Aches and pains in our pets

Dr. Shannon Holland

By Dr. Shannon Holland

09 Sep 2022

Arthritis (also called osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease) is a very common condition of older pets. A study on dogs has shown that 25% of dogs will be diagnosed with some form of arthritis at some point in their lives.[1] Similarly, a study of cats shows that 90% of cats over the age of 12 years have arthritis.[2] This is important to be aware of and manage because it can very easily diminish our pets’ quality-of-life as they age. Not only does It affect their ability to move freely, which means they won’t be able to do all the things they enjoy, but it can cause significant pain and discomfort, which can cause irritability and behavior problems.

Arthritis is inflammation of the joints. It affects the cartilage, joint fluid and the bone of the affected joint. It develops from the natural aging process, but it can also be caused by trauma or injury; an abnormal bone conformation that can come from genetics; or a disease process like an infection in the joints. Just like in people, arthritis can affect pets in many different ways. In some cases it can cause a pain that is very minimal, and in others the pain can be debilitating. Every pet is different, so we have to tailor our treatments accordingly.

Symptoms of arthritis in dogs

Dogs and cats are different in respect to their arthritic symptoms. Dogs will often have a limp that comes and goes. They will be stiff when they first get up. They may be painful when we pet them over the painful joints, usually the hips or knees, or they may start to become painful during grooming. In almost all cases, they will start to “slow down”. They won’t want to play as much, they sleep more and do not want to get out of their bed.

Symptoms of arthritis in cats

In cats, we are less likely to see them limp. Most often they will show changes in their jumping habits instead. They won’t jump as high or far. They will begin to slide their front legs down the side of their perch before they jump all the way down. Once arthritis starts worsening, cats who have often spent time in higher places may start avoiding those areas. They may start exhibiting behavior changes, such as a general irritability or not wanting to be held like they used to. They may have trouble grooming or using the litter box properly as well.

If you think your pet may have arthritis then speak with your veterinarian. They will want to complete a full physical exam. This will help them determine if arthritis is the problem and if there is anything else going on besides just arthritis. Your veterinarian may also want to do radiographs in order to better see the problem. They may also want to do blood work to get a more complete picture of your pets health.

Arthritis Treatments

While arthritis is never cured there are several treatments that we can employ to help meet our goals for quality-of-life. What we are looking for in treatment of arthritis is decreased pain and inflammation, improved joint function, and slowed disease progress.

Weight loss

Excess fat causes physical strain on the joints by causing them to have to support more weight. Excess fat also increases general inflammation in the body.

After an exam your vet can let you know if your pet needs to lose weight. If they do then you can decrease their calories by 10% and start to gradually increase their daily exercise.

Exercise with Dogs

Exercise goals for dogs are daily walks that are 20 minutes in length, twice a day. You can start with shorter walks for dogs that have not had much exercise and build up to the 20 minutes, twice daily walks.

Exercise helps build muscle strength and keep joint mobility up. It also contributes to a healthy body weight.

If it is too hot outside or you struggle to be able to walk your dog there are mobile dog walkers and traditional dog walkers that can help.

If it is available for your pets, swimming is also an excellent low impact option as well.

Exercise with Cats

Cats need exercise as well. Try playing with them daily for at least 10 minutes twice a day. You can use toys that you rotate in and out of your routine periodically so that they do not get bored. Laser pointers are a good option as well. You can even train your cat to walk on a leash.

Physical Therapy

If your dog or cat is significantly impaired or has had a recent trauma, injury or surgery you can also consider doing regular physical therapy. This would be with a veterinarian that specifically offers physical therapy as a service. This can include water treadmills, agility courses based on their ability, exercise ball workouts and more. They may also offer acupuncture and laser therapy in addition to physical movements.

Hot & Cold Therapies

You can use hot and cold packs for pets that tolerate it. This involves holding the pack in specific areas for five minutes once or twice a day. Make sure there is a towel between your pet and the pack to avoid skin damage. The pack should always be a temperature that is comfortable for your skin as well.

WARNING: Never leave a pet alone with a hot or cold pack on them. This can cause damage to the skin or if they chew the pack, expose them to chemicals that are harmful if ingested.

You can also purchase heated beds for pets that can help with their joint comfort while resting.

WARNING: Never use a heating pad designed for humans for your pet. Regular heating pads can get too hot for pets, and if your pet has trouble moving themselves they can develop very serious burns.

Environment Changes

For cats that have trouble jumping, it is helpful to place a chair or a step up to their favorite high place. You can also provide ramps that both dogs and cats can use as needed for high places. There are specially designed ramps on the market specifically for helping pets get on beds or couches.

Cats may need a low entrance or small ramp for their litter box so that they can easily get into it without tripping on the lip.

Dogs tend to have trouble on slick floor surfaces. Products like Dr. Buzby’s toe grips can be very helpful to help them gain traction and prevent injury.

Special harnesses like the Help ‘Em Up Harness can be very helpful to dogs who are mobility impaired.

Drug Therapy - NSAIDs (Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatories)

NSAIDs are the most studied medications for patients with arthritis. They help with pain and inflammation. They even slow the progress of joint damage. There are several different types available and your veterinarian can discuss the most appropriate one for your pet.

Warning: NEVER use human NSAIDs in pets. Human medicine uses different formulations which are not safe for use in pets. Cats are especially sensitive to NSAIDs.


Supplements are not regulated by the FDA. They only have to prove they are safe, not that they are effective. There is also little oversight on their quality control. Ask your veterinarian what specific supplements they recommend.

The following supplements can be useful in addition to other treatments. However, ask your veterinarian which they recommend.

  • Omega Fatty Acids - Can be helpful in reduction of inflammation
  • Glucosamine - Can be beneficial in protecting the cartilage and reducing pain

Other Treatments - Adequan Canine®

Adequan is the only FDA-approved DMOAD that inhibits cartilage loss. It is an injection that helps protect the cartilage in the joint.

Link - Adequan Canine®

Other Treatments - Synovetin OA®

Synovetin OA® Once-Yearly Canine Arthritis Treatment is a radioactive material that is injected into the affected joint. Studies have shown that one injection can give up to 1 year of pain relief. There are only a few clinics that can provide this treatment as it requires advanced imaging before giving the treatment.

Link - Synovetin OA

Other Treatments - Solensia™

This cat-only treatment is a monoclonal antibody treatment for cats with arthritis. It is just now becoming available in the US.

Link - Solensia™


[1] Canine Arthritis Prevalence - Bland, S. D. (2015). Canine osteoarthritis and treatments: a review. Veterinary Science Development, 5(2).

[2] Feline Arthritis Prevalence - Lascelles BDX, Henry JB, Brown J: Cross-sectional study of the prevalence of radiographic degenerative joint disease in domesticated cats. Vet Surg 2010 Vol 39 (5) pp. 535-44.

Photo by Michael on Unsplash