Degenerative Joint Disease

Information on osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease in cats and dogs.

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  1. What is Degenerative Joint Disease?
  2. What Causes Degenerative Joint Disease?
  3. Diagnosing Degenerative Joint Disease
  4. Help for Degenerative Joint Disease
  5. More Information on Degenerative

What is Degenerative Joint Disease?

Degenerative joint disease, also referred to as osteo-arthritis is a very common condition in both cats and dogs, and is often seen in older animals. In degenerative joint disease, the cartilage surrounding the joint changes, breaks down slowly and deteriorates as a result of wear and tear.

The cartilage actually erodes together with areas of bone. The most common areas of the body that are affected include the hip, spine knees, elbows and wrist joints. This is an extremely painful, progressive disease that will continue to worsen.

Dogs tend to be more susceptible to degenerative joint disease than cats but certain breeds, especially large breeds such as Labrador-retriever, German shepherd, or Golden retrievers suffer more from joint and bone problems. As soon as you notice any signs that may indicate that your dog or cat has difficulty walking, consult your vet. Degenerative joint disease is manageable and animals can enjoy quality of life if treated early

The common symptoms and signs of degenerative joint disease include:

  • Reduced level of activity
  • Difficulty getting up and down, running, jumping, climbing stairs or grooming
  • Stiff-legged gait
  • Sore or swollen joints
  • Stiffness
  • Lameness
  • Limping
  • Lagging behind on walks
  • Cries or whines in pain when the affected joint is touched
  • Sensitive to cold weather
  • Lethargy

In addition, behavioral changes such as irritability, aggression, nervousness, depression or withdrawal may also be present.

What causes Degenerative Joint Disease?

The exact cause of degenerative joint disease has not yet been established. There are various causes that may contribute to secondary degenerative joint disease and these include:

  • Excessive wear and tear on the joints and cartilage
  • Trauma
  • Obesity
  • Congenital defects from birth, for example hip or elbow dysplasia
  • Osteochondritis dissecans
  • Dislocation of the shoulder or kneecap
  • Underlying disorders such as diabetes, hyperlaxity or the overuse of steroid medication

Diagnosing Degenerative Joint Disease


The diagnosis of degenerative joint disease is based on the symptoms, a thorough orthopedic exam and review of the pet’s history. Certain tests such as x-rays, contrast studies, a force plate or aspiration of joint fluid may performed to determine the diagnosis of degenerative joint disorders.

Help for Degenerative Joint Disease

Depending on the cause, severity of degenerative joint disease and your pet’s overall health, there are various treatment options available to alleviate symptoms. Your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory and analgesic medications which include acetaminophen, NSAIDS, and corticosteroids to control pain and reduce joint swelling.

More serious cases of arthritis or osteoarthritis may require surgery such as joint replacement or removal as well as reconstructive procedures to repair or rebuild joint cartilages. Alternative treatments such as physical therapy, hydrotherapy and massage may also be beneficial in increasing range of motion.

A few things that you as a pet owner can do at home is to ensure that your pet maintains a healthy weight, eats a well balanced, premium diet to boost the immune system and encourage gentle exercise such as walking and swimming.

More Information on Degenerative Joint Disease

Treatment for arthritis may be medical or surgical. Nonsurgical therapies include weight reduction (never underestimate the importance of this), controlled exercise on soft surfaces and/or hydrotherapy, and applying warm compresses, such as hot water bottles to those aching, stiff joints.

Conventional medicine also makes use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, meloxicam, carprofen, phenylbutazone and corticosteroids. These act by blocking certain pathways in the pain response but long-term use must be carefully considered as adverse effects include gastro-intestinal problems such as poor appetite, vomiting and gastro-intestinal ulcers.

Certain NSAIDs can also cause damage to the kidneys. Great care must be used when treating cats with NSAIDs. Surgical options include joint fusion, joint replacement such as hip replacement, joint excision and amputation.

There’s no way to prevent arthritic changes whether they’re simply due to the ageing process or because of earlier trauma to the joint. Certainly prompt treatment of any suspected joint or bone injury is highly recommended and making sure that your pet doesn’t become overweight will minimize the chances of arthritis developing.

Although degenerative joint disease is painful and causes discomfort, there are a number of things that pet owners can do to alleviate the symptoms:
  • Manage your pet’s weight by controlling his diet – if your pet is overweight, it puts more strain on their joints and exacerbates symptoms
  • Make sure that your pet receives adequate but gentle exercise – walking your dog three times per day and swimming will help to maintain muscle strength and movement. Steer clear of strenuous activities that involves lots of running such as playing fetch or throwing a Frisbee
  • Feed your dog or cat a healthy, high quality or all natural diet that contains all the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients
  • Build ramps so that your pet does not have to walk up stairs
  • Elevate food and water bowls to make eating and drinking easier for pets
  • Provide a soft and comfortable sleeping environment (like an old mattress) or invest in an orthopedic foam bed for your pet
  • Keep your dog warm during cold weather when joint conditions usually worsen – make sure you add more blankets to his bed, slip a pet sweater on him and keep your home heated
  • Apply a hot water bottle, heating pads or warm, soaked towels on the affected areas to relieve pain and stiffness
  • Massage your pet or ask your vet to perform physical therapy on the affected area to soothe and promote range of movement
  • Ensure that your pet has sufficient rest, especially during the recovery period
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