Joint problems in your pet

Cats and dogs both have over 200 bones in their bodies, so there is a lot of potential for problems to occur, particularly at the joints.

A joint forms where two bones come together. It is vital to help keep your pet’s joints healthy because they help your pet walk, run and play, and as a result help to maintain your pets’ quality of life. However, should your pet’s joints become problematic it is important to know why this may have happened and, therefore, how to deal with it.

What causes joint problems in your pets?

There are various reasons why your pet might have problems with their joints, and these can be classified as

Problems with their body weight – an overweight pet will put pressure on their joints

Lack of Exercise – regular exercise helps joints to stay healthy and strong so if your pet is sedentary their joints will become stiff the muscles surrounding them weaker.

Joint degeneration – this can be caused by the natural aging process, illness or disease.

Trauma or injury – even small injuries can lead to joint damage and decreased mobility

The most common cause of joint issues – and indeed chronic pain – is Osteoarthritis, or Degenerative Joint Disease. Also known as arthritis, it is an all-encompassing word for inflammation of the joints.

At a very basic level, the inflammation occurs when the fluid that surrounds and lubricates the joint (the synovial fluid) becomes less “fluid”. This leads the cartilage to wear down and the bones to rub against each other. This causes the development of calcium deposits at the ends of the affected bones and leads to the joint becoming stiff and painful.

What are the signs of joint problems?

Cats are notorious for hiding symptoms of pain, so joint issues are often difficult to spot in felines, however, in most cases, (and in both cats and dogs) you will first notice a “slowing down” in your pet. Unfortunately, this is usually confused with the natural ageing process rather than a treatable problem.

Joint issues aren’t always related to your pet’s age, though, so you should be aware of any of the following signs and symptoms;

Limping – your pet may limp, or favouring one or more of their legs. This may be more noticeable when your pet has just got up from a rest and appears to decrease as the move.

Difficulty Moving – movements that were once easy may become problematic. For example, dogs may find stepping up or down stairs or getting into the car difficult. Cats that once were interested in high perches will begin to seek out spots lower down or on the floor. This may lead to accidents outside the litter box or your pet being unable to get outside to eliminate quickly enough.

Irritability or depression – Due to the pain your pet may become irritable and may lash out, particularly if you touch the affected area. If a once outgoing and friendly animal becomes withdrawn and shy, it is possible that they have arthritis.

Tiredness – your pet may sleep more and dogs will tire more easily.

Licking, Chewing & Biting – Your pet may bite, chew or lick the area that is painful, occasionally to the point where the skin is inflamed and hairless.

Spinal Issues – while most arthritic changes occur in the legs and arms of your pet, you may also see change in how they hold themselves. They may appear hunched or hav
e a sore neck.

Muscle Atrophy – since your pet is less inclined to be active their muscles may atrophy which leads their legs to look thinner than normal.

Decline in grooming habits – your pet may be grooming less because they may not be able to reach certain areas of their bodies without pain. You may notice this as a matting of their fur along their hips, back and hind quarters

Lack of appetite – If your pet is feeling unwell or hurting they are more likely to have a decreased appetite and so may eat less

Heat seeking behaviour – Warmth tends to help arthritic joints so you may find your pet actively seeking out sunny spots, heat vents or radiators.

Are any breeds more prone to joint problems?

Rottweiler3Research has shown that around 1 in 5 dogs suffer from arthritis during their lifetime and 90% of cats over the age of 12 has evidence of arthritic changes.

Joint problems occur more often as animals age and dogs are more susceptible than cats, and larger and heavier dogs are more vulnerable than smaller dogs, however, some breeds are more prone to developing joint problems than others.

Different breeds have different health issues, for example, have the highest prevalence of cruciate ligament issues in dogs, whereas, Rottweilers have more knee and ankle problems and Bernese Mountain dogs commonly get problems with their elbows. In cats, however, Maine Coons are prone to hip issues and Abyssinian cats are more prone to knee problems.

These differences are generally due to genetic abnormalities and possibly as a result of selective breeding. As a result, it is important to discuss these issues with your vet and the breeder you are purchasing your future pet in order to discover any familial issues they may have.

How are joint problems diagnosed?

If you see your pet displaying any of the signs above it is important to visit your vet rather than attempt to treat them yourself. A number of more serious illnesses may present in a similar way, plus, some illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer can cause arthritic changes.

Diagnosis is relatively straightforward with a simple physical examination – your vet will look for swollen and warm joints, signs of discomfort  upon examination, he will also observe your pet’s posture and gait – and will also take a history from the pet parent.

These simple tests should identify any arthritic changes, however, if he is unsure he may conduct blood and urine tests, and may use imaging techniques to establish what changes have occurred in the joints. In some cases, your vet may analyse the fluid in your pet’s joints, the synovial fluid within the joints will show whether the arthritic changes are due an infection, cancer or aging, for example.

