SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

How to help your arthritic pet cope over winter?

Older animals tend to find the cold weather over winter a bit of a challenge, especially those with arthritis. Arthirits is inflammation of the joints and can have many underlying causes including prior injury, degenerative disease and developmental disorders.

Remember that, although arthiritis is more common in older animals, it can affect even young and middle aged animals also so the tips in this article can help them too!

There are many varied signs of arthritis and these can often be quite subtle; this means that arthritis might not be noticed until the animal has been suffering for quite some time and the disease has progressed significantly. You may notice that your pet is slow to rise from the floor or a seated position, especially first thing in the morning; they may be a little cautious going up or down the stairs; or may have a subtle but persistent lameness.

Cats are particularly subtle in their signs of arthritis, you may notice nothing more than reluctance to jump onto higher surfaces such as a table or bed where previously they would have jumped up easily.

Radiographic studies have shown that the majority of cats over ten do have some arthritis, so when in doubt assume that your older cat probably does have some joint soreness. Animals with arthritis don’t tend to cry out in pain, more often they just seem to be ‘slowing down’. But in reality many animals that just seem to be ‘slowing down’ have arthritis, which is a medical problem that you can help them with and improve their quality of life.

If you suspect arthritis you should take your pet for a check-up with your veterinarian. If you have an older animal, even if you do not suspect arthritis, you should ask your veterinarian to check for and discuss arthritis at their regular check up. There are many treatment and management options for arthritis that can help your pet feel more comfortable and be more active well into old age. The sooner arthirtis is picked up and managed the happier and healthier your pet will be.

Here are some of the many treatment options available for pets with arthritis:

1. Special diets and dietary supplements:

There are some veterinary prescription diets that are formulated specifically to help support joint function and help reduce inflammation. There are also supplements that you can add to an animal’s food that can help to fulfill the same purpose. However, often the diets are more successful as they have been specially formulated to have the correct components and ratios to give the best effect. Special diets and dietary supplements are unlikely to be adequate as the sole treatment in more severe or advanced cases of arthritis. However, they can be an excellent addition to other treatments and may even help to slow down the degenerative process in inflamed joints, so the earlier in the process they are started the better. This management option is safe to be used in conjunction with most other treatments.

2. Pentosan polysulfate sodium injections (or other similar products):

This product protects and helps cartilage repair and also has anti-inflammatory properties. This treatment consists of a course of injections that your veterinarian can give to your pet. It is safe to be used in conjunction with most other treatments.

3. Acupuncture:

Most animals tolerate acupuncture very well and it has been shown to reduce pain and increase endorphin release in arthritic pets. Acupuncture may help to reduce or eliminate the need to use prescription medications to treat arthritis; this can be very important in animals that have medical conditions that make the prescription medications use to treat arthritis unsafe for them. Acupuncture can be performed in combination with other treatments.

4. Weight control:

The pain and inflammation of arthritis are made worse if your pet is carrying extra weight. Low-impact exercise such as walking or swimming (for those animals that are happy to swim!) combined with an appropriate diet is extremely beneficial to arthritic pets. Helping an overweight arthritic animal to reach an ideal weight can make a big difference to how they cope with their arthritis.

5. Prescription medications:

It is most common for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to be used for arthritis treatment, though other options are available. These are very effective medications but remember that, like any medication, NSAIDs are not without side effects. Animals with liver or kidney problems are particularly at risk and your veterinarian will want to check your pet’s liver and kidney status prior to starting treatment and monitor this regularly for as long as your animal is on the medication. This will likely involve blood and urine tests as well as regular check ups. Never give your pet any over-the-counter human medications! Many of those that are safe for humans are very dangerous for our pets. Talk to your veterinarian about the best options for your pet but always try to use other methods to minimise the need for prescription medications if you can.

6. Make sure that your pet is kept warm and dry, especially when it is cold:

Coats and jackets are available to keep your animal warm and there are cosy and even special heated pet beds available. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations as not all products are safe and you don’t want to unintentionally cause burns to your pet.

7. Soft and padded resting areas:

Arthritic animals will be more comfortable if they have a bed (or more than one!) that has plenty of padding for sore joints and that will also keep them warm. This should be away from any draughts and off the floor (but not so high that it is difficult to get to).

8. Take care with exercising your pet:

Arthritic and elderly animals may have more difficulty walking on slippery surfaces such as wet ground, snow or ice. They may be more prone to slipping and falling. So take care when walking your pet, go slowly and avoid slippery areas.

9. Make getting around easy:

Most arthritic and elderly animals will have difficulty getting up to and down from higher places (for example, the car and onto the bed) and up or down stairs. Therefore, it can be very helpful to provide your animal with a ramp or some other way to more easily and safely get to those places that they find difficult to reach.

There are many approaches to managing arthritis and usually the most success is achieved by combining more than one of the above management suggestions.

The good news is that, with your veterinarian’s help, there is a lot you can do to improve your arthritic pet’s quality of life!

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