Limping Labs And Creaky Cats: Osteoarthritis

Limping Labs and Creaky Cats: Osteoarthritis

Pet owners frequently come to me with concerns about their older pets and offer some variation of the following: “Jake’s slowing down” or “Princess is having a hard time getting up and moving in the morning” or “Marley can’t make it to the end of his normal walks”.  While a decline in energy level is normal to some degree as a pet ages, decreased mobility may be a degenerative joint disease (DJD for short).

As with people, many of a dog and cat’s joints are lined with a smooth cushion of tissue called cartilage.  Cartilage acts as a shock absorber as well as provides a smooth sliding surface within a joint.  As a pet gets older, the cartilage breaks down, causing inflammation and discomfort.  This cartilage breakdown and resulting inflammation is DJD.  Signs of DJD include decreased mobility (especially in the morning), restlessness, inability to get comfortable, limping, clicking or grinding sounds when a pet moves, and a stiff walking gait.

Consult your veterinarian if you notice any of the above signs.  DJD is frequently diagnosed based on patient history and a thorough physical exam.  Your veterinarian may recommend radiographs (x-rays) to confirm the diagnosis, or additional tests to rule-out other potential causes of joint discomfort.

I commonly recommend a three-pronged approach to DJD: weight loss, exercise, and medication.  Weight loss decreases the amount of stress on the joints and in some cases can be an effective treatment by itself.  Ask your veterinarian for an appropriate target weight for your pet, as well as advice on helping your pet lose weight, if needed.  Low impact exercise such as leash walks, swimming, or wading is important to maintain muscle strength as your pet ages, and can help combat the decrease in mobility brought on by DJD.

Although there is not enough space to list all the medications frequently used to treat DJD, I will mention a few of the more common ones.  Supplements such as fish oil or glucosamine and chondroitin may help joint maintenance and slow the progression of DJD.  For dogs, non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as Carprofen and Firocoxib decrease inflammation and pain in the joints.  NSAIDS are frequently paired with a pain medication such as Tramadol for additional relief.  Remember, the majority of human anti-inflammatory medications such as Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen are not safe for use in pets!

The changes that occur in the joint due to DJD are not reversible, so the goal of therapy is to make the patient as pain-free as possible.  The condition usually becomes worse over time, but the progression varies from pet to pet.

Every case is unique, and additional or different testing or treatments may be appropriate for your pet’s particular situation.  Talk to your veterinarian about specific options to treat DJD and help keep your cat or dog on the move for a long time to come.

-Dr. Ian BirkbeckBirkbeck

Dr. Birkbeck writes monthly columns for the local publication, “The Viera Voice”.  If you have any pet medical questions you’d like to see answered in a future column, you can email them to

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