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How to Help Arthritic Pets

Dog with Arthritis Arthritis is a painful joint disease that can impact the quality of our pets' lives and their overall well-being. It's more common in older pets but can occur in pets of any age. Fortunately, they don't have to suffer in silence; there are several things we can do to help manage the pain of arthritis in pets and help them maintain their mobility.

Symptoms of Arthritis

It can be easy to miss symptoms of arthritis in our pets because they tend to creep up gradually, or are attributed to the aging process. Signs can vary from pet to pet. These are some of the most common symptoms:

  • Decrease in activity level. Pets become more reluctant to move. Dogs may start walking more slowly, refusing walks or wanting to turn back early, or tiring more easily on walks. Cats may sleep more instead of getting the 'zoomies', chasing after toys, or climbing their perches. They might also start having accidents in the house due to how painful it is to get to their litter boxes or climb inside them.

  • Reluctance to jump. Whether jumping onto the bed, into the car for dogs, or onto counters for cats, pets start avoiding the activity when they can and struggle with it otherwise.

  • Difficulty doing tasks that were previously easy for them. For example, pets may have trouble navigating the stairs or may groan or whine when simply trying to lay down.

  • Stiffness or limping. Stiffness is particularly noticeable when pets first get up after a period of inactivity, such as first thing in the morning. The pet may be limping. As the day progresses and they are more active, their joints 'warm up' and the limping and stiffness seem to dissipate.

  • Change in posture. Arthritis can occur in many parts of the body. You might notice that your dog is standing abnormally; his head may be held lower than usual, his neck could seem stiff, or his back might look a bit hunched.

  • Change in behaviour. Dogs and cats may seem depressed, or may become less interested in being petted. Some may even become downright grumpy if petted in a certain area. They might growl or try to move away before even being touched, in anticipation that it might cause them pain. Pain may also cause them to be less interested in eating. Pets might have accidents in the house because it hurts to get to the door or to the litter box. Here are other signs of pain in pets.

  • Muscle atrophy. As arthritis becomes more painful and pets become less active, their muscles can atrophy. This is often most noticeable in the hind end where the leg (or legs) appear to look thin or 'shrunken'.

There are other medical conditions whose symptoms can look like arthritis. Bring your pet to the vet to get a thorough check-up and assess whether he is actually suffering from arthritis or some other condition.

Dietary Changes

Extra weight puts a lot of additional pressure on the joints. If your pet is overweight, a change in diet can help him re-gain a healthy body weight, even on the lean side of healthy. Many pet owners find that limiting grains, or feeding grain-free food, helps their pets lose weight more readily. Less weight means less pressure on the joints, which in turn leads to decreased pain and improved mobility.

It's important to discuss diet changes with your vet as well, particularly for pets who have other medical conditions.

Maintaining Mobility Through (Appropriate) Exercise

Even arthritic pets need to get exercise to help keep joints lubricated and the supporting muscles strong. Both the duration and the intensity of the exercise should be tailored to the pet.

Gentle walks are safe and fun for dogs. Swimming is another good exercise because it's easier on the joints, however care should be taken not to overdo it - some dogs really love the water and will want to go and go! A life jacket can help dogs stay afloat more easily.

Another option is to take the dog to an underwater treadmill, available at some canine physiotherapy or rehabilitation clinics. The dog essentially walks on a treadmill that's underwater, so that he gets the benefit of building his muscles while walking in an environment that's more supportive on the joints.

Arthritic cats should exercise too. Some cats enjoy playing a game of fetch (try a catnip toy, or a small, cat-sized ball). Interactive toys are great too. Keep it low-key and gentle and let your cat tell you when it's enough.

If you notice that your pet is more sore after exercise, cut back until you find a level that's comfortable and enjoyable for him.

Supplements, Anti-Inflammatories, and Medications

Your veterinarian can determine the correct dosages of each type of supplement or drug, specifically for your pet.

  • Glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM. These supplements are widely used, even in young ages to help maintain joint health. Many types of dog and cat treats are available with these supplements (capsules, powders, and liquids are available too, but pets more often prefer the treats).

  • Fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation caused by conditions like arthritis. Salmon oil is commonly used but some say that krill oil is even more effective. Both human and pet versions of the oils are fine to use, but note that the human versions may have a taste that pets find disagreeable. If you prefer, you can instead feed canned whole sardines (packed in water) or canned pink salmon (with bones).

  • Hemp seed and/or CBD (cannabidiol) oil. Both hemp seed oil and CBD oil are made from the cannabis plant - but from different parts of it. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a natural component of the cannabis plant. For pets, the oils used should not contain any THC, which is the substance that causes the "high". There are some "pet versions" of both hemp seed oil and CBD oil available.

    Hemp seed oil tends to contain very little CBD (if any). It's a good source of omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids, which can help to alleviate joint pain naturally (as well as having other benefits). It can be consumed raw or mixed in with your pet's food. Hemp seed oil is readily available in natural food stores or online.

