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Arthritis in the senior pet; how to spot and manage the creaky joints of your furry friend.
Co-authored by Sieske Valk (Founder and CEO of Autumn Animals) and Chelsea Rubinat (Animal Osteopath at Autumn Animals).
Bob’s sunset: 18 year old Border Collie Bob on his farm in Cornwall (photo by Sieske Valk)
A while back, wearing my dog walker hat, I bumped into a fellow dog walker with his large, senior dog (let’s call him Artie) and told me the horrendous story of how his beautiful, kind boy was recently attacked by another dog. He showed me the Frankenstein-ish wounds around the dog’s throat before letting him frolic around and run free with my team of nutters.
Artie’s dad mentioned that, strangely, ever since the accident, the dog had been so happy and playful when out and about with other dogs. How previously he would snarl at any young dog coming closer but was now up for play anytime. I asked whether the dog also showed peculiar behaviour in the house, such as jumping on things? “Yes!” he exclaimed. Artie had even jumped over some furniture and onto the bed to get cuddles. I recognised the signs. This was an undiagnosed arthritic dog on painkillers.
Due to the wounds from the attack, the veterinarian had given Artie pain relief. What the dog dad had not realised was that this pain relief also worked on other parts of Artie’s body. Suddenly Artie didn’t feel the pain in his hips and knees anymore and felt like playing with other dogs again or jumping onto higher surfaces to be closer to his parents and cuddle. Artie had just received a new lease of life. Fortunately, I spotted the causal relation and advised the dog dad to discuss this the next time he visited the vet for Artie’s wound check-up.
Within a couple of weeks, Artie was put on a more suitable pain medication for joint pain, and you could see the tension had disappeared from his face. Artie was all smiles.
But it’s difficult for a dog parent and a veterinarian to spot osteoarthritic (OA) pain (what is osteoarthritis in the first place?! Check out this blog from our animal osteopath Chelsea to find out more.). It’s not like you could hear the joints crackle or pop like Rice Crispies. You can’t even always spot it on an X-ray! Before you would request advice from the vet for this issue, you might already notice your dog slowing down during walks, always being ten paces behind, without actually realising this is due to discomfort. They’re not being stubborn. Or your cat eliminating outside of the litter box. They’re not being defiant. Nowadays, we also don’t have to settle anymore for: “They’re just old” when all they do is eat and sleep and hardly play anymore. There are so many options to manage and treat the pain and in this blog post, we’ll highlight a few popular therapies that we offer at Autumn Animals. But first, let’s have a look at some behavioural changes you might be able to spot with your own pet.
As we already mentioned, one of the most frequently noted symptoms for OA pain in dogs is them not walking out ahead of you anymore, but always walking a few steps behind you. Dogs can react more strongly and more aggressively towards other dogs or even to humans. They can have trouble getting out from their bed or refuse to walk on smooth surfaces, like tiled or wooden floors. With cats the symptoms are very similar in the sense that they can show different (sometimes aggressive) behaviour to humans or mates, and don’t play as much as they used to. Some stop jumping and climbing stairs altogether, or you sometimes see them hesitate before leaping onto or off a surface. Some cats eliminate outside the litter box (because they can’t step over the ledge anymore or have felt pain doing so before), have patchy and matted fur around the backside (because it hurts to clean and groom themselves) and show thick, unsharpened nails (because they can’t use the scratching post anymore without pain). In the case of both animals, you can notice them gaining weight, yet losing muscle mass, due to limited exercise. The tired joints are under continuous and increasing strain as they are less supported by the muscles. This results in a vicious cycle of less movement, less muscle, and more pain.
In my personal situation, I noticed that Lewis the Cat stopped jumping onto a stack of storage boxes he used to easily jump onto and started climbing the boxes using his front legs. He slept more and started gaining weight. He stopped “going” outside and started using the litter box indoors. I also noticed he didn’t practise his Downward Dog stretch anymore and started preferring the scratching post in the bedroom (where we have carpet) over the one in the lounge (where we have wooden floors). In addition, and here we are lucky to have a pet with white fur, his saliva changed the colour of his fur on his joints, indicating he had been obsessively licking them to relief the discomfort.
Lewis the Cat (15) is lucky to have a perceptive caregiver (or as I’d like to call myself, cat mum) and a willing veterinarian who understands cat psychology, so he has been on a multi-modal approach to joint pain for years:
We started with a daily supplement which contains, amongst other ingredients, Green Lipped Mussel and Glucosamine to support joint health.
A couple of years back, we started giving him Gabapentin, a safe pain killer (also known to help with anxiety in humans), twice daily, which gave us back a whole different cat. Lewis went from being moderately grumpy (we thought he was just being a cat) to being the cuddliest beast ever.
