Does your dog or cat appear to be a little stiffer when getting up after a nap, and a little less nimble overall? Maybe your dog walks to catch a ball these days, or doesn’t follow you around as much, or perhaps your cat is struggling to jump up onto the lounge. Like us, dogs and cats get arthritis, and these can be signs that they could be suffering from it.


Arthritis and Osteoarthritis. What are they, and what’s the difference?

Arthritis is not a single disease. It is a term that’s used informally to refer to joint pain or joint disease. There are many different types, and osteoarthritis is the most common type in dogs and cats.


Osteoarthritis is a long-term progressive disease that causes permanent deterioration of cartilage around the joints.  It is also referred to as degenerative joint disease. Older animals are generally at a higher risk of osteoarthritis, but pets of any age can suffer from various types of arthritis, which also include septic arthritis - joint inflammation caused by a type of bacterial or fungal infection - and immune-mediated arthritis, which is caused by the immune system attacking joints.


The ends of the bones in joints are covered and protected by cartilage. Cartilage itself doesn’t have nerves, but the bone that it covers does. Arthritis causes abnormal movement of the bones which over time causes the cartilage to wear away, thus exposing the bone and the nerves contained within it. Pain and inflammation is caused by bones touching and grinding against each other, and it can have a significant impact on an animal’s quality of life.


Symptoms commonly include pain, swelling, stiffness, and a decreased range of motion. All may come and go, and the symptoms can range from mild to severe.


Signs that your pet might have arthritis

Symptoms of arthritis vary from animal to animal. Decreased activity levels could be a sign, or stiffness when walking or getting up after a rest. Limping may occur (sometimes affecting only one leg), and it may be more pronounced in the morning after a long sleep and while stretching or taking their first steps after rising. The symptoms may be exacerbated by colder weather, extended periods of inactivity, or exercise.


In the disease’s early stages, the stiffness usually passes after pets have warmed up and started to move around, however the stiffness can become permanent when the disease is further progressed. Pain, and changes to the joints, can cause the stiffness to become permanent.


Sometimes animals will lick aching joints hoping to ease the pain, which is a sign that they could be arthritic. Heat around the joint is another indicator. Resisting touch, or reacting suddenly or yelping when touched, can also be signs that your pet is in pain. 


Milder cases of the disease may lead your pet to walk more slowly, hop along instead of running, and hesitate before climbing stars. More severe cases may result in them limping persistently, having difficulty squatting when toileting, and requiring help to get up.


Causes and contributory factors

The causes of arthritis are unknown, however there is a variety of conditions that are known to contribute to it. Arthritis often starts because of inflammation caused by damage which leads to bone rubbing against bone. The damage could be because of an accident, or the aging process, which contributes to joint linings cracking and chipping.


Some animals are born with hip dysplasia, which is a congenital or developmental deformation or misalignment of the hip joint. Trauma resulting in abnormal wear on joints and cartilage, is another factor.


Obesity can also contribute to degeneration, as it increases stress on joints. Hyperlaxity, which is a looseness of the joints, prolonged use of steroids, and diabetes, can also increase the risk of arthritis.



To diagnose arthritis, your vet will look for signs of stiffness and decreased range of movement, and will check each limb for swelling, pain, and deformity of the joints. Historical symptoms such as decreased activity will be considered, and your vet will watch your dog or cat walk.


To confirm suspected arthritis, tests may be conducted to rule out other diseases such as cancer, and so that infection can be ruled out, your vet may take samples of joint fluid to test for bacteria. X-rays can assist in identifying changes to joints associated with osteoarthritis.


Treatment of Arthritis

The disease can be treated but not cured, and treatment is designed to control the symptoms.  The primary arthritis treatment is pain relief, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used. As with any medication side effects may occur, however NSAIDs are effective and mostly quite safe.


Food supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, are sometimes recommended, however there is varying opinion regarding their effectiveness. Theoretically, they assist the joints in the process of repair, but it is thought by some researchers that they can’t effectively get to the joints where they’re required.


Exercise is important to assist with weight management and muscle tone but a pet suffering from arthritis shouldn’t be over-exerted, as tired muscles can cause damaged joints to become worse. Gentle exercise such as swimming, where there is more support for the joints, is preferable.

Vets4Pets offers a range rehabilitation therapies to help reduce and relieve the symptoms of arthritis . Rehabilitation modalities include heat and cold therapy, massage, acupuncture, therapeutic laser, ultrasound and hydrotherapy. The goal of rehabilitation is to reduce pain, increase comfort, improve joint range of motion, prevent muscle loss, and build muscle strength.


Management of arthritis

Weight management and a healthy diet, can have a significant impact by minimising stress to joints caused by obesity. It is important also to avoid excessive pressure and trauma to joints.


“Quality” exercise is important. Alternating the types of exercise helps to exercise all muscle groups, and aerobic exercise three times a week for approximately 20 minutes each time is recommended, as opposed to weekend-only exercise which can actually put animals at more risk of injury.


Degenerative joint disease is likely to worsen over time, therefore ongoing monitoring is essential. Your vet may recommend a change to medication or surgical intervention as the disease progresses. Limiting activity to levels that help alleviate pain and aggravation of symptoms is recommended. A Diet containing omega fatty acids may also help in decreasing inflammation, and is something you should discuss with your vet.


Prompt diagnoses and treatment of arthritis is important, so that treatment can be started to help slow the progress of the disease. If you suspect that your pet could have arthritis, or you have any questions about treatment, diet, and exercise for arthritic pets, please get in touch with any of the Vets4Pets hospitals. Referrals for rehabilitation can also be made at any of our hospitals, or alternatively you can contact our Northgate rehabilitation centre directly on 8367 9555.