How can I tell if my pet is suffering from Osteoarthritis?
Of course we all expect our pets to get less active and stiff as they age but we need to be aware of the warning signs that could indicate discomfort or pain. These include limping, lameness, stiffness when getting up and becoming appreciably less active and slower moving. It’s important to remember that dogs and cats don’t cry- so we need to look for subtle changes in their behaviour or activity to guide us. If you are unsure, ask your veterinary surgeon. Most studies into OA look at the lameness of a pet both subjectively (from the owner and/or vet’s opinion) and objectively, using specific measurements (like force through each leg when walking).
What can I do to prevent my pet from suffering from Osteoarthritis?
The good news is that the research is very clear and provides us with a resounding message, and the most important nugget for you to take away from this article:
Restricting the weight of our pets will not only reduce the onset of the condition, but it will also reduce the suffering of those pets already affected.
Prevention is better than cure
The best evidence that keeping your pet from becoming overweight will delay the onset of osteoarthritis comes from a life span study which looked at Labradors from puppies until their senior years1. Known for their insatiable appetites and risk of arthritis, this was a key group of dogs to study. One group of Labradors were fed ad lib, which means that the dogs were fed whatever they wanted until 3 years old, when they were then placed on a diet with maintenance calories. They were compared to a second group, who had restricted calories (a set/ measured amount of food) from when they were puppies. The study found that the Labradors who had a restricted diet lived longer, had less arthritis at age 8 years and they were also older when they first received any treatment for arthritis. This means that for long term health benefits, pets should be fed a calorie controlled diet and not just fed as much as they want.
Reducing the pain experienced by those pets already affected
Research has also shown that even a small decrease in weight can reduce lameness (pain or discomfort) in dogs with osteoarthritis. A 10% weight loss in dogs with hip osteoarthritis (secondary to hip dysplasia) was found to have vast improvement in their lameness2. Another study focused on hips and elbows, and lameness improved with a 6.1% weight loss when trotting and 8.85% weight loss with walking 3.
In other words, overweight pets will suffer more from osteoarthritis, and we can reduce their suffering through weight control. So here’s important nugget number 2:
Weight loss in overweight cats and dogs is now seen as one of the most important factors in helping pets with OA to improve lameness, decrease pain and increase joint mobility.
On the downside, reducing body weight can be challenging in arthritic pets, as any discomfort may lead them to do even less exercise, which can add to weight gain (known as the osteoarthritis cycle – see image).
How do I know if my pet is overweight?
You many notice some changes: The ribs can’t easily be felt without some pressure; loss of an obvious waist; a belly which wobbles when walking or running. You may also have noticed that your pet is inactive most of the time and may be obsessed with food.
Utilising one of the ‘Body condition Score’ charts (available for both cats and dogs) is much more helpful than considering kilograms against a breed average when determining if a pet is overweight.