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What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative, progressive disease characterised by degeneration of movable joints and clinical signs of pain and dysfunction. Unlike humans, who tend to get primary OA (no underlying injury or abnormality), dogs tend to develop OA following an injury to the joint, or abnormality such as a ruptured ligament or cartilage disease. Cats, however, can develop both types.

OA affects up to 20% of cats and dogs over the age of one year and its prevalence increases with age, 90% of cats over the age of ten have  evidence of OA on x-ray. OA is generally diagnosed using a combination of history, risk factors i.e. breed, physical examination and x-ray evidence.

Understanding stiff joints

‘Stiff joints’ is a general term for changes in the joint caused by normal or abnormal wear and tear. For animals that have stiff joints, the cartilage (the tissue that ‘cushions’ the joint between bones) is worn away faster than it is replaced. When it wears away, joints become stiff, mobility decreases, and pain and disability progressively develop. Although stiff joints are not curable they can be managed through a multimodal approach.

What causes stiff joints?

There are many reasons why your dog or cat could be suffering from stiff joints:

  • Age: As pets get older, joint cartilage will progressively wear away. Though it is much more common in senior animals, young animals can suffer from stiff joints, too.
  • Breed: Certain dog breeds are more prone to developing stiff joints. ‘At-risk’ dog breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Rottweilers.
  • Excess weight: Excess weight means excess stress on the joints and cartilage; this increases the risk of stiff joints. Fat also produces toxic factors that cause inflammation.
  • Congenital or hereditary defects: Some breeds may have congenital or hereditary conditions that make them more prone to developing stiff joints later in life.
  • Accidents or trauma: Trauma to cartilage may lead to stiff joints later in life and adversely affect mobility. 

Signs of Arthritis

In the early stages of arthritis, lameness might not be evident. Subtle changes in the pet’s activity might be a result of arthritis. These include:

  • Difficulty rising
  • Stiffness/lameness
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Muscle loss
  • Reluctance to come and greet owner
  • Reluctance to jump into car
  • Difficulty climbing stairs/slope
  • Licking at joints excessively
  • Changes in grooming
  • Changes in temperament
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Changes in toileting behaviour
  • Long nail length in cats
  • Reduced agility and jumping in cats

Cats can have a stoic response to pain and therefore show very subtle signs of arthritis. It is thought that 90% of cats over 12 years old will have bony changes indicative of arthritis. 

What will my vet look for?

Arthritis is diagnosed after the vet has performed a thorough examination of your pet, as well as discussing your pet's history. In some cases, the vet may suggest x-rays to look for bony changes and will sometimes take a sample of fluid from the joint to check for infection or other diseases.

Muscle loss can be a sign of chronic lameness, and joint effusion (enlarging of the joint) can be due to excessive fluid in the joint during inflammation.

How is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Arthritis can be managed using a variety of methods (multimodal approach), which includes:

  • Pain relief
  • Weight control
  • Disease modification
  • Lifestyle adjustments
  • Exercise

Pain Relief

Pain relief will be prescribed by the vet such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. This will help your pet feel more comfortable and help them get back into a normal routine. They will also help to reduce inflammation within the joints.

In some cases, the vet may suggest acupuncture, which can be carried out at the surgery by a qualified practitioner. Acupuncture works by creating small painful stimuli which competes with the pain of arthritis. When getting acupuncture the brain gets a message that switches off the chronic pain stimuli of OA to respond to the acupuncture.

Weight Control

Unfortunately, a large number of pets are overweight, which makes them more susceptible to developing arthritis. One of the best things you can do for your arthritic pet is to reduce their weight. For osteoarthritis to improve, a weight loss of 6-9% is needed, and quite often pain relief can be reduced or even stopped following a successful reduction in weight. 

Disease Modification

Disease modification means using nutritional supplements, either using prescription food or in the form of tablets, to help decrease the degeneration of the cartilage. These supplements can be used in conjunction with pain relief, and are usually prescribed by the vet.

Lifestyle Adjustments

This covers anything that you can do in the home environment to make your pet's life easier, for example ramps, soft thick padded bedding, raised food bowls, shallower litter trays, harnesses, rugs for laminate floors, and use of pheromone therapy to help relieve anxiety related to pain.


A pet with osteoarthritis should not be completely rested. Moderate exercise helps to keep still joints supple and mobile.  The exact exercise requirements depend on your pet's individual needs, however in general the motto is LITTLE AND OFTEN. This means 15-20 minutes twice daily rather than one long 40 minute walk.

Arthritis Clinics

Here at Mintlaw Vets, our nurses run FREE clinics for animals who have been given a diagnosis of arthritis, covering all aspects of care above. Together with the vets, the nurses work to make sure your pet has as much of an active and pain-free life as possible. If you think your pet may have arthritis, then please contact us to make a vet appointment in the first instance.