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Arthritis is the one of the phrases that every pet owner dreads

We all take joy in watching our pets enjoy the activities of their daily lives, and for most that means running, jumping, pouncing and catching as they go for walks, play with their buddies and patrol their gardens. When the word ‘arthritis’ is first spoken, it brings with it misery and fear. Most of us know human friends afflicted by arthritis, and we fear the worst. We implicitly understand that arthritis is a disease for life, and one which is progressive (gets gradually worse) at that. What we don’t always realise is that there are different forms of arthritis with different causes, and that while people relatively often suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, where the body’s immune system becomes confused and attacks the joints, our pets more often get osteoarthritis which has very different causes and effects. Hearing that a pet as young as 3 or 4 years old, or even less than 12 months in cases where developmental diseases have led to joint damage very early in life, such as hip dysplasia, often sounds frighteningly like a death sentence to the patient’s owner. While it is true that we can’t reverse the changes that arthritis causes in the affected joints, there are many ways we can help to manage the pain associated with arthritis and help keep pets mobile and active.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis means inflammation of the joints and can affect one or more of a pet’s joints. There are different forms of arthritis, including:

  • Osteoarthritis, where there is damage to the cartilage that coats the end of the bones where they meet in the joints, causing loss of the shock absorbing and smooth sliding movements of the joints and leading to pain, changes in the shape of the bone and extra bony bits around the joint (osteophytes) and reduced ability to bend and straighten the joints and soak up the impact forces on the bones when walking and moving around.
  • Septic arthritis, where there is infection in a joint, with bacteria, a virus or other types of living organism getting inside. Joints are a protected environment without a lot of ability to fight off infection, and the effects are devastating.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system becomes confused and launches an attack on the joints instead of recognising them as part of the body.

The exact ways in which arthritis may affect your pet depends on what type he is suffering from. Your vet will be able to help you understand what kind of arthritis your pet has, and discuss why it might have happened. Sometimes this is not clear, because small injuries that did not seem to cause a lot of trouble at the time, or slight uneven stresses on joints over a long period of time can be implicated. With osteoarthritis in particular, the actual cause is not always discovered, but the importance of treating the patient effectively from the start cannot be underestimated.

What does arthritis mean for my pet?

For most pets who have osteoarthritis, the disease has a gradual progression where for most of the time the affected joints are relatively settled without many signs of problems, and have occasional acute flare-ups with swelling, heat and pain. Over time, the joints may become sorer for more of the time as the cartilage is worn away and the underlying bones rub and suffer from reduced blood supply. The joints become stiffer as scar tissue forms, and the pet begins to avoid using them. Although arthritis is a painful condition, the pain is often a nagging, dull ache that does not go away, and not the kind that makes the patient yelp or scream. Instead, the signs that the pet is in pain are more subtle, like sleeping more, not eating well, stopping grooming and having difficulty getting upstairs. These signs are frequently put down to just getting older. This often means that the extent of the pain which the patient is suffering only becomes apparent when it is taken away, and he suddenly starts to become his old self again.

How can I help my pet?

There are lots of ways to help tackle arthritis. Rheumatoid and septic arthritis have very specific needs, which involve treating the underlying cause of the joint inflammation. Osteoarthritis can benefit from a combination of different types of treatment, or modalities, which when used together can give better control of the pain and debility associated with this disease. The exact treatment appropriate for any particular pet depends on their exact signs and the way their arthritis affects them. Some examples of treatments which can help arthritis include:-

  • Medications. There are lots of different types of painkilling medicines available now, and it may be necessary to try more than one or even a combination to see what suits your pet best.
  • Complementary therapies for pain relief such as acupuncture and TENS can be used in addition to medicines where necessary, or as alternatives if the patient is unable to take conventional painkillers for any reason.
  • Hydrotherapy can help to take the load off arthritic joints, improve the circulation to aching muscles and allow the patient to exercise and rebuild muscle strength with less impact on the joints, as well as causing the release of the body’s own inbuilt pain-killing substances into the bloodstream.
  • Massage and hot or cold therapy can help relieve the pain of muscles that are overworked or in spasm.
  • Physiotherapy and therapeutic exercises can help to free up some of the restrictions to the joints and stretch tight muscles, allowing them to function better and pump the fluid around the joints, nourishing cartilage and keeping the body’s balance sensor system in good order.
  • Ultrasound can help to warm up joints and allow the capsule around them to stretch and return to normal flexibility.

If your pet has been diagnosed with arthritis, there may well be lots you can do. Speak to your vet about what kind of arthritis he has and whether rehabilitation could help. Many of our much-loved family pets suffer from some form of arthritis as they get older, and good advice on what to do and support in coping is invaluable. If you are not sure whether your pet may be showing signs that might indicate arthritis such as stiffness, sleeping more, not eating well, lameness, limping, struggling to get up, not grooming or licking one area excessively, check out our page on pain, and ask your vet to check your pet out. If you’d like to ask us more about how rehabilitation could help your pet, just give us a ring on 01484 450022.