Westbury Animal Hospital
713.723.3666 · 4917 S. Willow Dr. Houston, Texas 77035 

Cooling down with arthritic joints 

by Alex Betzen, DVM

As the weather cools off, we are often confronted with our loved ones complaining of that aching joint.  Arthritis affects a huge number of people and pets.  A recent study revealed changes on x-rays in 90% of cats, with 17% having severe changes.  Veterinarians and owners are getting better and better about recognizing arthritis in cats, but cats don’t always reveal arthritic pain as readily as their canine counterparts.  This has led us to realize that arthritis is by far the biggest cause of chronic pain in cats and dogs. 

            It is important to recognize that there are other types of arthritis than osteoarthritis caused by degenerative joint disease (DJD).  We will focus primarily on DJD, but your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet has a different form of arthritis.  DJD often starts with an old injury or poor joint shape and range.  Cartilage damage then occurs.  This sets up a cascade of inflammation, soft tissue injury and often remodeling of the bone (what we see on radiographs).  The inflammation in the joint causes pain, swelling and sometimes heat.  Most of our treatments will focus on stopping the inflammation and rebuilding cartilage.

We are often able to diagnose arthritis with a thorough physical exam, x-rays and watching your pet do a little running. After reviewing the x-rays, your vet may talk about certain surgical procedures.  For example, total hip replacements are very good options for arthritis of the hip and are becoming increasingly more common.  Some procedures can be performed in younger dogs in the shoulder and elbows if the dog has abnormal cartilage growth or incomplete bone growth.  Some dogs have abnormally angled paws or limbs (called angular limb deformities), many of these dogs may benefit from surgeries to better align the limbs and reduce DJD risk in the future.

Taking important steps at home can help greatly with arthritis.  Maintaining a healthy weight can help joints from carrying more weight than they were designed to hold.  Your veterinarian can help you with a weight loss plan if your pet has packed on a few extra pounds!  Conversely, maintaining adequate muscle mass through light or moderate activity is also important.  Allowing the muscles around an arthritic joint to be strong helps to reduce pain and joint instability.  Your veterinarian can also help you find passive range of motion, massage and physical therapy options for your pet.

But we should treat the discomfort!  Some of the most potent medications for long term pain relief are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Many people take the human versions (Aleve, ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin and others) all the time.  While human NSAIDs are never safe for dogs and cats, we do have very safe options through prescription with your veterinarian.  Examples are Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Perioxicam, Metacam and Onsior.  These medications block the production of inflammatory molecules that cause pain, discomfort, and further the joint damage.  These medications are some of the safest and most potent pain relievers available in dogs and cats.  However, it is recommended to monitor liver and kidney values several times per year in dogs and cats that need daily NSAIDs for pain relief.

I get asked about cortisone injections all the time!  Why don’t we use them in dogs and cats?  Well, cortisone is a corticosteroid that is a very potent anti-inflammatory.  So potent, in fact, that it will prevent cartilage remodeling (very helpful to relieve pain) and can cause chondromalacia (softening and worsening of the cartilage quality).  Other long term side effects of corticosteroids like weight gain, muscle wasting and predisposition for the development of diabetes make steroids a less ideal treatment than NSAIDs.

Joint supplements or nutraceuticals can also be very helpful.  It is important to keep in mind that many joint supplements are looking to help rebuild and reduce the inflammation in the cartilage.  This process often takes one to two months to reach the maximum effect, so patience is key.  Glucosamine and chondroitin can be given in a variety of forms.  These molecules are the building blocks of cartilage.  By supplying extra, the hope is that the body has all that it needs to repair damaged and angry cartilage.  Your veterinarian can help you find a good over the counter supplement or use Dasuquin or Cosequin which are flavored tablets, making them easier to give.  Adequan is essentially an injectable form of chondroitin and is very safe to give.  Some prescription diets now have glucosamine, chondroitin and other supplements.

Other treatment options may be helpful as well, such as antioxidants and nutraceutical anti-inflammatories like omega three fatty acids.  While many people will take flax seed which turns into omega threes, dogs and cats can’t convert them.  So, flaxseed isn’t as helpful for Fido and Garfield as it is for humans.  There are also pain relievers or analgesics that just work on relieving pain such as tramadol, amantadine and gabapentin.

As our pets are living longer and longer, we’re seeing more and more arthritis.  With healthy activity, weight management, NSAIDs, joint supplements, diets, pain relievers and even some surgical options, there are tons of therapy options available for our four legged friends.  Now get out there and warm up those stiff, old joints!

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