Nearly everyone knows about arthritis—we should, since we blame this condition for our daily aches and pains and sometimes, to excuse our poor athletic skills, or avoid dreaded yard work.

As much as we talk about arthritis, we should be able to recognize the problem in our pets. Unfortunately, the condition is frequently undiagnosed until its late, debilitating stages. Popular arthritis misconceptions are the most likely reason for this gap between awareness and recognition, in addition to our personal bias of assuming we know how arthritis looks or feels, and therefore how our pets will react.

Let’s take a look at four common arthritis misconceptions, to ensure early recognition and diagnosis for your pet. 

Misconception #1: Arthritis affects only older pets

While arthritis is most common in senior and elderly pets, the groundwork and initial signs can occur during their early years. What looks like an “off-day,” a temporary limp, or a muscle strain in a young animal may be the beginning of arthritis, triggered by one of the following:

  • Degenerative orthopedic disease (e.g., hip and elbow dysplasia)
  • Trauma
  • Abnormal development
  • Excessive or inappropriate exercise

No matter a joint’s age, once inflammation begins, the cartilage (i.e., the smooth, frictionless surface that coats the end of bones and allows gliding joint movement) breaks down. Cartilage is replaced with rough mineral deposits, called bone spurs because of their spiked appearance, that make joint movement rough, grinding, and restricted.

Arthritis indications in young animals are often subtle, and may be mistaken for “playing too hard.” Signs may include:

  • Intermittent limping
  • Reluctance to jump or use stairs
  • Restlessness
  • Failure to respond to familiar position cues (e.g., “Sit,” “Down”)
  • Change in posture (e.g., head low, rounded spine, weight shifted to one side)

Behavior or mobility changes always require a veterinarian’s evaluation. Injuries and hereditary conditions can be managed with medication, surgery, weight management, rehabilitation, or alternative treatments such as laser therapy.

Misconception #2: Cats aren’t affected by arthritis

Until recently, feline arthritis was not commonly diagnosed or treated. But veterinarians became proactive after a 2002 study showed that 90 percent of cats older than 12 years of age had radiographic (i.e., X-ray) degenerative joint disease signs. 

A cat’s instinctive need to hide pain and weakness is the most likely reason why feline arthritis was long underdiagnosed. Their sedentary nature also makes identifying any changes in mobility a challenge.

Feline arthritis commonly affects the hips, knees, and ankles, as well as the elbows and spine. Unlike dogs, arthritis in cats is typically bilateral (i.e., affects the same joint on both sides), and therefore doesn’t cause a limp. Instead, cats may show signs including:

  • Stiffness
  • A choppy or stilted gait
  • Reduced activity
  • Less jumping, and only to lower heights
  • Personality change (i.e., reacting differently to being held or petted)

Misconception #3: Pets are painful only if they limp or whine

Many pet owners are surprised to find out their pet has arthritis, and tell us their pet has never whined, cried out, limped, or favored a limb. But such dramatic displays are not typical in pets, who tend to express pain in more discreet ways.

Often, the only arthritic pain sign is a behavior change. Unfortunately, these signs are commonly mistaken for intentional misbehavior, and may be incorrectly addressed with training or punishment. Any sudden change in your pet’s behavior warrants a trip to our Mill Creek Animal Hospital. Watch for the following:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Refusal to exercise
  • Increased sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Fearful behavior or hypersensitivity 
  • Hesitation to jump up or down, or use stairs
  • Unusual sleeping positions
  • Altered posture when standing, sitting, or lying down
  • Changes in elimination habits (e.g., house soiling, missing the litter box)

Misconception #4: Arthritis is degenerative and nothing can help pets

Owners may be reluctant to visit the veterinarian when they first notice their pet’s condition, because they believe treatment isn’t available or beneficial. And, although arthritis cannot be entirely prevented or cured, a multimodal treatment approach can manage your pet’s pain, improve mobility, reduce long-term effects, and give them a longer and happier life. 

As Veterinary Pain Management Society members, the veterinarians at Mill Creek Animal Hospital are passionate about proactive, comprehensive pain control. Our treatment plans often include:

  • Pain medication — Targeted pain control reduces inflammation and inappropriate nerve firing to provide effective relief. Drug therapy may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) or opioids. 
  • Joint supplements — Glucosamine and chondroitin are proven to support cartilage health.
  • Nutritional counseling — Overweight pets put excessive stress on their joints. We review your pet’s daily caloric needs, and suggest an appropriate diet.
  • Therapeutic exercise recommendations — Low-impact exercise helps pets retain their current range of motion, improve blood flow, and reduce stiffness.
  • Alternative therapies — Laser therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic care can provide additional pain relief, and improve range of motion.
  • Environmental modifications — Non-slip rugs, pet ramps, orthopedic bedding, a low litter box, and support harnesses can help your pet maintain independent mobility.

Mobility is essential to your pet’s quality of life, and must be carefully preserved. If your dog or cat has been experiencing unexplainable changes in behavior, activity, or movement, let us help—schedule an appointment at Mill Creek Animal Hospital.