Fluffy is a happy-go-lucky, active, 12-year-old Golden Retriever… Or at least, he used to be. Fluffy doesn’t seem to have much energy anymore, and his family has noticed that he’s very stiff when he walks around. He still wags his tail when they get the leash out of the closet, but he just goes to his bed when they tell him it’s time for walk, instead of jumping at the door like he used to. His family is concerned and confused about his behavior…. what could be going on? It’s possible Fluffy is suffering from joint pain.
Could Your Pet Be Suffering From Joint Pain?
Most of us can share stories of a beloved senior pet. It can be difficult to watch some of the effects of aging on our animals – we may see them struggling to get up in the morning, or they may be reluctant to play fetch. Often these things are minimized with thoughts such as, “Well, he’s just getting older…”, or “She’s just slowing down….”. But is there more to the story? It’s important to remember that age is not a disease – not every change can be accounted for with the simple explanation that the pet is growing older.
Signs To Watch For
What might be happening? Signs of joint pain in animals can be quite difficult to detect, mainly because they can’t tell us what they feel. But there are clues that can point us in the right direction. When most people think of signs of pain in pets, they think of vocalization – crying, whining, whimpering, etc. While there are some pets that may vocalize when in pain, the majority of them do not. Many owners of limping pets assume their pet isn’t in any discomfort because they are not crying – it’s important to remember that limping itself almost always indicates pain.
Other signs associated with pain may be much more subtle. Does the pet have difficulty or take a prolonged time to get up from a laying/sitting position? Do they excessively lick at an area on one of their limbs? Are they reluctant to have a specific area touched? It is important to realize too, that signs of pain may be more related to what the pet is not doing, rather than what they are doing – very often, an animal may be reluctant to do some of the activities that they previously had no problem with. Are they suddenly reluctant to go upstairs? ... Jump on the couch or bed? … Play with the ball outside? These types of subtle differences are especially important in cats, who are masters of hiding symptoms of disease.
Now that we’ve discussed some of the signs of joint pain, what are things that can cause it?
Arthritis – A Major Player
When your veterinarian determines that your senior pet has signs of joint pain, arthritis may be one of the first things they discuss. Arthritis is the leading cause of joint pain in our older pets. Arthritis is inflammation of the tissues of the joint, and can be associated with degenerative changes, previous trauma, auto-immune disease, or even infection.
While arthritis cannot be cured, medical management usually greatly improves patient comfort. This is often achieved with a combination of pain medication, anti-inflammatories and joint supplements. Weight control is also critical – an overweight pet is putting more stress on their joints, which worsens the discomfort. Alternative treatments such as physical therapy and therapeutic laser treatments may also be helpful and are generally available at specialty or referral hospitals. In severe cases, surgical intervention (such as total hip replacement) may be an option.
Joint Pain – It’s Not Just For Senior Pets
Not all pets who have joint pain fall into the senior category. Younger dogs and cats may have developmental diseases of the bones/joints that are most noticeable during periods of growth. Traumatic injuries are also quite common in young, active pets. Most are minor soft tissue “sprains”. More serious injuries, such as Cranial Cruciate Ligament tears (equivalent to ACL tears in humans), are a frequent ailment of large-breed dogs.
How Do We Figure Out What’s Going On?
A thorough physical exam is always the first step toward reaching a diagnosis for the underlying cause of joint pain. Radiographs (x-rays) are another vital tool. Arthritic changes are often visible on radiographs. Other important findings such as bone tumors, fractures, and other diseases that may affect the joints, can also be detected with radiographic films. This is crucial, as the treatment for these conditions can be vastly different. Taking radiographs is important to correctly identifying the underlying cause. Treatment without sufficient information to make a diagnosis can lead to prolonged suffering for the pet, wasted time and expense for the pet owner, and in some cases, development of additional complications. Radiographs may be presented as part of a diagnostic “package” that may also include such testing as bloodwork and urinalysis. These additional tests can determine if a pet is healthy enough to take the medications that are commonly prescribed for treatment.
Joint pain is a problem that can affect all pets; big or small, young or old. The causes of it can range from simple and easily treated, to more serious and requiring extensive therapy. A visit to the veterinarian is always recommended when symptoms of joint pain are noted. In Fluffy’s case, radiographs taken by his veterinarian revealed that he had arthritis in both his hip joints. After starting appropriate medication and putting him on a diet (Fluffy was a little too fluffy!), he is now back to begging to go on walks!