    CBD oil has a much higher amount of CBD than hemp seed oil. The concentration varies widely, depending on the brand of oil purchased. CDB acts as an anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce pain from arthritis, without any major side effects. The downside is that there has been little testing on the dosages required to help pets so it can take some fiddling to get it right for your dog. CBD oil is not so easily purchased; depending on where you live, it may be considered a controlled substance. Your vet may not even be able to suggest it to you or give you any guidance.

  • Zeel. Zeel, recently re-named T-Relief, is a homeopathic preparation that's supposed to help relieve the symptoms and pain of arthritis in both people and pets. A great many of us have probably never heard of it, and of those who have, there's likely a good chunk who think it's all quackery. However, one German study compared the effectiveness of Carprofen (a drug) to Zeel over the course of 56 days. By the end of the study, dogs taking Zeel showed just as much improvement as those on Carprofen. The only adverse reactions occured in the dogs taking Carprofen. [Link to the study] You can find Zeel in natural health stores or online.

  • Pharmaceuticals. Sometimes none of the other measures taken are enough, and pharmaceutical drugs are needed to help with pain relief and other symptoms of arthritis. They can truly work wonders for pets that can tolerate them ... but unfortunately, these drugs most often have side effects, some of which can be extremely serious and even fatal. Your vet can discuss the best options with you. Vets will often recommend doing a blood test to get a baseline view of your pet's health, including his liver and kidney function. Bloodwork will be repeated after the pet has been on the drug for some time, to ensure that the pet's body can handle the drug.

Important Notes

  • Do not give human drugs to pets without first clearing it with your vet. Some 'people medication' is extremely toxic to pets.
  • Do not give drugs meant for dogs to cats, or vice versa.
  • Follow directions. Do not increase or decrease dosage, or combine drugs, without checking with your vet first. This includes combining 'natural' supplementation with drugs ('natural' is not the same as 'safe').

Alternative Therapies

  • Massage therapy. Massage helps to stimulate blood flow and many pets find it feels good. It can help to relax muscles and ease stiffness, making it easier for pets to be more active. A veterinary massage therapist can show owners how to massage their pets at home for best results.

  • Physical or rehabilitation therapy. Physio or rehab therapy can help to strengthen the pet's muscles with exercises tailored to his ability. Therapists can even show pet owners how to do the exercises at home so that the pet can continue to improve in-between sessions. Some physio clinics have an underwater treadmill, a wonderful way for arthritic dogs and cats to exercise.

  • Cold laser therapy. A laser is applied to the area that's to be treated. It can take up to 20 minutes for a single session, and treatments need to be repeated to be effective. Generally, several sesssions per week are needed at the beginning of treatment before they are gradually tapered down. Cold laser therapy is non-invasive and many dogs find it relaxing.

  • Chiropractic treatments. It's not unusual for pets to alter their normal movements due to painful joints. This can result in pain in other parts of the body, often times the neck and the back. A veterinary chiropractor can assess the arthritic pet and treat them to reduce pain and make it easier for them to move around.

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture can help stimulate blood flow and reduce pain in pets with arthritis. A veterinary acupuncturist can assess your pet to see whether or not they believe that this treatment will be effective, or another one may work better. Multiple treatments are typically required and more frequent treatments need to be done to start. Eventually the treatments can be reduced but will likely still need to be on a regular schedule to maintain pain control. Dogs tend to handle acupuncture well - some owners even report that their dogs fall asleep during treatment!

Around The House

  • Cover slippery floors with non-slip rugs or mats that provide traction. Slippery stairs can be covered with carpet stair treads. These give pets more confidence to walk hard floors without fear of falling or hurting themselves.

  • Use ramps or steps where possible, to allow pets to more easily access couches, beds, cars, even the stairs. Make sure that there is good traction on these ramps or steps to minimize the risk of slipping or falling. Non-slip safety tape can be used, if needed, to add extra traction.

  • Provide a comfortable and supportive bed. Many types of orthopedic pet beds are available. Some are made of memory foam which offers joints support where it's needed. Another option is the elevated Kuranda bed.

  • If your dog has already lost muscle mass in his hind end, a support harness can be a big help when maneuvering down stairs or just helping him walk. Here are some suggestions about caring for a dog with decreased hind-end mobility.

  • Elevate dog food bowls if your dog is having trouble bending down (note: this is not a safe option for dogs who are prone to bloat - talk to your vet). Use an elevated feeder, or just put the bowls on a step or a box, making sure that the bowls won't slide around.

  • Add extras of essential items, or move them. Place extra beds and water bowls around the house so that pets don't have to walk as far to reach them. Move litter boxes to the same floor of the home where your cat spends most of its time. Choose a litter box that has a lower lip to make it easier for your cat to step inside.


"Best friends make the good times better and the hard times easier."
(Author Unknown)

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