How are joint problems treated?

Prevention is the best route, however, once your pet is diagnosed there are various treatment possibilities;

Medical management – Various forms of medications are available to help with pain management in dogs. Treatment with pharmaceuticals is more slightly more problematic in cats, however, because they don’t tolerate pain medication as well as their canine friends.

Veterinary pharmaceuticals that are available to help with inflammation and manage pain include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), buffered aspirin and corticosteroids.

While these terms may be recognisable and you may even have these pills at home, it is important not to give this medication to your pets. Your vet will know the correct dosage for your pet, should you give them more than they can tolerate it could lead to bleeding, gastric ulcers, and kidney or liver dysfunction. (See A to Z: Drugs)

Anti-inflammatory diet and nutritional supplements – There are a number of dietary supplements and prescription diets that are available. These contain ingredients such as Glucosamine, Chondroitin sulphate, Fish Oils and Green Lipped mussel that are thought to help repair damaged cartilage and have anti-inflammatory properties. Again it is important not self-treat, diabetic cats and dogs should avoid Glucosamine, for example, since it may contain sugars which will raise their blood sugar. As a result, you should consult your vet before changing your pet's diet or giving it a supplement.

Surgery - Surgical techniques have improved a huge amount recently – particularly for larger dogs - and surgical treatment can range from minimally invasive surgery all the way up to a f ull hip replacement. Smaller dogs and cats are rarely operated on, instead vets tend to opt for less invasive methods, however, with new techniques being developed more and more small animals are receiving surgical help.

Complementary/alternative  therapies – There are a number of complementary and alternative treatments that are available for animals suffering from arthritis. This includes, acupuncture, Chiropractic adjustments and massage, hydrotherapy, laser therapy and Homeopathy . We also recommend that you speak to your vet before pursuing these therapies so they can recommend reputable therapists or advise on a therapy that might work best for your pet.

How can I help my pet if they have a joint problem?

There are a variety of ways you can help your pet, in addition to the treatment that your vet has prescribed, these include;

Pay attention to your pet’s nail and foot care – if your pet has joint issues they are less likely to look after their feet and if their nalis/claws are overgrown they may cause problems with their gait which exacerbates their arthritis and cause further issues

Make accessing food and water easier - Raise your pet’s food and water dish so they don’t have to bend down so far. Put dishes on non slip surfaces so they don’t move. Provide water on every floor of the house.

Making moving around the house easier – provide ramps or position furniture strategically in order to help your pets navigate their home more easily

Help to groom your pet – If your pet is finding difficult to groom themselves make sure that you help them keep clean. Yoru pet, cats in particular, will find being ungroomed distressing, especially if this extends to the litter box, so make sure you let your dog out frequently and make sure the box is clean inside and out. There are a number of litter boxes available that have low sides, which should help too!

Help to keep your pet warm and comfortable as possible – as mentioned above warmth helps to alleviate the pain caused by arthritis, as a result, you should provide you pet with a warm and comfortable bed. There are various orthopaedic beds available, some of which are heated, which may help alleviate sore joints. Many pets, cats in particular, will appreciate a place to retreat that is quiet and away from people, especially children.

Where possible provide your pet with help to maintain normality – older animals are more prone to stress so if you can reduce this it should help their wellbeing. Examples include, helping your dog into the car, not introducing new/unfamiliar pets into the house and not moving home (if at all possible)!

How can I prevent joint problems in my pet

While joint deterioration is generally part of the aging process it can be slowed and preventative measures are possible.

Weight management and Diet – any extra weight placed on a joint will cause stress to the joint and cause damage. As a result it is important to keep an eye on your pet’s weight and feed them an appropriate diet for their specific nutritional needs.

- if your pet’s breed has a predisposition to joint issues add joint supporting supplements to their diet to help slow down the progression or even prevent issues developing.

– keeping your pet moving helps to maintain healthy joints and keep weight down

– keep your eye on your pet’s grooming. If their claws/nails are too long it will affect their gait and if they have an abnormal gait they are more likely to hold themselves awkwardly and therefore put pressure on their joints.

Prevent joint injuries
– Injuries can occur by over exercising, jumping too high or running too hard. As a result you should supervise your pet’s exercise routine and, if you are unsure about how much exercise your pet should have ask your vet!

Treat illnesses and injuries appropriately – some injuries and illnesses are not preventable, however, if you treat them promptly joints are less likely to develop problems later in life.

Make a regular visit to your vet – visit your vet regularly for a check-up – some vets suggest that you visit every 6 months – so they can evaluate your pet’s joints as well as various other aspects of their health.

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