Arthritis – a pain in the….

Most people are familiar with the term arthritis – a medical condition affecting many of us each day. Our pets can also suffer with this potentially debilitating disease, often seen in our ageing animals, but some younger pets may also suffer for various reasons.

Arthritis (or osteoarthritis / OA), simply means an inflammation of a joint/s. In the normal joint, the bone surfaces are covered with a thin layer of smooth cartilage which is lubricated with a small amount of joint fluid, allowing the two surfaces of the joint to slide freely over one another.

In animals with OA, the cartilage in the joint degenerates and becomes damaged and thinned so that the bone surfaces begin to rub together causing discomfort and further damage to the cartilage. Over time, new bone may form around the joint resulting in stiffness and limited joint movement. Depending on the cause, arthritis may affect just one or multiple joints.


Signs of arthritis can be very variable between species and individuals.

Cats are renowned for being “masters of disguise” as they are very good at hiding pain and discomfort, so often do not demonstrate overt signs that you may expect with arthritis. They tend to restrict their own activity to minimise the use of sore joints, which is often just regarded as a result of increased ageing.

Subtle signs of arthritis in cats:

  • Reduced mobility such as reluctance or hesitance to jump up or down; difficulty going up or down stairs; difficulty using the litter tray or cat flap.
  • Reduced activity such as increased time sleeping or resting; hunting or exploring outdoors less frequently; sleeping in different, easier to access places; reduced interaction with people or other pets.
  • Altered grooming habits such as less time spent grooming; matted/scruffy coat; overgrooming of painful joints; overgrown claws.
  • Temperament changes such as more irritable when handled or stroked, or on contact with other pets; spending more time alone; avoiding interaction.

Dogs tend to show more obvious overt signs of arthritis than cats do, especially as they rely on us for their routine exercise regime, making changes easier to recognise.

Signs of arthritis in dogs:

  • Lameness or stiffness (particularly when getting up from rest). Stiffness may improve whilst out for a walk, but cold and/or damp weather may make signs worse.
  • Less keen to exercise.
  • Persistent licking of painful joints which may lead to staining of the fur over the affected joint.
  • Occasionally, affected joints may appear hot or swollen.
  • Some dogs may show less obvious signs, and may just become quieter or more grumpy if they are in discomfort.

What about other pets?

Other species can also suffer with arthritis and Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). Again, this tends to be more common in older animals as the joints degenerate. Many of these pets are “prey” species, and as such they are programmed to hide signs of pain and vulnerability. Signs in other species such as rabbits and guinea pigs etc. include:

  • Slowing down and less active than they used to be – this can creep up very slowly, making recognising and diagnosing arthritis quite difficult on clinical signs alone.
  • Difficulty getting up or moving around, and displaying an abnormal gait.
  • Difficulty grooming, leading to an unkempt coat or dirty bottom.
  • Subtle behavioural changes such as being more quiet than usual or aggression when handled.
  • Occasionally, reduced appetite may also be seen.

Your vet may suspect your pet has arthritis from the signs you describe, along with examining the joints to identify areas that are painful, stiff or swollen. To find out more about what is going on inside a joint, your vet may need to do further tests such as x-rays, or taking samples of joint fluid. Blood tests may also be indicated to look for medical conditions that may affect the joints. In many cases, a simple trial treatment with anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed.


There are multiple factors to consider in the management of arthritis – giving medication is just one option!

  • Use soft comfy beds placed in easily-accessible, quiet and draught-free locations – heated beds and orthopaedic beds may help provide additional comfort.
  • Use steps and ramps to provide easier access to favourite higher sites such as the sofa, bed or window sills for cats.
  • Ensure food and water are easily accessible. Having water sources in multiple locations will ensure your pet can find one easily when needed. Raised food and water bowls can help take the strain off sore neck joints.
  • Ensure cat flaps are very easy to open by your cat – if necessary tie it open so your cat doesn’t need to push through the door.
  • Always ensure cats have easily accessible litter trays indoors, ideally at least one on each floor.
  • Spend time grooming and cleaning your arthritic pet and ensure nails are regularly trimmed to prevent them growing round into the pads.
  • Obesity will exacerbate arthritis, so careful weight management is therefore important for older pets.
  • Medications can be very effective at controlling pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, but should always be used under veterinary supervision as any drugs can have potential side-effects.
  • The most commonly used class of drugs for management of arthritic pain are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • In some pets, alternative or additional analgesic drugs (pain killers) may need to be used, if NSAIDs are not appropriate or sufficient.
  • Dietary supplements (nutraceuticals) and special clinical diets are available for several species, and usually contain combinations of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) that help to reduce inflammation, and glycosaminoglycans (such as glucosamine and chondroitin) that are the “building blocks” of joint cartilage.

A number of complimentary therapies have been shown to relieve the symptoms of arthritis in certain cases. These can include physiotherapy, acupuncture and therapeutic laser, all of which are available through the practice.

Remember – there are now many things we can do to help relieve pain and discomfort associated with arthritis in our pets to improve their quality of life!