Arthritis pain can go unrecognized in dogs and cats. Here’s what to look for
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Excited by the prospect of going for a walk, Harper, my 10 1/2-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, sprang down the hall, then skidded to a halt, yelping in pain. A physical exam by her veterinarian and subsequent X-rays showed osteoarthritis in her lower back.
Osteoarthritis is chronic joint inflammation that causes damage to articular cartilage -- which covers and protects the ends of bones -- as well as changes to synovial fluid and narrowing of the joint space. Because cartilage in an osteoarthritic joint is brittle, it cracks a little when the pet moves or jumps. The cartilage becomes thinner and less able to retain fluid. Eventually, inflammation and cartilage destruction lead to painful bone scraping on bone.
Some 20 percent of dogs and an unknown percentage of cats develop osteoarthritis. We think of it as a disease of senior animals, but it can affect pets at any age, especially if they are overweight or have congenital conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia, says Joyce A. Login, DVM, senior manager of veterinary specialty operations at Zoetis, which counts pain medications among its products.
Pet owners are often surprised and dismayed to learn that their pets are in pain from osteoarthritis, says Robin Downing, DVM, a veterinary specialist in pain management and sports medicine at Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. Too often, they assume that a lower activity level or stiff gait is normal, chalking it up to advancing age. Dr. Downing often hears the following statements from owners who don’t recognize behavior changes that indicate pain:
-- “We used to walk 3 miles, but now she only wants to go 1.”
-- “She used to play fetch for 20 minutes and now she’s done at five minutes.”
-- “She stops and thinks about it before she walks up the stairs.”
-- “She doesn’t like to be groomed or touched in certain areas.”
-- “He’s not eating as much as he used to.”
-- “My cat doesn’t groom himself very well anymore.”
-- “My pet doesn’t jump on the bed or sofa anymore.”
-- “My cat has stopped using the litter box.”
Decreased stamina, reluctance to perform previously normal actions, and resistance to touch can all signal joint pain. Pets who aren’t eating as much may have lower back pain that makes it painful to lean down to the food dish. And animals who stop using the litter box or have accidents in the house may do so because it hurts to climb in and out of the litter box or squat long enough to completely empty their colon. Pets in pain may isolate themselves to avoid being petted or groomed. When the veterinarian performs a pain palpation, the animal may react by twitching the skin, moving away, crying out or trying to bite.
A plan for managing pain from osteoarthritis may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); injectable chondroprotectants such as Adequan Canine (also used off-label in cats); nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory or immune-modulating effects, such as microlactins and omega-3 fatty acids; weight loss; laser; and physical rehab. The goal is to break the pain cycle quickly and effectively.
NSAIDs tend to be a cornerstone of treatment, Dr. Downing says, but multiple strategies and products allow her to target pain and inflammation in different ways. Reducing reliance on NSAIDs to treat chronic pain gives her the option to reserve them for use with acute pain, such as that caused by a tooth extraction.
“Each pet is an individual,” Dr. Login says. “There’s not one specific product or treatment that I think you can lean toward. We can’t always fix it, but we can make them happy and comfortable.”
Healthy birds need
Q: How often should my pet bird visit the veterinarian?
A: A healthy pet bird should visit the veterinarian each year for a physical examination and as needed for illness or injury. According to the Association of Avian Veterinarians, it is important for a pet bird to have regular examinations because signs of illness in birds tend to be subtle.
The veterinarian will begin by collecting your bird's medical history from you, and that information will be included in his medical file. The exam will then proceed to a hands-off look-see before he is gently restrained in a towel and removed from his carrier. Your bird will be weighed and looked over carefully from beak to bottom for physical indications of illness or injury. Your veterinarian will listen to the bird's heart, lungs and air sacs with a stethoscope.
Following the examination, your veterinarian may recommend diagnostic tests, including fecal evaluation, bloodwork and microbiology to further determine your pet's health. The annual exam can also be a good time to have your bird's wing feathers clipped or his toenails trimmed.
Observant owners are important members of their bird’s health care team. Watch for signs of illness, which can include a fluffed appearance, appetite loss, increased sleep, weight loss, a change in the frequency or appearance of droppings, lameness, drooping wing or wings, breathing difficulties, or discharge from the bird's nares (nostrils) or eyes.
Pay attention to your bird's appetite, appearance and activity level daily, and contact your veterinarian's office for advice if you notice a change in your bird's routine. Because birds naturally mask signs of illness, the first indicators are often overlooked, but early detection is key to helping your bird regain health as quickly as possible. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Get the skinny
on pet skin
-- Skin: It’s your pet’s largest organ. Think of it as armor for internal organs, bones and joints, preventing harmful organisms from sneaking into the body, insulating it from temperature extremes, and enabling the sense of touch through sensory nerves that transmit sensations such as temperature, pain and pressure. While cat and dog skin is there to protect and to serve, it is more delicate and sensitive than human skin, which is why it usually has an outer layer of fur. Skin has three layers: the epidermis, or outer layer; the dermis, the middle layer; and the subcutis, made up of fat cells and connective tissue.
-- Nicknamed “the tail-wagging sport,” the art of dancing with dogs -- known variously as canine freestyle, musical freestyle and heelwork to music -- allows dog and human dance pairs to display teamwork, athleticism and creative costuming and musical interpretation. Freestyle dogs learn to spin clockwise and counterclockwise, jump through or into their partner’s arms, bow before a waltz, or place their paws on an arm or on their partner’s back, to name just a few of their talents. The most commonly seen freestyling dogs include Australian shepherds, border collies and golden retrievers, but it’s a fun activity for any dog and person.
-- “We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you don’t please.” Who doesn’t remember the snobby singing Siamese cats from the animated movie "Lady and the Tramp"? Siamese cats -- with their blue eyes; sleek, pale bodies; and dark “points” on ears, paws, face and tail -- have been popular since the Victorian era. They are known for their bossy personality, raspy voice, which sounds as if they smoke two packs a day, and long life span. The personable cats love to spend time with their humans and are amenable to walking on a leash. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.