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Health & Wellness

Dr. Evan Antin explains: How to spot osteoarthritis in your pet

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis in pets can’t be cured — but there are ways to manage it.

If your dog only wants to play fetch for two rounds instead of their usual eight, or your cat seems more sluggish than normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re just getting older. Instead, these scenarios are two possible indicators of osteoarthritis. 

But those aren’t the only symptoms of osteoarthritis in pets, and knowing all of them is essential to getting your cat or dog help early so the condition can be more manageable as it progresses. So we spoke to Dr. Evan Antin, a practicing small animal, exotics and wildlife veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital and member of Fetch’s Veterinary Advisory Board, to understand more about osteoarthritis and potential treatment options. 

People might know how osteoarthritis affects humans, but how does it impact our pets? 

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, is just that, a degeneration of the cartilage and adjacent bones of joints. 

What are some of the most common causes of osteoarthritis?

The most common cause is wear and tear of the joints throughout a pet’s life, even otherwise healthy pets. Larger breeds tend to have higher occurrences of osteoarthritis, but obesity and previous lesions, such as cranial cruciate injuries, also predispose pets to it.

What are some indicators that a pet may be struggling with osteoarthritis? 

Some of the first clinical signs pet parents observe is that their pet might be playing less than before, slow to get up from a laid-down position or showing less physical enthusiasm in general. One may also notice their pets having less stamina on walks and/or showing lameness following the walks or activity. Pets, especially dogs, with moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis chronically pant more than average. 

Excessive panting can be secondary to many disease processes, but pain, including that caused by osteoarthritis, is a common reason for the panting. Pet parents often notice this panting at nighttime when their dog is otherwise relaxed and shouldn’t normally be panting to a higher degree. 

Are certain dogs or cats more likely to develop osteoarthritis than others? Why is that?

Large dog breeds tend to have a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis as they age, and it’s pretty much expected for very large and giant breeds to have the condition in their later years. For cats, I would say the same. However, very old cats or dogs of any size likely have some degree of osteoarthritis. 

The number one lifestyle problem leading to osteoarthritis is obesity. A healthy weight guided by an appropriate diet and appropriate exercise is so important. Obesity is a very common problem amongst our pets. 

RELATED: Hip dysplasia in dogs: what it is and how to treat it

What should people do if they think their pet has osteoarthritis? 

Consult with your local veterinarian as soon as possible. Osteoarthritis isn’t usually a medical emergency but the sooner, the better for the comfort of your pet. Of course, maintaining or getting your pet back to a healthy body weight can be initiated in the meantime before your pet’s veterinary appointment. 

Once pet parents are at the vet’s office, how do veterinarians usually diagnose osteoarthritis in pets? 

We often visually observe osteoarthritis before even touching a patient. For example, during a general physical exam, we may find thickened joints or our patient may be guarded or sensitive to certain parts of their bodies being touched.

An orthopedic exam is geared towards a more thorough assessment of multiple joints where we bring patients through different ranges of motion to see how they react and how those joints feel in our hands. The orthopedic exam also includes specific maneuvers for certain joints and orthopedic conditions to further evaluate joint health and potentially specific injuries. 

We can look into orthopedic health further with radiographs (aka X-rays). Radiographs are very helpful for diagnosing osteoarthritis as we tend to see actual bony changes along affected joints. 

If a pet’s diagnosed with osteoarthritis, what are the most common treatment recommendations? Is the condition curable? 

Osteoarthritis isn't curable. However, we can significantly improve our pet's quality of life and day-to-day comfort by maintaining a healthy weight and providing an effective medical management plan for them. 

Treatment begins with a healthy body weight. Every extra unnecessary pound a pet carries around accelerates the wear and tear of osteoarthritis. For most of my osteoarthritis patients, I also recommend medical management to help reduce pain and slow down the progression of arthritis. Prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medication has proven to be one of the most effective means of slowing down osteoarthritis and making pets noticeably more comfortable. 

Certain pets also benefit from prescription oral pain medications, but their efficacy is less consistent. One of my favorite treatment options is a prescription injectable medication that parents can administer at home called glycosaminoglycans. It’s a very safe medication, and my patients that respond to it respond quite well — but I would say it’s an approximately 50% success rate. 

A newer option that a decent number of patients are responding to is over-the-counter CBD supplements, which are also very safe and worth a try, in my opinion. There are also several over-the-counter joint supplement products available with questionable efficacy. I have some pet parents swearing by it, but others are unsure if they're helping. In my opinion, if a patient has observable osteoarthritis, then over-the-counter joint-care supplements aren't enough to make them comfortable. Many osteoarthritis patients are on a combination of these medications, too. 

For puppy and kitten parents, is there any way to prevent their pets from developing osteoarthritis? 

I’m a broken record, but maintaining a healthy weight throughout your pet’s life, especially in middle-age-to-later years, can’t be stressed enough. It’s also very important and helpful to consult your local veterinarian if you have any concerns about arthritis. The longer you go without addressing it, the worse it can get and more challenging it can be to manage down the road. 

Arthritis is so common in pets, especially these days, as more pet parents are proactive about their pet’s health, and these animals are living longer. Providing your pets with quality pet insurance is a great way to help stay proactive about their health and protect them when veterinary intervention is needed. 

How can parents make their pets with osteoarthritis comfortable? 

Again, a healthy diet and body weight is so crucial. For lifestyle, even arthritic pets like to play, but we need to calibrate for these individuals and make sure activities for them aren’t as long in duration or high-impact on their joints. For example, mild-to-moderate duration, low-intensity neighborhood walks instead of rigorous hikes or hours running after a ball in the park. 

The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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Image source: @drevanantin Instagram

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