Pet’s Aching Joints
Our aging animal companions are as
prone to arthritis as we are.
By Lisa James
Alley has always been Marcy Fenell’s lively companion.
“She’s a fun dog—very busy, very smart,” says Fenell, a dog trainer who lives in suburban Pittsburgh, of Alley, white with grayish-black spots and “cute little brownish eyebrows.” Fenell notes that in her English Setter’s younger days, she “was up for anything.”
Alley is a rescue, so her true age is unknown. “She’s 13, we think,” says Fenell, who is in her 40s, of the dog she’s had for 11 years—making Alley old for her breed.
Reduced risk from deadly infections and better healthcare, two factors that have lengthened our lives, have done the same for our pets. And as is true for us, longer lifespans—along with less-than-optimal diets and reduced activity levels—have increased pets’ risk of developing the joint inflammation, swelling and stiffness that marks arthritis.
There is no animal equivalent of the National Institutes of Health, so there are few hard-and-fast statistics on how many pets suffer from joint disease in the US. However, the Banfield Pet Hospital chain, in its 2016 State of Pet Health Report, found that nearly 14% of its geriatric canine patients were diagnosed with arthritis at its more than 900 locations across the country.
“It’s a pretty common diagnosis, maybe four or five dogs a month,” says Doug Knueven, DVM, owner of the Beaver Animal Clinic in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Knueven, who counts Fenell among his clients, says people bring in their dogs when the animals start to limp and show signs of stiffness, “especially trouble getting up from a lying-down position.”
Arthritis didn’t make Banfield’s list of top diagnoses among cats, which isn’t surprising. “Fewer cats are taken to the vet. And cats can be very stoic about their pain,” Knueven explains. “So usually what people will notice is that the cat is having trouble jumping up onto the counter, things like that. But a lot of times with cats we’ll find arthritis incidentally when taking X-rays for other reasons.”
The Life of a Modern Pet
There was a time when a lot of dogs and cats would freely roam neighborhoods. Today, in many localities, dogs must be leashed unless they’re in authorized dog runs or parks. Cats are under fewer legal restrictions; however, more cat owners keep their animals indoors for safety reasons.
This lack of activity is often combined with high-calorie diets. “Dry pet food is convenient but it’s loaded with starch,” says Knueven. “It’s easier for them to overeat dry food.”
Both factors have led to an increase in the number of overweight pets. Banfield reports that more than 18% of its feline patients 10 years and older are overweight, a number that rises to more than 20% for senior dogs.
Carrying excess weight increases a pet’s risk of developing arthritis. “Being overweight doesn’t just put more stress on the joints,” Knueven explains. “Fat is metabolically active; it promotes inflammation.”
Knueven often sees owners and pets who share medical issues, such as excess weight or arthritis.
“I have a favorite saying, ‘That must run in the family,’” he says. “It happens when I make a diagnosis on the animal and the owner says, ‘Oh, I have the same problem.’” Similar lifestyles may explain part of this phenomenon. In addition, Knueven says, “I really believe there is an energy connection between animals and people.”
Some risk factors are unique to pets. For example, some dog breeds are prone to joint malformations such as hip dysplasia that have been linked to arthritic degeneration.
“It’s mainly the larger dogs,” says Shawn Messonnier, DVM, owner of Paws & Claws Animal Hospital in Plano, Texas, and author of The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Arthritis in Dogs and Cats (New World). “If not diagnosed properly, osteoarthritis can develop with time due to chronic strain on the dislocating joint.”
Pet owners are generally urged to have their animals spayed (for females) or neutered (for males) to reduce both unwanted behaviors, such as spraying and fighting, and the number of unwanted puppies and kittens that wind up in shelters. However, having these procedures done too early in the animal’s life may lead to problems later on.
“When those hormones are taken away at a young age, it actually delays closure of the growth plates in the legs,” says Knueven. “That makes those bones grow longer, which can throw off the biomechanics of the joints.” Vets used to recommend that dogs be spayed or neutered at six months; now, Knueven says, it’s “better for them to wait until the joint plates are closed at about one year of age.”
Most pet owners don’t even consider the possibility of arthritis until an animal is in obvious discomfort. Fortunately, there are a number of natural ways to make them more comfortable and slow joint degeneration.
Fenell originally consulted with Knueven about Alley’s advanced kidney disease; in addition, “we also noticed she was slowing down a little in the hindquarters.” One of Knueven’s recommendations was that Fenell switch Alley to a raw diet. “It is 75% water, and water doesn’t have any calories,” he notes.
Diet is one way to address the extra weight that can lead to arthritis but as with people, getting pets to shed pounds isn’t easy. “It’s metabolically hard to lose weight,” says Messonnier, who notes that underlying thyroid or adrenal disease can make the process more difficult. What’s more, “It’s hard to get owners not to give treats!” There are clients who simply don’t believe their animals are too heavy; as Knueven puts it, “Some people are offended when I say their pet is overweight.”
Difficult as it may be to refuse a beloved companion’s begging for food, Messonnier reminds owners that “you and you alone control what goes into your pet’s mouth. My recommendation is to feed the most natural and organic diet possible.”
It’s important to exercise your pet to keep him or her both physically healthy and mentally stimulated. But it’s equally important to know when enough’s enough, especially for an arthritic animal. “A moderate exercise program should be initiated under veterinary supervision,” suggests Messonnier. “Let your dog set the guidelines. The exercise should not lead to pain or discomfort.” Cats can be kept moving with wand toys and balls that only dispense dry food when the cat pushes them.
Supplementation can also help treat and perhaps even prevent arthritis. “I suggest getting pets on a supplement with glucosamine and chondroitin before there’s a problem,” says Knueven.
These substances help protect cartilage, the tough, flexible tissue that helps cushion joints and reduce friction.
In one study of a formula that contained a number of joint-support substances, including glucosamine and chondroitin, supplementation was able to “significantly improve symptoms of elbow dysplasia,” including a reduction in lameness (Journal of Veterinary Science 12/14). A separate study found that fish oil, often recommended for human arthritis patients, helped improve quality of life among arthritic dogs (BMC Veterinary Research 9/6/12).
Other potentially useful supplements include green-lipped mussels, hyaluronic acid, MSM and herbs from both Western and Chinese herbal healing traditions. Messonnier says, “Keep in mind that these products have no harmful side effects like those often encountered with long-term use of corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications.”
Acupuncture is a valuable therapy for relief of arthritis symptoms; it works by influencing the flow of energy within the body. Alley had been going for one session a month, but Fenell says “she’s aging so things are changing.” Now Alley undergoes treatments every two or three weeks “for the kidney issues, to stimulate her appetite and for the arthritis.” Knueven says it is his main treatment approach in addition to supplements “and I would say dogs tolerate it better than cats.”
A number of other natural therapies are at veterinary medicine’s disposal, such as chiropractic, magnetic therapy and homeopathy. You can find a vet who uses holistic therapies through the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (ahvma.org).
Today, Alley’s mobility “is great for a 13-year-old dog,” Fenell says. “Long-term steroids for the arthritis—I don’t think her kidneys would have been able to take that. I don’t think she’d
be where she is if we hadn’t gone to Dr. Doug.”