Understanding arthritis pain in pets – and managing it

Alabama Living Magazine

Just like us, as our pets age, they slow down. A common problem in older pets is arthritis. The word means inflammation of the joint. Some of us call it Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). Arthritis can affect one or many joints of the body. When we hear arthritis, we tend to think of the knees and hips, but there are over 100 joints in the spine alone, and they could be affected as well!

Arthritis in pets

Arthritis primarily affects the joints, but the trouble spreads out to the nerves and the muscles associated with it. When we treat arthritis, we frequently forget about the associated nerve and muscle tissues. From human experience, we know that sometimes a muscle spasm hurts more than the affected joint itself. 

To understand this disease and its various presentations, the following symptoms in dogs can be helpful:

Early: Most of the time, this stage goes undiagnosed. There will be slight changes in mobility, very mild, and an almost non-noticeable delay in getting up from a sitting posture. It is best to start some intervention at this stage.

Moderate: Owners start to notice that their pets are slowing down, and a little extra effort in getting up and sometimes sitting down. Movement may be better or worse after rest or play. Cold days may be worse.

Severe: Anyone can notice this stage. The pet is visibly stiff gaited almost all the time. There is marked muscle loss. This stage may also be associated with some loss of nerve functions.

For cats, diagnosis is difficult as they are good at hiding their symptoms. Watch to see if they are avoiding jumping up on high places. It is said that over 60% of cats have some degree of arthritis after the age of 10. 

There are many treatment options for arthritis, and it can get really confusing to decide on which way to go. The exact nature of the treatment depends on the severity of the disease. I think as the disease progresses, all pets will need some support from pharmaceutical products. Our goal is to minimize and be judicious in their use. 

We tend to use the “whatever necessary” approach when the pain is severe before tapering down to the minimum effective dose. Our biggest ammunition against arthritis is client education. We teach clients the different ways pain is originated, transmitted and perceived by the brain. Then we discuss how each class of drugs helps with each of the aspects. 

We will address these details in the next article. There are many choices. There is a tremendous amount of research going on to find effective alternatives for opioids in human medicine; I am sure our pets will benefit from the outcomes, too.

Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He works at his home as a holistic veterinarian and is a member of North Alabama Electric Cooperative. Send pet-related questions to drg.vet@gmail.com.

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