Arthritis Options For Dogs (And Cats)

Gazette Vet by John Andersen, DVM

In older dogs (and cats), arthritis is certainly one of the more common problems that we see. Obesity and genetics are the biggest reasons why, and it is definitely more of a problem in bigger dogs (those over 50 pounds). It is often viewed as just “old yeller getting older”—and although that is basically true, it doesn’t mean it should be ignored. This month’s column is just a brief summary of some treatment options for those who have been wondering what you can do to make that old girl get her spunk back…

Weight Loss: I can’t stress enough how important this is!! And it’s free!!! The majority of dogs and cats we see with significant arthritis are significantly overweight and in all cases, getting these dogs down to a good body condition can drastically improve their symptoms, if not make them seem to disappear altogether. For some reason, this point is not commonly taken—I understand that its easier to say we’re going to give less food and less treats than to actually do it at home when they’re sitting beside the dinner table. Lets face it; we love to spoil our pets. We feel it makes them love us more, and who doesn’t need to be loved a little more! But a little tough love goes a long way.

As I was recently taking my three-year-old on a bike ride, with him riding behind me in his bike seat, I realized how much more difficult it was to bike around our hilly town. And when I then rode by myself, what a difference! Well, there you go—that’s like your 50-pound dog riding with ten extra pounds of fat—a major difference every minute of every day. Discuss with your vet your pet’s dietary needs—and focus on the food—they’re ALWAYS eating too much food and they just need less.

NSAIDs (Non Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs): These are your typical “arthritis medications,” i.e. Ibuprofen and aspirin in people. These are non-sedating pain relievers that work by reducing inflammation and will usually have a dramatic, immediate impact on your pet’s comfort level. But just as in people, there are side effects. The most common (in people as well) is stomach upset and potentially stomach ulceration. These drugs unfortunately reduce the production of some prostaglandins that are important in protecting the stomach lining from stomach acid. For most dogs this isn’t an issue, but for some, it sets them up for developing an irritated stomach lining and potentially a stomach ulcer. Additionally, long-term use can be associated with liver damage and kidney damage as well—but liver damage is uncommon and kidney damage usually occurs only when there is preexisting kidney disease.

Despite these possible side effects, when used with proper dosing and supervision, NSAIDs are generally a safe and very effective way to combat arthritis. Please note: human NSAIDs like Ibuprofen and aspirin are off-limits. Dogs are much more sensitive to the stomach effects of these medications than people and I have seen bleeding stomach ulcers in dogs from just one dose of Ibuprofen. There are several veterinary-approved NSAIDs such as Rimadyl, Metacam, and Previcox—all prescription medications that have shown a good track record over time for being well-tolerated for most dogs for short- and long-term use. But there will always be some dogs who just don’t seem to tolerate them. Let me also state that cats and NSAIDs just don’t mix very well. While it is usually fine to give them one dose for surgery or a painful procedure, NSAIDs are really not a good option for arthritis management in cats because of side effects.

Tramadol: Tramadol is basically a weak opioid (like morphine) that works by a different method than NSAIDs and is generally very safe. It can be a bit sedating, but we have many patients who don’t seem to tolerate NSAIDS who take tramadol several times a day long term and seem perfectly chipper. Tramadol doesn’t seem to be as effective for arthritis as NSAIDs, but is a great second choice.

Glucosamine/Chondroiten: Glucosamine and chondroiten are compounds normally found in our joints and basically function to help repair and give elasticity to cartilage. Taking these orally can significantly improve comfort in arthritic joints. It may not seem to help all patients, but it is safe, generally inexpensive, and always worth a try.

Fish Oil: Recent research continues to confirm that fish oil supplementation (with its omega 3 and 6 fatty acids) is an effective tool in combating arthritis inflammation. Like glucosamine/chondroiten, fish oil is completely safe, cheap and is always worth a try.

There you go—that was a brief summary of the most common arthritis weapons we use. Again, check with your veterinarian for further advice on these—I could’ve written an entire column on each one. I always like to focus on weight loss, and trying non-toxic things like glucosamine/chondroiten and fish oil, and then use NSAIDs as needed, depending on response to the initial therapy and the severity of the arthritis.

But to me, one of the biggest roadblocks to making your arthritic pet more comfortable is just not trying something!