The Rottweiler had hip dysplasia and ruptured knee ligaments when she was adopted in 2006 at age 4. Ligament surgery followed, then a diagnosis of a dislocated spinal disc and arthritis so bad that the dog would cry in pain and sometimes stumble and fall. Her owner, Lea Jaratz of Cleveland, wondered at times if she was putting her through unnecessary pain and should be putting her down instead.
But after trying assorted therapies, Jaratz hit on a combination of an over-the-counter supplement, glucosamine, and a prescription drug, Tramadol, that seemed to help.
While arthritis in dogs and cats is not curable, it is treatable, and pet owners should experiment with medicines, therapies and lifestyle changes until they find an approach that eases the pain and inflammation, said Dr. Wendy Baltzer, a veterinarian, surgeon and director of the Small Animal Rehabilitation Center at Oregon State University.
One in five dogs has severe arthritis and 75 to 80 percent of cats over age 15 have arthritis, Baltzer said.
“I always tell owners: ‘Yes. Try. Do.’ But if it doesn’t work, it’s OK, it’s just that it’s not going to work for your dog,” Baltzer said.
Baltzer also stressed that overweight, sedentary pets are at higher risk for severe arthritis. Lean should be a lifestyle, exercise a habit and moderation in play a must, the veterinarian said.
“The more weight you have, the more damage you do to the joint,” she said.
Things young dogs do — leaping for balls, screeching to a stop after fetching, trying to stop on slick floors, running on concrete — can take a toll, she said.
Grassy play areas and rugs on wooden floors will ease pressure on young joints. For arthritic dogs, soft beds, raised feeders and car ramps will help. If a flight of stairs becomes a problem, a pet may have to learn to live on one level. Swimming is a good form of exercise because it does not stress the joints, she added.
Tahlula’s owner, Jaratz, who also has another dog with arthritis, said if she had it to do over, “I would have kept my pets’ weight down, managing their diet and exercise earlier on. Both of my dogs became overweight with time, compounding their arthritis pain.”
As bad as arthritis is in dogs, it might be worse in cats, Baltzer said, because cats instinctively try to hide weakness.
Be wary if your cat slows down, becomes irritable, doesn’t want to step in its litter box, doesn’t want to be petted near a joint, stops hopping on the couch or climbing its cat tree. Cats may also stop eating if their food dishes are up high, she said.
“It is a very underdiagnosed disease in cats. People will say their cat is sleeping 12 hours a day because it’s getting older. But that’s not true. It’s just too painful to walk around,” Baltzer said.
Most pets get osteoarthritis, the vet said, a disease caused by the breakdown of articular cartilage over the bones that form joints. Without the cushion, bone rubs against bone, causing inflammation, swelling and pain.
Arthritis can develop as a result of joint infection, trauma (including being hit by a car or physical abuse), genetics and aging. Big dogs tend to get it more than small ones but any dog or cat is susceptible, Baltzer said.
Therapies — some of them still experimental in terms of research results but said anecdotally by veterinarians to provide some relief — include acupuncture, laser, massage, ultrasound, water, pulse signal, shockwave and stem cell treatments. Baltzer often recommends glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, and says some of her patients have also benefitted from omega-3 fatty acids and an extract used in traditional Chinese medicine called elk velvet antler.
Surgery is another option. Wrists (front paws) and ankles (back paws) can be fused in a procedure called arthrodesis, Baltzer said. “I’ve had dogs who have returned to competition as sports dogs and done very well with fused wrists,” she said.
But range of motion is limited after the surgery, so it does not work well with elbows (front legs) and knees (back legs) and it is not an option for hips, Baltzer said.
“If it’s severe arthritis, we encourage them to have joint replacement,” she said.
The surgery is expensive. A joint replacement at OSU is about $5,000, Baltzer said, and that’s a bargain, because OSU is a teaching hospital.
Jaratz had pet insurance (she works for a pet insurance company) to help cover Tahlula’s ligament surgery — $3,295 for both knees — and disc treatment, nearly $1,500.
But not all animals are good candidates for surgery. Baltzer cited 14-year-old Max, a dog with heart disease and arthritis in both wrists, knees and hips, as an example of a case where ultrasound and laser therapies are a better approach. Max also wears braces on his wrists so he can exercise, crucial for building muscle to protect joints, the vet said.
“He will literally run into the room and hold his wrist up to be lasered because it feels so good,” she said.