What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, also known as Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a crippling condition involving a progressive deterioration of the articular cartilage in movable joints.

Cartilage works as a smooth cushion protecting the ends of the bones in a movable joint. As cartilage degrades it becomes rough and worn away exposing the bone. Unlike cartilage bones have nerves, so when the two bone ends touch pain and inflammation present, impairing mobility. In DJD small bony attachments (osteophytes) can form on the bone around the joint adding to the pain.


Arthritis can occur as a result of wear and tear on an otherwise normal joint. This occurs with age so is commonly presented in our more geriatric pets. Osteoarthritis will also occur in animals of any age following a joint infection, fracture, trauma or any abnormal stress during movement of the joint. Some breeds have a genetic predisposition and are more prone to arthritis where other breeds have poor limb configurations and congenital joint problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia. (This is considered secondary DJD)

What are the symptoms of Osteoarthritis?

The symptoms of arthritis will vary considerably depending on the severity of the condition and the species of pet. (Cats have an exceptional ability to ‘hide’ their ailments.)

First general symptoms displayed in canines are lameness. An altered gait where they compensate by placing more weight on the unaffected joints. Due to this lack of use, after a period of time muscle atrophy (reduction of muscle size) will be evident in the affected limbs.

Signs to watch for to detect osteoarthritis are:

  • Difficulty walking, climbing and raising from lying position
  • Overall decreased activity/play
  • Swollen joints
  • Licking or biting at joint
  • Personality change – no longer tolerates being touched
  • Reluctance to or unable to jump
  • Cats become considerably more hesitant and lose their graceful cat like agility

Feline osteoarthritis symptoms are generally more challenging to identify than canine. The ability to ‘hide’ their ailments is often explained as a protective behaviour to hide disease and debility. This impairs our recognition of chronic pain and clinical signs of feline arthritis are more subtle. It is identified by not what they are doing but by what they are no longer doing. Cats being an intelligent species think “if it’s going to hurt then why do it?” where as a dog will still do the activity giving you the more obvious pain and mobility cue.

Lifestyle and behavioural adaptations help cats cope with the debilitating effects of osteoarthritis by:

  • Using intermediate steps to jump to usual places
  • Resting in lower locations
  • Pulling themselves up as opposed to jumping
  • Lack of grooming, vocalisation and aggression can also be related to osteoarthritis.

Diagnosing Osteoarthritis

A confirmed diagnosis of arthritis can be made by your veterinarian when performing a complete physical examination. Often it can be detected without x-ray or further tests by the vet manipulating the joint gently checking for swelling, heat, evidence of pain, restriction of movement range and crepitus (grating feeling when manipulated). Sometimes an x-ray is necessary to confirm and gauge the deterioration of the joint. If there is heat in a joint, a fluid sample may be obtained to test for joint infection.

How is osteoarthritis treated?

arthritis-Euk-MobilityOsteoarthritis unfortunately cannot be cured but can be managed by:

Weight control; as the arthritis progresses pets will become less active resulting in weight gain. Obesity will load unnecessary stress on joints. Controlling your pet’s weight and maintaining a lean body mass score will allow easier movement. This is achievable by feeding a well-balanced calorie reduced diet.

Exercise; this is essential to maintain healthy muscle mass and strength to support joints. Daily, moderate, low impact exercise can help joint mobility.

Dogs can benefit from gentle walks and swimming.

Cats can profit from play that keeps them moving without jumping.

Exercise should only be performed to the relevance of you pets arthritis and recommended by your vet. Depending on the arthritic severity rest may be prescribed.

Anti-inflammatory’s (NSAIDs); Medical intervention is the main treatment of choice for osteoarthritis. This will control the pain and inflammation caused by arthritis enabling the animal to function to a degree of normality. Unfortunately it will not change the pathology of the joint, medication will control the condition not cure it. There are a variety of anti-inflammatory medications available by prescription with your veterinarian. Your vet will suggest the anti-inflammatory best suited for your pet to elevate the pain and discomfort of osteoarthritis.

Anti-inflammatories can also be supported by complementary therapies such as nutraceuticals (chondroitin and Glucosamine). Veterinarians now have available specific prescription diets for nutritional support formulated to improve joint health.

In extreme cases surgery may also be indicated. Generally when arthritis presents in younger animals with a congenital joint defect like hip dysplasia, a complete replacement is necessary.

Please contact us to discuss this further and assess any osteoarthritis your pet may be suffering from.