What is Osteoarthritis?

Differences Between Arthritis and Osteoarthritis


Arthritis is a general term for conditions that affect the joints and surrounding tissues. It often involves inflammation of the joint, which affects movement and also causes pain. Because the dog or cat suffering from arthritis is less mobile, there is weight gain and continued disuse of the affected joint results in further deterioration and increased loss of the joint’s mobility.

Arthritis in dogs is a common condition and it is a major cause of chronic pain in older dogs. The most commonly affected joints in dogs are the hips, knees, shoulders and elbows. In cats, the most commonly affected joints are the shoulders, elbows, hips and spine.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

Osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a common form of arthritis in dogs and cats. Osteoarthritis refers to a form of chronic joint inflammation that is a progressive and permanent disease of joints. The condition can cause long-term degeneration of joints and involves cartilage tissue, bone under the cartilage, joint capsule, fluid in the joint, pain and inflammation as well as immobility.

Osteoarthritis is a common condition in dogs and cats and it is estimated that around 30 % – 50% of dogs and cats will be affected by osteoarthritis at some point in their lives.


This condition may manifest very early in animals due to certain underlying conditions, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, broken bones and joints that are more commonly affected by wear and tear. Pets can develop osteoarthritis, particularly as they age. But there are some factors that can predispose pets to this condition, such as:

  • Obesity
  • Age, particularly middle-age to senior dogs and cats
  • Repetitive stress from activities
  • Injuries such as fractures or ligament tears
  • Diabetes and other hormone disorders can cause inflammation that leads to osteoarthritis
  • Improper nutrition
  • Poor conformation
  • Genetics
  • Larger dog breeds predisposed include German Shepherd Dogs, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. Cats predisposed include Maine Coons, Persians and Scottish Folds.


It can be easy to miss symptoms of osteoarthritis in pets because they cannot easily tell us that they are in pain and signs may be subtle. There are many misunderstandings regarding pain in animals. For example, it is thought that a dog that is not moaning or yelping is pain free. This may not be the case. Most animals are not vocal about their pain. From a survival point of view, it was to an animal’s advantage, when still wild, to suffer silently and not attract a predator’s attention.

The key symptoms of osteoarthritis are lameness, stiffness, and pain. Lameness and stiffness are evident after a period of rest or if the animal was exposed to exercise previously.


Changes vary from pet to pet and pain can manifest in physical or behavioral changes.

Cats Hide Their Pain

Cats are good at hiding their pain. Here are some indicators of pain:

  • Aggressive behavior when touched
  • Change in general attitude
  • Inability to jump on and off objects
  • Urination or defecation outside the litter box
  • Poor grooming habits or not wanting to be groomed
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss

Dogs Seldom Whine

Dogs will seldom whine or cry unless pain is severe. Here are some signs indicating that your dog may be experiencing pain:

  • Avoiding the use of a leg
  • Trembling
  • Sad expression on face or lethargy
  • Avoiding stairs and reluctant to go for walks or play
  • Behavioral change, such as not greeting you as enthusiastically
  • Crouching
  • Decreased appetite
  • Taking a long time to urinate or defecate
  • Excessively panting

With time these signs may become more obvious since the deterioration progresses and the pain worsens. Osteoarthritis is not a condition that can be cured because of the permanent deterioration of affected joints. However, there is effective pain management to bring relief and comfort. Animal-specific medications have been developed to safely deal with chronic pain in pets.


Diagnosing this condition in dogs can be done by firstly manipulating the joint to check for any discomfort or pain then followed by radiographs which are the most common tool to use and also to rule out any other conditions. Other methods of diagnosing this condition include MRI scanning, CT scans and collection of fluid from the joint. Radiographs or X-ray tend to be the most cost-effective way of diagnosing osteoarthritis.

Pain in cats is more difficult to assess. There are various lameness scales and assessment tools used in feline pain studies. An example of an assessment tool used is a subjective questionnaire. Currently-used objective tools include:

  • Force plate analysis (measures the amount of force a limb generates at one instant in time)
  • Pressure-sensitive walkways (indirectly measure the amount of force generated at one moment in time)


There are several things pet owners can do to help their pets maintain their mobility and improve their quality of life:

  • It is important to control the weight of the animal as this could have a great impact on the condition. Weight management through a prescriptive diet will also aid in weight loss in the case where the animal is overweight. More weight on joints causes more localized inflammation and irritation to the joints and this in turn can speed up the progression of osteoarthritis.
  • Exercising is also a very important part of disease management. An exercise regime tailored to the animal’s specific needs can keep the joints mobile, the muscles working well and slow down the degeneration of joints.
  • Comfortable surroundings such as ensuring that your pet has a warm, comfortable place to sleep that is away from drafts can help ease pain. Provide plenty of soft bedding to help protect any painful joints. Rather than expecting your dog to negotiate stairs, provide assistance with a ramp. Help your cat to get onto the bed.
  • Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) may work to alleviate pain particularly in dogs, but it is also advisable for the pet owner to discuss with their veterinarian which ones will suit their pet the best.

Contact your veterinarian for more information on the best treatment options available to manage osteoarthritis and keep your pet pain-free.

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