A painful truth: One-fifth of dogs, many cats develop osteoarthritis

Excited by the prospect of going for a walk, Harper, my 10-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, sprang down the hall, then skidded to a halt, yelping in pain.

A physical exam by her veterinarian and subsequent X-rays showed osteoarthritis in her lower back.

Osteoarthritis is chronic joint inflammation that causes damage to articular cartilage – which covers and protects the ends of bones – as well as changes to synovial fluid and narrowing of the joint space. Because cartilage in an osteoarthritic joint is brittle, it cracks a little when the pet moves or jumps.

The cartilage becomes thinner and less able to retain fluid. Eventually, inflammation and cartilage destruction lead to painful bone scraping on bone.

Some 20 percent of dogs and an unknown percentage of cats develop osteoarthritis.

We think of it as a disease of senior animals, but it can affect pets at any age, especially if they are overweight or have congenital conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia, says Joyce A. Login, DVM, senior manager of veterinary specialty operations at Zoetis, which counts pain medications among its products.

Pet owners are often surprised and dismayed to learn that their pets are in pain from osteoarthritis, says Robin Downing, DVM, a veterinary specialist in pain management and sports medicine at Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. Too often, they assume that a lower activity level or stiff gait is normal, chalking it up to advancing age.

Dr. Downing often hears the following statements from owners who don’t recognize behavior changes that indicate pain:

▪  “We used to walk 3 miles, but now she only wants to go 1.”

▪  “She used to play fetch for 20 minutes and now she’s done at five minutes.”

▪  “She stops and thinks about it before she walks up the stairs.”

▪  “She doesn’t like to be groomed or touched in certain areas.”

▪  “He’s not eating as much as he used to.”

▪  “My cat doesn’t groom himself very well anymore.”

▪  “My pet doesn’t jump on the bed or sofa anymore.”

▪  “My cat has stopped using the litter box.”

Decreased stamina, reluctance to perform previously normal actions, and resistance to touch can all signal joint pain. Pets who aren’t eating as much may have lower back pain that makes it painful to lean down to the food dish. And animals who stop using the litter box or have accidents in the house may do so because it hurts to climb in and out of the litter box or squat long enough to completely empty their colon.

Pets in pain may isolate themselves to avoid being petted or groomed. When the veterinarian performs a pain palpation, the animal may react by twitching the skin, moving away, crying out or trying to bite.

A plan for managing pain from osteoarthritis may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); injectable chondroprotectants such as Adequan Canine (also used off-label in cats); nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory or immune-modulating effects, such as microlactins and omega-3 fatty acids; weight loss; laser; and physical rehab. The goal is to break the pain cycle quickly and effectively.

NSAIDs tend to be a cornerstone of treatment, Dr. Downing says, but multiple strategies and products allow her to target pain and inflammation in different ways. Reducing reliance on NSAIDs to treat chronic pain gives her the option to reserve them for use with acute pain, such as that caused by a tooth extraction.

“Each pet is an individual,” Dr. Login says. “There’s not one specific product or treatment that I think you can lean toward.

“We can’t always fix it, but we can make them happy and comfortable.”

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton, affiliated with