Also referred to as degenerative joint disease (DJD), arthritis is a very common condition of older pets. Arthritis can cause significant pain, discomfort and loss of function. The signs can be very subtle, but you, as the caregiver, are the best person to recognize them. The good news is that there are many different treatments that we can try to make your pet more comfortable and happy. These are divided into several broad categories:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Other pain medications
- Nutritional support and supplements
- Physical therapy
- Integrative medicine
- Exercise and weight management
- Environmental modification
The best treatment plans incorporate two or more of the above types of therapy. The plan is tailored to the individual pet, and often it takes trial and error to see what works best. Patience is key! Please also keep in mind that arthritis is a progressive condition – while we can try to slow down the process, we cannot stop or reverse it. Your pet’s signs will probably change over time, and treatments that were helpful in the past may not be enough. Fortunately, we can keep adjusting the plan to see what works.
Most of these fall into the category called “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs” or NSAIDs. Some popular choices are carprofen (Rimadyl), firocoxib (Previcox), or meloxicam (Metacam). They are considered the cornerstone of treatment for osteoarthritis. A couple important points:
- Not all NSAIDs are safe for all pets. Cats, in particular, are very sensitive to adverse effects. Over the counter preparations for people are generally not safe for cats or dogs. You should always talk to your veterinarian first before giving your pet any over the counter medications or supplements.
- Each pet responds differently to individual medications, so it may take a little trial and error to find the right one. Don’t give up if you don’t see immediate results, but do work with your vet to find something that works.
Other Pain Medications
Sometimes NSAIDs can’t be used because of other medical conditions or side effects. In other cases, they may need a little “help” with the addition of another drug. A newer concept in pain management is “multimodal” drug therapy, in which drugs of different types are used to enhance the effect of each other while minimizing side effects (because lower doses of each drug can be used). Common choices include tramadol, gabapentin and amantadine. More recent research has suggested that certain anti-depressants and even an anti-nausea drug called maropitant may play a role in pain control as well.
For more serious chronic pain or post-operative pain, narcotic drugs such as morphine or hydrocodone may be used.
Nutritional Support and Supplements
There is evidence that some nutritional supplements can be helpful in the management of chronic pain. These supplements usually work in reducing pain in the long-term, so it takes several weeks to see the full effects. You can read about these in more detail here.
An exciting new field in pain management for pets is physical therapy. More veterinarians and veterinary technicians are becoming skilled at the various techniques, which can include water therapy, massage, range-of-motion and stretching exercises, and more.
Eastern or “alternative” medicine has been practiced for thousands of years. Western medicine is catching up as researchers explore these methods. Acupuncture and therapeutic laser are two methods that now have solid scientific evidence backing their safety and effectiveness.
Exercise and Weight Management
Moderate exercise at a level appropriate for your pet’s physical condition can help keep joints limber and strengthen muscles. Discuss with your veterinarian to determine a plan for your pet. Swimming is often recommended because it reduces strain on arthritic joints. Regular activity also aids in weight management. Maintaining an ideal weight is possibly the most important factor in reducing pain and slowing damage to joints.
For pets with mobility problems, changes to the environment can make a huge difference. Ramps can be added to stairways or aid a large pet with getting into the car. Non-skid throw rugs or runners are a big help to pets that have difficulty standing and walking on tile or wood flooring.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do for our aging pets is to keep finding small ways to bring them a little happiness. Special toys, treats (in moderation!), or even some quiet time together can improve their mental well-being. Creativity is especially valuable when working with a pet who has lost mobility. For example, a dog that can no longer enjoy daily walks with the family might benefit from a car ride or even a cruise around the neighborhood in a wagon.
Now that you know some of the available options, you can work with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan that makes sense for you and your pet. You’ll both be happy you did!