Recently, for his painful flare-ups, we give him a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain killer when needed (whilst monitoring his kidney health closely with his veterinarian)
We have started giving him monthly doses of Solensia (Librela for dogs) this year. This is an injection that targets Nerve Growth Factors (NGF), thus working on a different level than pain relief.
“NGF is one of the key factors mediating pain, inducing the release of both proinflammatory mediators and more NGF contributing to a cycle of pain and inflammation” (Source: www.veterinary-practice.com)
On top of that, we manage Lewis’ weight with a healthy species-appropriate diet and regular play, massage and muscle strengthening exercises. And finally, he regularly receives supplementary therapies such as osteopathy to keep his muscles moving without strain.
Osteopathy can be a good supplementary treatment in helping animals feel more comfortable and to maximise their mobility. This may extend the symptom free period between vet visits, injections and oral medication and can enhance the quality of life.
Chelsea Rubinat, our in-house Animal Osteopath mentions that identifying OA early and managing pain is key in older pet’s care. She’ll give a few examples of what you can do to help your furry friend age well.
Animal Osteopath Chelsea’s 18 year old cat Mario who enjoys his regular osteopathy session
“Life is movement” (Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathy).
To allow your pet to spend their happy old days in comfort, some changes will have to be implemented in your daily home environment.
We give priority to movement. It is essential to maintain low intensity but regular activity for your pet. With dogs, walks are essential for good physical and mental health. If endurance is an issue, consider going for multiple short walks in a day rather than one or two very long walks. We surely know that cats cannot be forced to do what they don’t want to do. But you can encourage them to be active by arranging your house to either stimulate or facilitate their movements.
Place food in strategic places of your home while considering their physical condition and raise your pet’s bowl or plate so they can assume an easy pose whilst eating. Install a stable cat tree or scratching post on (a piece of) carpet but also give them a horizontal scratching opportunity in case they prefer to stretch in that direction. Make use of (yoga) mats or runners in your house if you have a lot of floor space that is smooth and use stools, ramps, or boxes for them to be able to climb onto higher surfaces, such as the bed or sofa. You can get an orthopaedic bed for your dog or a heat pad for your cat to sleep on and keep their joints supple. Also make sure the cat’s litter box isn’t too difficult to get into or out of. It can help to remove lids and flaps and to make sure the bottom bit has a low step.
Regularly switch the toys available to maintain their interest in play and of course reserve some of your daily time to play (old pets play too!). Don’t expect them to run around for fifteen minutes like they used to, chasing a ball or feather, but keep it short and supported (think carpet, try not to play on slippery floors).
Rethink the food you feed: As your pet’s metabolism has slowed down, qualitatively good food over quantity is paramount. The nutrients must be easy to absorb and contain good proteins and fibres to help promote good digestion and easy elimination. Doing some in-depth research or asking a specialised nutritionist can be a good option to best meet your pet’s needs. We have access to so many different brands of pet food that can cater to pets in various life stages, and get it delivered to your door as well.
Don’t forget that animals are good at hiding their pain and if not treated quickly, the situation can easily escalate. Make sure to get regular health check-ups from your veterinarian and your pet’s supplementary therapist if they have one. Regular sessions of osteopathy, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and/or acupuncture will re-harmonise the body and allow a good functioning of the body as an organism while reducing the risks of illnesses and increase well-being.
And finally, keep a diary for your animal. Write down whenever something weird happens or when you notice they sleep more than usual. Write down whether they seem in pain and when they were more playful. Note down their weight on a regular basis to ensure a stable weight.
Examples of an elevated food station and using objects to create steps and break up high jumps.
Lewis the Cat using his wall-mounted scratching post that has been placed on a piece of carpet to give him grip on a smooth floor. He has a selection of toys to play with that keeps on rotating on a weekly basis after which they’ll be stored in an airtight container with cat nip.
Lewis the Cat is almost at 100% comfort level, but still has the occasional flare-up of discomfort. We see how he’s feeling on top of his game, two weeks after his Solensia injection, and one week after an osteopathy session, but sleeps more than usual two weeks later. Because we keep a logbook on his condition, we can easily pinpoint the cause and alter his pain relief accordingly.
We are ever on the look-out for just the right dose of painkillers, supplementary therapy and Solensia injections to make sure he is as comfortable as can be and we get a lot of healing purrs for that in return. I enjoy every minute of watching him play with feathers and peacefully interact with the neighbourhood’s cats, maybe even more so in his old age. But what mesmerises me the most is the odd times he still climbs up his scratching post, all the way to the ceiling, showing off the kitten inside his super senior body.
DISCLAIMER: This blog post merely functions as an informative piece and is not a tool for diagnosis. Please always consult your veterinarian to rule out any other injuries or illnesses.