Diagnosing and Managing Osteoarthritis

by Brittany Yates, DVM

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Ask yourself: Does your pet seem stiff in the morning? Is your cat avoiding their cat tree? Is your dog moving a little slower on walks? If so, it might be time for you and your veterinarian to have a discussion about osteoarthritis.

Arthritis is a term used loosely in senior pets, but it is actually a complex condition involving several things, and there isn’t a one-treatment-fits- all approach. The break down of the word is the first part to understanding this disease process. “Osteo” refers to bone, “arthro” meaning joint, and “itis” indicates inflammation. Animals that suffer from this have pain due to the inflammation that exists in their joints. Osteoarthritis occurs in all animals, just like it can in humans.

It’s important for pet owners to learn to recognize the clinical signs of osteoarthritis, because domesticated pets commonly mask the signs and compensate for the chronic pain and inflammation.

It’s important for pet owners to learn to recognize the clinical signs of this disease process. Our domesticated pets commonly mask the signs of this disease and compensate for the chronic pain and inflammation they suffer from. Subtle signs to watch for include difficulty getting up/ down, slowing down during exercise, and not jumping onto furniture anymore. More obvious signs would include limping/lameness, swollen appearance of joints, irritability when touched, and inappropriate elimination habits (e.g., accidents in the house, going outside the litter box).

There are also risk factors and predispositions to developing osteoarthritis. Diseases such as elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament injuries, and patellar luxation are the main ones. Trauma would be another predisposing factor, especially if there was an injury such as a fracture to bones. Congenital deformities to the bones can also predispose pets. Obesity is another very important risk factor, one that we as pet owners can help control. Obesity is significantly easier to control when a pet is younger. By the time they are older and osteoarthritis has developed, it is much more difficult for them to be medically managed and appropriately lose the weight. Veterinarians and owners have to struggle with trying to balance their weight loss and controlling their pain.

The first step in diagnosing osteoarthritis is taking radiographs. This is a key and very important step, because it allows us to visualize the bones/ joints and determine the severity of the disease. Once the degree of arthritis has been determined, then your veterinarian can have a discussion with you on starting the appropriate medical therapies for your pet.

One of the first therapies often started with is nutraceuticals. Glucosamine and chondroitin are nutritional supplements that aid in the health of cartilage and joint fluid. This is very important because of the damage that occurs to both with this disease. The other common component of joint nutraceuticals is MSM or methylsulfonylmethane. MSM has been shown to aid in joint health by working at a cellular level like glucosamine and chondroitin. Frequently, people just place their pet on a glucosamine chondroitin supplement that they purchased over the counter, or they estimate what they think the pet should receive based on their own body weight. This is not appropriate and should be a discussion with your veterinarian.

Other medical therapies your veterinarian will often discuss with you are the use of NSAIDs, pain medications, prescription joint health diets, and chondroprotectants such as Adequan. First and foremost, never give your pet over-the-counter human NSAIDs or pain medications. These are not tolerated by animals and often can cause severe problems such as toxicity, gastric ulcers, kidney or liver failure and result in death if over dosed. Veterinary products are specifically balanced and formulated for our domesticated animals and, as such, are at therapeutic dosages and approved by the Food and Drug Administration as medically safe to give our pets.

When giving prescription drugs to our pets, your veterinarian will need to perform blood panels to check the health of their liver and kidneys. Since these drugs are metabolized and excreted through them, your veterinarian will need to balance the health of their limbs and joints along with their internal organs.

Physical therapy can also help lessen the symptoms of osteoarthritis, through exercise, whether at home or through a certified rehabilitation facility; therapeutic laser treatments; acupuncture or hydrotherapy. These therapies are determined by your veterinarian and usually are not started all at once. There are many factors that go into deciding which will be an appropriate choice.

At home, things that can provide more comfort to pets include soft, padded bedding, non-skid floors, keeping nails trimmed so pets don’t slip on them, steps to get on/off furniture, ramps for vehicles, and even raised dishes so pets don’t have to crouch down.

Unfortunately, once this disease process starts, there is no “cure” for it. It is an irreversible, slowly progressive disease that is medically managed. It can definitely be slowed down and a good quality of life can be provided to pets but, again, treatment requires a multi-modal approach and open discussion with your veterinarian. What works for one pet will not necessarily work for all.

VCA Desert Animal Hospital located at 4299 E. Ramon Road, Palm Springs, CA 92264. Visit www.vcadesert.com760-656-6222

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