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Arthritis in Dogs and Cats


Pet Column for the week of February 9, 1998


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist

Arthritis (inflammation of joints) is a condition that afflicts pets and pet owners alike.
However, the cause of arthritis in pets is often different from that in people. "Primary
arthritis, i.e., arthritis unrelated to another condition, commonly accompanies old age in
humans but is rare in dogs and cats," says Dr. Bradley R. Coolman, small animal
surgery resident formerly with the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at Urbana. "In
dogs and cats arthritis is most often caused by developmental or degenerative disease or by
direct injury to a joint, such as a torn ligament. Less often, we see infectious or autoimmune
causes." More old dogs than young dogs have arthritis, not just because they are old but
because their increased years have offered more opportunities for insult to a joint.

"Arthritis occurs in large dogs more often than in cats and small dogs for a couple of
reasons," explains Dr. Coolman. First, the severity of arthritis is a function of the animal's
weight, which puts stress on the joints. A 100-pound shepherd will be more debilitated by
painful arthritis than a 10-pound poodle. Second, the common causes of arthritis, such as
hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and other common bone problems, are usually diseases of
large, fast-growing dogs. However, arthritis does occur in small dogs and cats.

Joints are composed of cartilage and soft connective tissue. They serve as shock absorbers
between bones and provide a low-friction surface that allows independent motion of
adjacent bones. Painful arthritis can result from degeneration of the cartilage or inflammation
of the soft connective tissue. Animals show evidence of this pain by limping or refusing to
bear weight on the painful limb.

Medical management allows many arthritic pets to live a relatively pain-free life. If the soft
tissues of the joint are inflamed, then short-term medical management consists of cage
confinement and anti-inflammatory drugs, such as buffered aspirin. Once the inflammation is
controlled, long-term medical management includes moderate exercise and weight control.
Moderate exercise helps maintain joint mobility and muscle strength for joint support.
Weight control helps limit the burden the joints must support. Adherence to such a program
can decrease pain and increase function in animals with arthritis.

"Only anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed by your veterinarian should be used for your pet.
Any side effects of these drugs should be immediately reported to your veterinarian,"
advises Dr. Coolman. Because of differences in metabolism, many anti-inflammatories
available for human use can be dangerous to pets.

Many alternative products are used by pet owners to treat and/or relieve arthritis with
varying success. Commercially available joint components, polysulfated glycosaminoglycans
(GAGs) and hyaluronic acid, glucosamine, and chondroitan sulfate are used. Antioxidants,
vitamin C, vitamin E, essential fatty acids, superoxide dismutase, shark cartilage, and many
others have been discussed and used by pet owners. Of these, only polysulfated GAGs are
shown by medical research to be potentially effective. There products should be used only
in consultation with your veterinarian.

In cases where medical management alone cannot control arthritic pain, surgical
procedures, such as arthrotomy (removal of bone and cartilage fragments), arthrodesis
(stabilization by fusion of the joint), or total hip replacement can be considered.

For more information on pet care, contact your local veterinarian.