Managing arthritis in dogs and other small animals

Arthritis (osteoarthritis – OA) is the most common cause of chronic pain in senior pets.

Arthritis affects 80% of dogs over 8 years old, and over 80% of cats over 10 years old. Most rabbits over the age of 6 will have some arthritis.

How do I know if my pet has arthritis?

Behavioural changes are often be the first thing we notice, even if obvious limping or lameness isn't yet apparent.

Common signs in dogs include being stiff after playing or exercise, slowing down on walks or limping and lameness. They may be sleeping for longer, or restless at night.

Other signs include repeatedly licking or chewing part of their body, reluctance to jump in or out of the car, difficulty rising from a sit and finding stairs or steps challenging.

Common signs in rabbits can include wobbling, a dirty or urine-soaked bottom and unexplained aggression towards a bonded partner.

They may move around less when it's cold or damp, or there might be a change in their feeding behaviour.

Cats are the masters of compensating for any discomfort, and it can often be tricky to spot changes in their movement.

A change in behaviour such as interacting less with owners, difficulty using the litter tray or reduced scratching and stretching are all common signs.

Always check with your vet if your pet is showing any of these signs. They may need to perform some tests to determine the problem - a diagnosis is important in being able to target treatment effectively.

What can I do to help my pet?

1. Pain management

Sadly arthritis can be a painful condition, requiring pain management. Talk to your vet about how best to manage this, there are a number of options and they are best placed to advise for your specific animal. Physiotherapy can assist with pain management.

Arthritis is a degenerative condition, but there are treatments - in conjunction with physiotherapy - that can slow down the progression of the disease.

2. Monitor activity levels

Are they running around a lot on a long weekend walk, or do they seem to be stiff after playing? Perhaps they are reluctant to get up and their exercise levels have significantly reduced?

We know it is important to keep moving to maintain joint health. A balance needs to be struck between doing enough exercise to be beneficial, while not overdoing it and exacerbating the condition.

Dogs can often get excited about going out, and aren't always very good at moderating their activity! Adding a short period of on-lead time during a walk can help enthusiastic dogs limit their activity. Several shorter walks or periods of exercise can be more beneficial than one long walk.

3. Complementary therapies

Physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, massage and acupuncture may all have a role to play in the management of arthritis. Talk to your vet and veterinary physiotherapist about what might be suitable for your pet.

4. Keep them warm

Cold weather can make arthritic joints feel stiffer and more painful, just like in humans. Consider how long your pet is outside for when the temperature drops. Perhaps a coat or additional heating could help prevent them getting cold, which can prevent joints becoming more painful. Try to avoid them getting wet, or dry them off quickly if they do.

5. Home environment modification

Slips, trips and steps can all be challenging for our arthritic pets, making it hard to get around their homes and even causing their arthritis to be more painful. This home assessment checklist from Canine Arthritis Management is a superb tool to help you see where and how modifications might be made.

6. Mental wellbeing

Just because their bodies are slowing down, it doesn't mean their brains are too! Games like 'find it', enrichment activities such as playing with toys and boredom busters like lickimats can all contribute to a healthy mental state. Check out some ideas from the National Animal Welfare Trust to get you started.

7. Weight management

We know that, just like for people, carrying a little (or a lot of!) extra weight puts extra strain on joints and soft tissues. Getting down to a healthy weight can reduce discomfort and inflammation.

Food is one way we show our love and care, and it can be tricky finding other ways to reward our pets. Perhaps try replacing treats with an extra long fuss, or a play with a toy.

Many vet practices have weight clinics, often run by fantastic and caring vet nurses, and we highly recommend giving it a try if you are offered this.

It's not easy shedding the pounds, but that extra kilo or two could really make a big difference.

8. Therapies at home

Your physiotherapist will show you exercises and massage techniques appropriate for your animal, and can guide you on the use of other therapies such as heat, cold and electrotherapies to help keep your pet pain-free and slow the progression of arthritis.

How can physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapy can help by improving movement and reducing discomfort.

  • Treatment will often include manual therapy such as massage, stretching and mobilisation. You may be shown how to do some of these techniques at home so that the effects of physiotherapy treatment can be prolonged, and results can be seen faster.

  • Electrotherapies such as therapeutic laser, heat therapy, ultrasound and muscle stimulation may also be used. Some of these therapies can be used at home too.

  • Therapeutic exercise may be prescribed. It will be tailored to you and your animal so that it is achievable and easy to fit into your normal routine.

We absolutely love working with senior pets, as we can often see rapid improvements in mobility and comfort levels.

Supporting you

Managing and caring for animals with arthritis is a long term commitment, and we all want to do the right thing by our animals. It can sometimes feel challenging to know what to prioritise, as very few of us have unlimited budgets or time. The phrase another small step in the right direction applies here. We can't - and shouldn't try to - change everything all at once.

Your physiotherapist is there to support you as much as your pet, including helping you understand their diagnosis, advice on home modifications, loan of exercise equipment and electrotherapies, ideas of how to make treatment cost effective, a listening ear when you need it and, when the time comes, support for end of life care.

Getting older isn't a disease!

There are many treatment and management options to help animals with arthritis. Our job is to keep animals as comfortable as possible, doing the activities they enjoy, for as long as possible.

To help your pet move better and feel more comfortable, book an appointment or contact us for help and advice.

Where can I find more information online?

  • Canine Arthritis Management (CAM) has a wealth of resources, advice and support, with much available for free.

  • You can also sign up to ten FREE days of guidance on looking after an arthritic dog from CAM, straight to your inbox. No catch, just quality information.

  • This article from International Cat Care is full of information on arthritis and degenerative joint disease in cats.

  • The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund has an article on arthritis in rabbits, including suggestions for how to make their living environment more arthritis-friendly.