Dogs and cats suffer with joint pain and arthritis just as we do. Osteoarthritis is the most common form. Another term for arthritis is degenerative joint disease.

Dogs and cats suffer with joint pain and arthritis just as we do. Osteoarthritis is the most common form. Another term for arthritis is degenerative joint disease.

This chronic, progressive ailment occurs frequently in older pets because of a lifetime of wear and tear on the joints. When osteoarthritis occurs in younger dogs, there is often another factor. An old trauma or injury might have caused initial damage to a joint, leading to arthritic changes.

Abnormal joint development, a congenital joint deformity or an inherited joint condition (like hip dysplasia) can also begin the disease process. Obesity puts excess stress on joints, contributing to early onset of osteoarthritis.

Cartilage within joints acts as a kind of shock absorber and buffer between the bones. As it wears away due to age or injury, the bones begin to rub against each other and the joint deteriorates resulting in inflammation, pain and stiffness. The most commonly affected joints are the hips, knees, elbows, hocks, shoulders and spine.

Symptoms vary from mild to severe. Many owners may not realize that their pet is suffering from arthritis until it becomes more severe. In the early stages, animals experience discomfort but they do not show it like humans might. As part of their innate survival instincts, dogs and cats tend to hide any impairment they have.

Common symptoms of arthritis are lameness, stiffness, and loss of ability or desire to run, jump or go up stairs. There may be tenderness when joints are touched. Some pets will lick or chew at the painful joint or become nippy when handled. Irritability, withdrawal or aggression may occur. Any change in behavior calls for a visit or consultation. A vet can detect subtle signs of arthritis that might not be noticed at home.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but there are many treatments that can slow the disease progression and keep the pet comfortable longer. Prescription anti-inflammatory medicines, corticosteroids and joint supplements such as Glucosamine, MSM or Chondrotin that are available over the counter can make a big improvement in your pet's comfort level.

A future column will discuss the many pharmaceutical options, products available and alternative therapies. Use of these medicines is not without risk and must be done under the careful supervision of your veterinarian. Do not use any "people" pain medications for your pet. It can be lethal. Nearly all pain medications are toxic to cats and Naproxen (the medicine found in Aleve) is extremely toxic to dogs, and even one pill can harm them.

Some of the best ways to keep your arthritic pet comfortable involve changes you can make in their daily life and surroundings. Weight management is imperative. Excess fat tissue secretes hormones that promote pain. Modified exercise is also essential to keep the joints moving to prevent pain and stiffness. Instead of one long walk, take some shorter, slow walks every day. Swimming is another excellent exercise for dogs with arthritis…you will not be able to get your cat to swim!

Provide your pet with an orthopedic dog bed. A heated bed will provide even greater comfort for sore joints. Protect them with warm sweaters or rain gear when out in cold weather. Elevate food and water dishes. Eliminate slippery floors by laying down mats or runners so that the pet can get around safely and comfortably. Keep their nails short to keep them from slipping.

Your pet will get around easier or reach areas they used to jump up on, if ramps or steps are available. Avoid collars if their neck is painful, use a harness instead.

Your arthritic dog or cat needs all the patience and TLC you can offer. Be realistic. Although treatment and lifestyle modifications can slow the progression of the disease and allow your pet greater comfort, there may come a time when the pain is unbearable and their quality of life is marginal.

Out of love for them, you will have to make that painful decision to let them go. They depend on you for this.

Anne Divine is a long time member of LAWS and has volunteered at Animal Control for 18 years. She can be reached at: