Osteoarthritis and chronic pain in our pets

September is Animal Pain Awareness Month. Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common causes of chronic pain in pets- it is a progressive, degenerative disease process found in the joints of almost all types of animals, including humans. Studies have suggested that in North America up to 80% of dogs over age 8, and 90% of cats over age 10 have arthritic changes on x-rays. Managing the pain caused by arthritis is a very important part of supporting our pet’s well-being and quality of life, especially as they age
What is Osteoarthritis?
OA begins with degeneration of the normal cartilage within the joint, which is commonly caused by injuries, repeated stresses (such as running on hard surfaces or playing fetch excessively), or inherited conformation defects that cause the pet’s joints to be poorly aligned. Pain from the roughness nd inflammation inside the joint causes the pet to use it less, and this leads to the weakening of the muscles, ligaments and tendons supporting that joint. Eventually the pet starts to shift more and more of its weight off that joint and uses other muscles/ tendons/ ligaments abnormally; this results in compensatory muscle soreness in other parts of the body. Carrying that extra shifted weight on other limbs can cause the previously healthy legs to start having joint and soft tissue damage, resulting in a vicious cycle of pain and further joint disease. It is estimated that up to 66% of dogs, especially larger breeds, are eventually euthanized due to severe orthopedic and mobility problems rather than other medical issues.
Why do we worry about chronic pain in our pets?
Dogs, cats and other pets are an important part of many families, and seeing them in pain is always upsetting. Arthritis visibly diminishes our pet’s mobility and comfort, but long term chronic pain from any cause (arthritis, dental disease, disc disease, chronic ear infections etc) can result in other ill effects as well. Cognitive brain functions such as memory, problem solving and learning new things are significantly decreased in dogs that suffer from long-term pain. Chronic pain can also teach the nervous system to become over-reactive to everyday sensory experiences. This can result in normal sensations like being held or stoked feeling unpleasant or painful to the pet. Controlling inflammation and pain with specific treatment protocols helps “unwind” the over-reactive nerves and let the pet go back to enjoying comfortable interactions with their owners.
How do you know if your pet has chronic pain?
There are lots of clues to pick up on that can alert us to the presence of chronic pain. It is important to realize that animals with OA usually do not yelp or whine, even when they are in significant pain. You may start to notice your young dog limping or looking stiff after an intense game of fetch or play session with other dogs. Your older dog may be starting to “slow down”, take the stairs more slowly, and have less patience with other dogs who want to play. Often at night, pets will pace around the room, take more time to settle into bed, or shift positions frequently. Even subtle changes like seeming less excited about things they used to enjoy, sleeping more than usual or starting to lick their paws more often can indicate pain. Cats can be even more difficult to pick up on chronic pain- they are very good at hiding it. Often temperament changes are a clue, cats can seem grumpier and no longer seek out attention and stroking. They might hold their tail lower than they used to, avoid jumping up and down as often, or look like they groom themselves less. Cats may even start urinating and defecating outside of their litterbox if stepping up over the high sides starts to hurt.
What can we do to help?
It is important to seek out an accurate veterinary diagnosis, so making an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out other potential issues contributing to pain is wise before attempting to treat anything at home. Your vet can work with you to make a treatment and exercise plan that is best suited to your pet, and they may prescribe anti-inflammatory and pain medications to help control the joint inflammation. They can also advise you on appropriate dosages for beneficial joint support supplements like omega 3 fatty acids.
 Resisting their puppy-dog eyes is easily worth it to buy ourselves extra months or even years with them by our sides. Regular daily exercise is also important. Long walks, hikes, swimming, and other low impact exercises help keep joints healthy, comfortable and functional.
Although we cannot cure osteoarthritis, addressing it early and treating appropriately can slow down the disease progression and vastly improve our pet’s quality and length of life.

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