Picture this scene: Ribby, a charming golden retriever, quietly naps on the family room floor. It is approaching dinner time, and a simple phrase “are you guys hungry” wakes any napping dog up from a dead sleep in my house. I look over to Ribby to watch her gingerly rising to her feet. With a subtle grunt, she slowly coaxes her 10-year-old frame toward the promise of the best meal ever, watching my younger dogs reach their bowls much quicker than she does. This is a scene I am sure many of us have experienced with our aging pets. With the passage of time, the body tends to wear down, including the joints and bones. Degenerative joint disease (DJD) and arthritis is a reality for most aging pets like Ribby, which will be the focus of this discussion.

DJD and arthritis is a disorder which afflicts the joints, causing irreversible, progressive degeneration of the cartilage, osteophyte (bony outgrowth) formation, and scarring of the joint structures. DJD can develop because of aging issues or because of trauma or other external factors, such as malformation of bones and joints (e.g. hip or elbow dysplasia).

Recognizing that a dog or a cat is experiencing DJD is not always obvious, as pets can be particularly stoic in the face of pain. Signs can vary from overt lameness in one or more limbs, swelling and pain when touching certain joints, or stiffness and difficulty rising after extended periods of rest. My clients often report that stiffness and lameness improves as the pet starts moving about and going on with daily activities. Another common finding is that lameness, stiffness or swelling worsens after strenuous activity. “If Max runs too hard when we play fetch, the next day he pays for it!”

It is important to realize that any signs may be intermittent, progressive, or persistent. Decrease in overall activity level over time can often be the only sign.

If any of these observations are made, seek the guidance of your local vet. Diagnosing DJD/arthritis can often be done with the help of a thorough orthopedic exam and X-rays of the suspected diseased joints. Other diagnostic options exist if additional information is needed.

Treatment for the pain, discomfort and instability that come from DJD/Arthritis is ideally done in a multimodal approach. Maintaining a healthy body condition is very important. Excessive body weight in overweight/obese pets puts added stress on arthritic joints, possibly increasing inflammation and pain and wear and tear. Good regular, non-strenuous exercise (e.g. swimming) is key. Maintaining good muscle mass in a limb with an arthritic joint helps support those affected joints.

Nutraceuticals such as Omega 3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) found in some special diets or supplements, can help reduce the production of pro-inflammatory mediators involved in the development of arthritis.

Glucosamine and chondroitin, also found in many joint supplements and special diets, can stimulate synthesis of synovial fluid in the joint, inhibit degradation, and improve healing of cartilage.

Polysulfated glycosaminoglycan, given in injections supervised by a veterinarian, can help slow cartilage breakdown during the progression of DJD.

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are extremely helpful in the treatment of pain/discomfort in pets with DJD. Inflammation is a mainstay of DJD, and these medications help combat that. Unfortunately, these medications can have side effects in some patients, including gastrointestinal upset, and possible liver and kidney effects. Close monitoring by you and your veterinarian is important to safely utilize these extremely effective medications. Unfortunately, at this time, there is no approved long-term NSAID for cats, owing to the sensitive nature of felines to this class of drug.

Other pain medications such as Tramadol, Buprenorphine, and Gabapentin, can help combat the pain of DJD in other pathways than the NSAIDs. Often in moderate to severe cases, a combination of medications are used.

Other treatment options, including massage, acupuncture, and ultrasound therapy, are gaining more attention and are utilized by some in the treatment of DJD.

Surgical considerations, such as total hip replacements, may have their place in certain cases.

Degenerative joint disease/osteoarthritis can greatly impact the quality of life of our fuzzy friends. But by recognizing changes and reporting them to your veterinarian, treatment plans can be setup that can limit pain and help our friends be more comfortable and age gracefully. –Peter Olson, DVM

Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.

Photo Credit: George Hodan