Arthritis is no more fun for pets than it is for people. The symptoms (and treatments) are similar, but there’s a big difference—your pets can’t tell you when they’re hurting.
Dogs and cats actually try to hide their pain because animals in the wild know that weakness makes them a target. You have to be a bit of a detective to recognize the signs—a stiff walk…a favorite couch that they no longer use…a groan when they lie down.
About 20% of middle-aged dogs and cats have arthritis in at least one joint, and nearly all will be affected at some time in their lives. The good news is that arthritis often can be prevented—and pets that already have it can get relief without taking drugs. Steps to take…
• Check your pet’s weight. A recent study found that 53% of dogs are overweight or obese. Among cats, the percentage is even higher. Why it matters: Those extra pounds accelerate degenerative joint disease, the breakdown of cartilage that surrounds the joints. Cartilage damage triggers the release of inflammatory chemicals that cause pain and stiffness.
You don’t need a scale to know if your pet is overweight. You have to look and feel. When you look down at your dog or cat, you should see a pronounced waist behind the rib cage. Viewed from the side, the abdomen should be tucked up and not hanging down. You should be able to feel the ribs under a thin layer of fat.
If your pet is overweight, there won’t be much of a waist…you’ll barely feel the ribs…and the abdomen will be rounded rather than tucked.
Because dogs and cats come in different sizes, you can’t count on the portion guides that are listed on food labels. In general: If your pet is overweight, start by reducing food amounts by about one-fifth. Keep at that amount for a few weeks. If your pet still seems heavy, reduce the portions again.
• More exercise. Along with weight loss, exercise is the most effective way to prevent and treat arthritis. Regular exercise increases synovial fluid, the natural lubricant that allows joints to glide rather than grind. Exercise also reduces pressure by strengthening the muscles that surround the joints.
It’s usually easy to get dogs to exercise—just snap on a leash and take a walk. Cats need more encouragement—or at least something that engages their interest such as a ball or a moving piece of string. Walk/play with your pet for at least 10 to 15 minutes a few times a day.
BETTER THAN DRUGS
The standard arthritis treatments for dogs and cats include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed by veterinarians. I recommend drugs only as a last resort. You usually can treat arthritis with natural—and safer—remedies. Best choices…
• Homeopathy. This is a system of medicine that uses extremely small doses of natural substances to alter the body’s energy. I have found it to be quite effective in my practice. It’s my first treatment choice because it causes no side effects and can help reduce cartilage damage and inflammation.
Homeopathy is complicated because there are hundreds of potential remedies and doses and because the treatments vary widely from one pet to the next. You can give the remedies at home, but only after they’ve been chosen by a veterinary homeopath. Examples: If your pet limps when it first gets up, but the stiffness improves with movement, your veterinarian might recommend Rhus toxicodendron. Arthritis that gets worse in cold/damp weather might respond better to Calcarea carbonica.
To find a veterinary homeopath, go to TheAVH.org/referrals.
• Physical therapy. Moving the limbs in certain ways can markedly reduce pain and improve your pet’s ability to stand, walk and run. When your pet is lying on its side, for example, you can gently grip the knee and move the leg through its full range of motion. Your veterinarian can recommend exercises for different joints. You might be advised to work with a veterinary physical therapist who might use specialized equipment (such as underwater treadmills) to get your pet moving.
• Gelatin. Over-the-counter joint supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin are effective but expensive. I usually recommend an unflavored gelatin such as Knox, available in any grocery store. Gelatin contains collagen, one of the materials used by the body to manufacture cartilage and bone. Studies have shown that it improves flexibility and can relieve joint pain. Add about one teaspoon of the gelatin powder to your pet’s food every day.
• Bone broth. This soup has the same bone-building effects as gelatin, and pets love the taste. You can make it yourself by slow-simmering chicken, pork or beef bones until they’re soft and fall apart. (It might take up to two days—using a slow cooker is best, as it can stay on safely for that length of time.) Strain the broth carefully so that no bone bits remain. Store the broth in the refrigerator, and give your pet a little taste with each meal.
• Acupuncture. Stimulating acupuncture points can increase circulation and boost painkilling chemicals in the body. Use the Internet to find a certified veterinary acupuncturist in your area. A session typically costs between $30 and $50. Your pet may improve after a single session, but you’ll probably be advised to schedule two sessions a week for a few weeks, followed by occasional maintenance sessions.
• Orthopedic beds. Who doesn’t like a cozy bed? Large dogs in particular do better when they sleep on a firm mattress. You can buy orthopedic pet beds in pet stores and online that make it easier to stand up…have memory foam for extra support…and are heated to keep joints limber.
Also: Elevated food and water bowls, which are available at pet stores and online, can help pets with neck or back problems.