10 ways to help a pet with arthritis

About 30% of cats and dogs are affected with arthritis.

An old dog with arthritis

Before we discuss 10 ways to help, please remember: arthritis cannot be assumed. It has to be proven (X-rays are one good way).

Giving anti-inflammatory drugs to your pet just because somebody “thinks” (s)he is affected by arthritis is just not appropriate. There is no cure for arthritis, but it can be controlled. Here are 10 ways to help…

Multiple bone spurs (green arrow) and destroyed cartilage (blue arrow)
Multiple bone spurs (green arrow) and destroyed cartilage (blue arrow)

1. Weight loss or weight control

Extra pounds add pressure on joints with arthritis. Losing weight is then critical. Your family vet can help your pet lose weight (with weight-loss food), or maintain the weight (with a “light” diet). One classic research study showed that “in overweight dogs, weight loss alone may improve lameness.”

It is important to remember that the front legs support 60% of the weight, whereas back legs carry 40%. Therefore, weight loss is even more important with arthritis in joints of the front legs: shoulder, elbow or wrist (carpus).

2. “Arthritis” diet

Once your pet has an ideal weight, you can switch to an arthritis diet. These diets are typically enriched in glucosamine, antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E) and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil).

Such diets are perfectly balanced, i.e. they have all the necessary nutrients, vitamins and minerals, so they can be fed for life. However, they are not appropriate for a growing pet, so they should be used in adults only.

Pro tip: there is now a special food that help with weight loss (or weight control) and arthritis at the same time – a major improvement.

3. Joint supplements

Because there is never enough glucosamine or fish oil in any pet food, it is important to give supplements by mouth in addition. We will recommend them after most orthopedic surgery to manage the arthritis.

Other supplements can be injected by your family vet.


4. Controlled exercise

Lack of activity leads to muscle loss, a decreased range of motion in the joints, aka stiff joints, and weight gain (if you don’t decrease the calories).

Despite the discomfort, it is very important to continue exercising. Generally, slow leash walks are ideal. You can progressively increase their duration. For example, start with 5 minutes 2-3 times daily for one week, then increase that by 5 minutes each week.

These walks help keep muscles strong and joints flexible.

Supervised swimming, or walking in wet sand, or tall grass, are another great ways of providing low impact exercise, as long as your dog doesn’t struggle to get into or out of the water. Encouraging exercise in a cat can be challenging, but some owners are able to train their cat to walk on a leash!

A woman with a dog

5. Physical therapy (PT)

Even though untreated arthritis causses pain, not moving is only going to make thigs worse.

Physical therapy is a great, gentle wait to move joints in a controlled way.

Done at home or at a physical therapy center, PT can make a dramatic difference. Most doggie physical therapists (officially called rehabilitation practitioners) will perform some exercises that can only be done at their facility, such as walking in an underwater treadmill, and will show you exercises to do at home. PT starts with a “warm up” and ends with a “cool down.”

If you have ever needed PT for yourself, you may appreciate how dramatic a difference it can make in your pet’s life. I have personally seen rehab practitioners perform small miracles on some patients!

6. Anti-inflammatory drugs

The most commonly used pain medications used for arthritis pain are Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). Ideally used on an as-needed basis, rather than every single day, modern NSAIDs are safer and more potent than aspirin & “people” drugs. By the way, please never use people drugs in your pet without your vet’s complete approval, especially in your cat. Some of these drugs can be deadly.

Potential side-effects of veterinary NSAIDs include vomiting and/or diarrhea, with or without blood, lack of appetite, lethargy or jaundice (a sign of liver disease), or kidney disease. Your family vet will typically perform regular lab work, testing blood and urine, e.g. every 6 months or more often in at-risk patients, to monitor possible side-effects.

7. Pain medications

When anti-inflammatory drugs cannot be used, or are not strong enough, other pain killers can be given (gabapentin, tramadol etc.). There are other options, which need to be tailored to each individual patient. Sometimes, it is a matter of “trial and error” until the ideal drug combination is found. Every patient is different, so there is no ideal solution that works on all patients.

Our in-house pharmacy

8. Environment changes

Many small tricks can help. Keeping your pet in a dry and warm place should help, just like it would help an arthritic person. It is important to keep your pet on thick, soft, clean padding at all times, rather than on tile or linoleum (although some pets seem to prefer those!). Minimize access to stairs. Elevate the food & water bowls.

If you have a few steps on your deck, you could build a ramp. Some companies sell steps to help pets get onto furniture more easily. To get in the car or the truck, you can also use a ramp. Whether inside or outside, always provide good footing so your pet doesn’t “do the splits”. Hardwood floors can be covered with area rugs or yoga mats. And be extra careful on ice during the winter time. Pets can get seriously hurt after slipping on ice. An easy solution is to use a sling under your dog’s belly.

9. Periodic re-evaluations

Follow up exams with your vet are critical to adjust the plan to your pet’s progress. For example, if you are trying to make your pet lose weight, monthly weigh-ins are important to track your progress. The amount of food may need to be adjusted, otherwise the weight may just plateau if you continue feeding the same amount.

Similarly, pain medications could be changed or the dosage adjusted depending on your pet’s progress.

10. Surgery

In some cases, surgery is an excellent way to treat arthritis. From simple procedures (removing a flap of cartilage or part of a bone) to more complicated surgeries (fusing a joint, or a total hip replacement), ask your family vet or your surgeon if your pet would benefit from surgery.

So there you go: there are (at least) 10 ways to help a pet with arthritis. There are other modalities, such as acupuncture and stem cell therapy, which you can discuss with your family vet or your surgeon.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified


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Dr. Phil Zeltzman

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling veterinary surgeon in Pennsylvania & New Jersey. An award-winning author, he loves to share his adventures in practice along with information about vet medicine and surgery that can really help your pets. Dr. Zeltzman specializes in orthopedic, neurologic, cancer, and soft tissue surgeries for dogs, cats, and small exotics. By working with local family vets, he offers the best surgical care, safest anesthesia, and utmost pain management to all his patients. Sign up to get an email when he updates his blog, and follow him on Facebook, too!