19th Jan, 2021

Written by Dr Tanya Grantham BSc (Hons) BVSc 

The word “arthritis” is comprised of two roots: arth, meaning joint, and itis, meaning inflammation. Inflammation is a normal part of the body’s response to remove damaged cells, irritants and infection to allow for the start of the healing process. Arthritis, however, is painful inflammation, accompanied by stiffness of the joints.

There are a number of types of arthritis, but the most common in dogs and cats is osteoarthritis (OA). This implies involvement of the bones as well as the joints. OA is also referred to as degenerative joint disease (DJD), which is characterised by a loss of joint cartilage and subsequent exposure of the underlying bone. In a normal joint, there’s balance between the continuous process of cartilage matrix degeneration and repair – in OA, degeneration is winning.

OA Patients usually display:

  • Limited activity levels
  • Reduced performance
  • Muscle wastage/atrophy
  • Pain (varying degrees)
  • Joint stiffness and a decrease in range of motion (ROM)

These symptoms result in a vicious cycle of pain, reduced activity, stiffness and loss of strength.

How do I know my pet has osteoarthritis?

Your animal companion may show one or more of these signs if they’re suffering from osteoarthritis. Signs can often become evident as the weather changes, especially as winter approaches. Being aware can aid in an early diagnosis and intervention.

  • Abnormal gait and body position
  • Limping
  • Swollen joint(s) warm to the touch
  • Increase in anxiety, sometimes showing agitation or rapid breathing
  • Panting at night
  • Excessive chewing, biting or licking of an area or limb
  • Slower or stiff movements upon waking, or after rest or in cold weather
  • Difficulty getting up from a lying position
  • Resting more than usual
  • Diminished performance – they won’t go as far or as fast
  • Reluctance to extend rear legs
  • Inability to stretch
  • Difficulty in walking, climbing stairs, getting in and out of the litter box or car
  • Reluctance to walk, run, climb/descend stairs or jump
  • Sluggishness
  • Lagging behind on walks
  • Unwillingness to play with other pets

Personality changes:

  • No longer likes to be touched
  • Vocalisation on handling
  • Increased aggression
  • Decrease in social interaction
  • Failure to self groom
  • Inappropriate elimination in the house

How is osteoarthritis treated?

The mainstay of treatment is anti-inflammatory medicine. However, a more holistic approach can reduce the need for these drugs and manage the pain associated with OA, as well as enhance your companion’s quality of life.

Joints were made to move, so the more mobile a joint, the healthier it is. Low-impact exercise is advised in dogs diagnosed with OA. Hydrotherapy is the ideal exercise – it will help to maintain muscle mass (which, in turn, supports the joints), keep joints moving, and aid with weight management.

Affected companions which have an aversion for water need not be excluded from exercise. A gentle land-based programme can be devised to encourage and assist with movement. Massage and application of hot and cold packs also have a role to play in the management of this condition.

Other options to investigate include joint supplements, specific diets, homeopathy, stem cell therapy, acupuncture and gold bead implants, magnetic therapy and photobiomodulation (Laser) treatments.

Appreciating that many pet parents may not be in a position to bring their beloved companion for regular therapy sessions, it is, however, advisable that a rehabilitation practitioner does at least examine your dog or cat once. This allows for a tailor-made programme to be created. At this consultation, be certain to ask about specific diets, weight management, supplements (and there are many), and appropriate movement and exercise for your companion. Each animal is an individual and should be treated as such. In this way you can be certain of the best for your pet.

For more information and to seek advice and/or treatment for your pet, visit www.ahah.co.za

Important: Always consult your vet about sudden changes in your pet’s behaviour or signs of pain. There are other conditions which have similar signs as osteoarthritis, and it’s important to identify exactly what’s going on in order to give your pet the care they need and deserve.