Everyone knows someone affected by arthritis—and whether the sufferer is two- or four-legged, this inflammatory joint condition limits activities and significantly impacts quality of life.

Arthritis affects at least 20% of dogs (i.e., one in five) and an estimated 40% to 92% of cats (i.e., 4 to 9 out of 10), and this does not account for the many pets currently suffering from undiagnosed disease. Recognizing arthritis in its earliest stages is key to preventing unnecessary pain and reducing its damaging effects, but the signs can be subtle. Find out if your pet is suffering in silence with this guide from Westerville Veterinary Clinic.

Defining arthritis in pets

Arthritis (i.e., osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease) is a degenerative inflammatory condition that can affect any joint, but is especially common in the hips, knees, and elbows. 

Arthritis can be caused or exacerbated by a number of factors, including:

  • Joint malformation
  • Injury
  • Obesity
  • Age (i.e., cumulative stress)
  • Chronic stress (e.g., repetitive or concussive injury such as jumping, climbing, or prolonged running)

In a healthy joint, the cartilage, which is a smooth, slippery surface covering the bone ends, and thick nutrient-rich joint fluid ensure free and frictionless movement. Inside an arthritic joint, chronic inflammation replaces smooth cartilage with rough and spiky bone, and stops the production of joint fluid. As an arthritic joint bends and straightens, bone meets bone in an uneven, grinding, and laborious manner—resulting in pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion.

5 ways to recognize arthritis in pets

Arthritic pets seldom limp, cry out, or experience dramatic mobility changes. Instead, the slow disease progression allows dogs and cats to gradually adapt their movement and behavior to avoid discomfort, and they simultaneously will conceal their pain.

Here are five subtle signs that your pet may be experiencing physical discomfort caused by arthritis:

#1: Your pet is slowing down

Although arthritis is most common in senior and elderly pets, early signs and physical changes can appear long before your pet has reached their golden years. What many pet owners accept as “natural aging” is actually arthritis coming front and center. Slowing down is a general descriptor for many altered actions, including:

  • Physical transitions — Pets may change the way they lie down from a standing position, or rise after sleep. Motions may be slow and measured or appear uncontrolled (e.g., flopping onto their side rather than lying down and rotating the hips). Pets may refuse to rise when called, or appear to drag themselves upright.
  • Reduced exercise — Dogs may lag behind on a walk, take frequent breaks, or pant heavily. In younger pets, arthritis may look like an “off day,” or muscle strain. 
  • Less interest in favorite activities — Your pet may lose interest in old favorites (e.g., lowering the head to retrieve a ball, because that causes neck pain, or jumping to catch a frisbee, which aggravates painful knees or hips) that now cause pain.
  • Increased sleep — Arthritic pets may sleep more often and in unusual positions or locations.

#2: Your pet looks different

Pain and discomfort can change your pet’s appearance. To avoid pain, or in unconscious expression, dogs and cats will make physical changes, including:

  • Postural adaptations — Dogs and cats will shift their body weight away from pain, which may look like leaning or bracing themselves.
  • A rounded back — Most dog breeds and cats should have a level topline or spine when standing. Pain and concurrent weakness may cause pets to tuck under their hind limbs, causing a rounded or arched back.
  • Low head carriage — Painful pets may lower their head to avoid neck pain, or take weight off their hind end.
  • Facial expressionsThe Feline Grimace Scale is a valid and convenient tool for evaluating cat pain by observing their muzzle tension, ears, eyes, and whiskers, and head position. Although the scale is designed for acute (i.e., sudden) pain, it may be helpful during arthritic flare-ups.

#3: Your pet has to pause before jumping, using the stairs, or walking on slick floors

If your pet needs extra encouragement to navigate everyday obstacles, such as stairs, furniture, hills, or getting into and out of the car, they may be experiencing arthritic pain or weakness. Dogs may become inexplicably fearful of slick floors if they have slipped or fallen. Persistently coaxing, cajoling, or forcing these pets to perform painful maneuvers may cause significant injury. Identifying and addressing the underlying problem with a visit to Westerville Veterinary Clinic and some environmental modifications (e.g., ramps, carrying the pet, assistive harnesses, textured rugs) can help restore your pet’s confidence.

#4: Your pet seems more clumsy or has fallen

Untreated pain leads to muscle weakness as arthritic pets become less active, and this weakness in your pet’s limbs and abdominal core can cause loss of balance. Since loss of coordination can indicate many medical conditions, have your pet evaluated as soon as possible.  

#5: Your pet is irritable or misbehaving

Pain can make anyone grouchy—including pets. Arthritic pets may be less tolerant of fellow house pets, children, and physical handling. These dogs and cats may act out of character, and bite, growl, or hiss at a perceived threat. Since these responses can create emotional strain between the pet and family, setting boundaries for children and rambunctious pets around older dogs and cats who are resting or isolating themselves is essential. Additional behavior-related changes may include house soiling, anxiety, pacing, restlessness, and obsessive self-grooming. 

Westerville Veterinary Clinic is committed to providing pets with lifelong comfort and health. If your pet is showing arthritis signs, let’s work together to reduce their pain and get them back on their paws. Contact us to schedule an appointment.