modal drug treatment
OA being a painful inflammatory condition, the vet may well suggest medication to make your pet more comfortable. Different medications have different functions, one may act to reduce the inflammation that is contributing to the condition while another may work by interrupting pain signals that are being sent down the spinal cord. This means that adopting a multi-modal approach where combinations of different drugs are used simultaneously can be extremely effective. Once the pain levels are under control and we have instituted other lifestyle adjustments the vet may look at reducing medication, or it may be that your pet needs to stay on their drug regime in order to live a comfortable life.
Drugs for OA are broadly categorised as follows:
NSAIDS (Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) - work to reduce inflammation and therefore pain. They are extremely effective as a first port of call for OA and generally safe for your pet to take however your vet will recommend blood tests before prescribing and every 6 months thereafter in order to monitor kidney function. Examples include Metacam, Rimadyl and Carprox.
Opioids - act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain. Examples include Tramadol and Codeine.
NDMA receptor antagonists - act to modulate the pain response by antagonising the N-methyl-daspartate (NMDA) receptor. These receptors are found throughout the central nervous system, and play an important role in pain pathways. These drugs are considered an adjunct to the analgesic drugs as they do not necessarily induce pain control directly, but reset spinal cord receptors so that other analgesics can work more effectively. Results have shown that using them in conjunction with traditional anti-inflammatory drugs can improve comfort significantly. Examples include Gabapentin, Amantadine, Ketamine and Amitriptyline.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, exercise is very important for animals suffering from OA. Put simply, the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ applies. Joints that are kept mobile stay healthier, as movement stimulates the production of synovial fluid (‘joint fluid’) and helps to break down effusions. Exercise also helps to build up muscle, which in turn helps to support the joints. Animals that receive little or no exercise will be much stiffer than those that are taken on gentle walks or given gentle exercise every day. Having said that, it is important to be sensible when exercising arthritic pets and not overdo it - the ball-thrower might have to be hung up! It is important to keep exercise regular, low impact and gentle. Cats may benefit from ‘play-time’ with their favourite toy every day or being asked to ‘hunt’ for their food by searching for it around the house (for inspiration see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTY8MAjd3_k and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWOEX7RIGhI). Your vet or vet nurse can advise you on an exercise programme for your pet.
Certain foods may increase inflammation and aggravate arthritis. Some people have found that eliminating grains from the diet improves their dogs’ symptoms, sometimes to the point that no other treatment is needed. Indeed, a high carbohydrate diet can have inflammatory side effects and so it makes sense to keep arthritic dogs on a diet that is low in grain and carbohydrates and high in protein and anti-inflammatory omega 3 oils. I have switched my own dog to a raw diet (she has been on packaged Hill’s or Eukanuba her whole life) and supplement this diet with YuMove which contains concentrated Omega 3s, Chondroitin Sulphate from Green Lipped Mussel which helps to slow the breakdown of cartilage and Vitamins C and E to neutralise free radicals, thus assisting in the maintenance of joint mobility. There are a plethora of supplements on the market and they are not cheap so it pays to use one that is recommended by your vet, has been peer reviewed and has robust scientific research behind it - they don’t all do what they say on the tin! I have found that Hayes has improved immensely since I have shifted her off her high carb processed diet and she LOVES the raw food. Raw food does require careful sourcing and handling - talk to us if you have any questions about this.
Physiotherapy and Hydrotherapy
Physiotherapy and hydrotherapy are extremely effective treatments for arthritis. They work to strengthen specific muscles, lubricate the joints and exercise your pet in a way that does not cause strain on the joints. Hydrotherapy is especially great for dogs suffering from hip dysplasia - it is so important to build up those thigh muscles! We can happily recommend local practitioners to you if you’d like to investigate these options, so just ask!
Massage and Passive Range of Motion exercises can also be performed daily at home and are very effective if done on a regular basis. You can follow these links to demonstration videos on PRM here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dcYVODa2RQ and massage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6ZK9EwOFI0. It may take your pet some time to get used to these exercises so start gently but usually they will learn to love it!
Holistic therapies such as acupuncture and laser therapy can be a fantastic adjunct to more traditional medical therapies for some pets and, while we do not offer them in-house, we by no means discourage them and always look forward to hearing about the efficacy of such treatments.
No two pets are the same and the treatment path for arthritis will vary with each individual. It is so encouraging to know how much we can do to help those suffering from OA and we look forward to chatting to you to help you develop a plan to suit your lifestyle and that of your pet.
Life Hacks for arthritic pets!
• Place litter boxes and food and water dishes where your cat can reach them easily. You may need to find litter boxes with lower sides.
• Ramps to help dogs get in and out of cars and onto the bed will save your back and give your dog the confidence to resume their normal daily activities without jarring their joints.
• Going up and down stairs is often difficult for arthritic pets. Many people build ramps to help the cat get to different areas of the house. A friend made a set of 'stairs' from cushions so her cat could get up on the couch to his favorite spot to watch the birds. Use your ingenuity to design ways to decrease jumping but increase movement. For those big on DIY, you may want to have a go at building a cute stairlift for your dog like this one... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVmFAqkfKag
• For dogs who have trouble on slippery floors, boots with extra grip are available - most dogs tolerate them very well and they really work - no more sliding about or not wanting to walk on the tiles!
• Many cats may have difficulty grooming, so gently brushing your cat and/or cleaning the rectal area may help him in this important daily activity.
• For dogs who can’t bear to miss out on daily walks but can’t quite make the whole distance any more there are a wide range of bike trailers or doggy strollers that mean they can still join in the fun. These come in especially handy in multi-dog households.