Dealing with arthritis

Much can be done to alleviate an animal’s pain and discomfort if you take early action.

Arthritis is as common in dogs and cats as it is in people. Sadly, many of our pets do not get treatment and quietly suffer until their condition is so serious that it is beyond any meaningful help. Thus, although pets don’t die directly from arthritis, they can be euthanized prematurely because of the debilitating effects of the disease.

Since arthritis comes on gradually many owners don’t pay much attention to its symptoms or attribute them to an unavoidable, natural aging condition. While there are several types of arthritis, osteoarthritis, the wear-and tear degeneration of the joints, is by far the most common, just as it is in humans. If the disease is addressed early, much can be done to alleviate the pain and discomfort, thereby improving the pet’s quality of life.

Watch for behaviour changes

Owners should be on the lookout for certain gradual changes in their pets’ behaviour. Difficulty getting up or hesitation when lying down are both signs of stiffness. Dog owners should ask themselves if the dog is walking more slowly than he did a couple of years ago, or watch the gait to see if it has changed over the years.

If your pet hesitates or even decides not to jump to a spot where he used to go, it is usually because the animal has lost confidence in its ability or is aware of the pain the jump will cause. Dogs and cats which are used to running up and down stairs should be observed to see if this action has become laborious. An animal that favors a leg or resists being touched is often suffering from an inflammatory condition. Arthritic dogs and cats usually sleep more, are less interested in play and often seem less friendly and alert.

There are many things that you can do on your own to help your arthritic pet. Two important issues to address are weight control and exercise. Excess weight puts additional strain on your pet’s joints and this stress leads to even greater joint damage.

Diet and exercise

If you are like many owners, you are probably overfeeding your pet. Most commercial dry pet foods are high in carbohydrates, usually supplied by the numerous grains in the formula. You should find a food that is low in carbs and gradually reduce the amount you feed. If you give treats look for small, nutritious types, not large biscuits that are comprised mostly of grains, animal by-products and flavour enhancers. Moderate exercise helps to keep joints supple and mobile.

Generally, for arthritic animals, less and more frequently is a good rule of thumb. Instead of one 40-minute outing, have two 20-minute exercise periods. Some dog owners assume that vigorous exercise on the weekend will atone for neglect during the week but this approach can actually aggravate damage. Consistent, daily exercise is safer and more helpful in keeping your pet mobile. Indoor cats need climbing trees, scratching posts, hiding spots and play that encourages their natural stalking and hunting instincts.

You should also consider modifying the pet’s environment. Hardwood and tile floors are difficult for arthritic animals to walk on. Non-slip carpeting or hall runners placed in various spots will give your pet surer footing.

Put containers within reach

For large dogs in particular it’s helpful to raise the animal’s food bowl, since there is less strain on the neck and legs when the animal keeps his head up. If a cat’s litter box is quite deep, you can help the cat gain access by cutting a section down an inch or so. Ramps are available to help pets get to and from a car or porch and steps can be made or purchased that allow the pet access to the bed.

Like people, arthritic animals often find that warmth eases the discomfort. An orthopedic bed provides support and retains body heat. If your pet seems especially stiff you could consider using a hot water bottle wrapped in towels or a microwaveable heating pad.

These are actions that you yourself can take to increase the comfort and mobility of your arthritic dog or cat. Next month we will look at more aggressive steps such as supplements, drugs and professional help to improve your pet’s quality of life and stave off the more debilitating effects of this disease.

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