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Pain Management for Arthritis in Dogs and Cats

May 2nd, 2017 by Laurie Brush

dog with arthritis suffering pain to illustrate pain management tips for arthritic dogs and cats in grand rapids miOne of the toughest things our West Michigan dog and cat owners encounter is dealing with that scourge of aging pets, arthritis. In making her palliative care rounds, pet hospice veterinarian Dr. Laurie Brush hears stories of how the once sunny and agile ‘Bessie the Boxer’ can no longer play ball or manage the stairs. Tommy the Tabby cat won’t allow a cuddle. And Lucy the Lab is absolutely miserable with her hip dysplasia.

The culprit is arthritic pain, and if your dog or cat is dealing with it, they can transform from playful pals into crotchety companions.

“Clients may see a personality change. Their pet may become aggressive, or not interact the way they used to,” Dr. Brush explains. “Our treatment goal is to reduce suffering in ways that will not compromise the animal’s overall health. This requires what is known as multi-modal pain management.”

In other words, NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory Drugs) alone will not combat suffering. In fact, for many aging pets, NSAIDs are the least promising intervention because they can exacerbate poor kidney or liver function in aging pets, and because they may not get to the root cause of the pain.

“There are incredibly successful strategies available today for pain management in arthritic pets, such as cold laser therapy, PolysulfateD Glycosaminoglycan (PSGAG) injections, and orthopedic interventions that can be implemented in the home. Cold laser therapy can result in dramatic improvements in some cases,” Dr. Brush said.

Pet owners can take comfort in knowing they can truly help their pets enjoy their sunset years and reduce suffering.

“I believe in empowering pet owners with at-home interventions to help keep their fur babies comfortable,” she said.

But first, it’s important to understand some of the contributing factors to dog and cat arthritis.

What Causes Arthritis in Dogs and Cats?

Degenerative Arthritis Due to Old Age:

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), is defined as the progressive and permanent long-term deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the joints. Arthritis is the medical term for inflammation of the joints, while osteoarthritis is the term referring to a form of chronic joint inflammation caused by deterioration of joint cartilage. Older dogs are at the highest risk.

Additional conditions that can result in painful arthritic changes and decreased function: 

  • Obesity
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Cruciate ligament and meniscus damage in the stifle (knee)
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD)
  • Spondylitis (a degenerative condition of the joints in the spinal column)
  • Other joint injuries due to trauma

How Prevalent Is Arthritis in Dogs and Cats?

Most dogs begin showing arthritic symptoms at 6 or 7 years old. While some arthritis can be prevented by maintaining an ideal body weight in one’s dog or cat, most dogs will experience some sort of arthritic pain as they grow into old age. Large breed dogs (generally over 50 lbs.) are more susceptible to arthritis and will show signs sooner than smaller breeds of dogs. Over 90% of geriatric cats and one out of every 5 dogs over the age of 7 have arthritis.

  • Labs, German Shepherds, and large breed dogs, in general, are genetically prone to suffer hip dysplasia as they age, which can make them miserable.
  • Signs of arthritis in dogs include limping, slower movements, unusual gait or hunched appearance, reluctance to jump up or use stairs.
  • In cats, arthritis symptoms may be more subtle, such as difficulty using the litter box, tiredness, and a reluctance to jump up to heights they used to have no trouble with. Their gait may become minced or tippy-toed.

Home Intervention Tips: Gait, Weight, Omegas and Foam:

  •  Gait – Improper gait due to unclipped toe nails (dogs) or claws (cats) can exacerbate existing arthritis, and is even believed to contribute to Osteoarthritis. Be sure to keep your pets nails/claws clipped.
  • Weight – Maintaining a healthy weight can avoid undue wear and tear on joints and prolong pain-free spells. It’s extremely important that pets with arthritis be kept as lean as possible. Extra weight puts added stress on the joints, and makes it harder for your dog or cat to get proper exercise.
  • Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids – Either through diet or as a supplement, Omega 3 and 6 (eg Fish Oil) can help reduce inflammation naturally in pets.
  • Foam – Norsk Reversible foam floor padding will help dogs get traction on slippery surfaces, reducing the risk of painful falls and decreasing the pressure on sore joints. Dr. Brush recommends placing the mats color-side down to give your pet the best traction. You can find them here.
  • Orthopedic beds – Orthopedic pet beds range in price from $50 at big box stores to hundreds of dollars at Orvis or Dansk. Dr. Brush highly recommends orthopedic pet beds to give your pet relief.


Home Hospice Pain Management Services:

The Heaven at Home team takes a “multimodal” approach to helping manage arthritis pain in pets. During home visits she will assess your pet’s condition, assess things that can be changed in the home environment to help your pet stay a part of the family, review records from your routine care veterinarian if available, and develop a hospice care plan for your pet. That plan may include the injection of a disease-modifying osteoarthritis drug belonging to the PSGAG family, cold laser therapy, additional pain medication if indicated, and environmental enhancements or supplements such as foam padding and nutritional supplements. Clients who choose to can be trained to administer injections to reduce the number of visits required.

What Are “Disease Modifying Osteoarthritis Drugs” – PSGAG Injections

PSGAG stands for polysulfated glycosaminoglycan, which is considered a “disease-modifying osteoarthritis” drug or DMOD.  Once injected, the PSGAG is distributed into joint fluid and cartilage. Although the exact mechanism of action is not completely understood, PSGAG inhibits enzymes that contribute to cartilage degradation, thus slowing cartilage breakdown in OA joints. By blocking cartilage degradation, PSGAG helps decrease inflammation—an important source of pain. PSGAG also contributes to cartilage healing by providing the body with the building blocks of cartilage. Finally, this medication improves the consistency of joint fluid, providing better joint lubrication, improving joint mobility, and increasing comfort in dogs and cats with OA.

 PSGAG Characteristics:

  • Limits cartilage deterioration
  • Promotes new cartilage formation
  • Thickens the joint fluid – thus acting as a better lubricant
  • Increases blood flow and reduces joint inflammation
  • By virtue of these actions, it provides pain relief for a much longer period of time
  • Treats all joints of the body at the same time

Pet owners can consult with Dr. Brush to determine if a series of PSGAG injections are suitable for their pet. Dr. Brush can also teach pet owners to administer injections themselves to decrease trips and fees since the initial course of injections is usually given once weekly for 4 weeks.


Cold Laser Therapy for Dogs and Cats:

Cold laser therapy is one of Dr. Brush’s favorite treatments for arthritic pets.

“It’s not painful to the pet and we usually see quick results,” Dr. Brush says.

Laser therapy is popular with veterinarians because it’s a pain-free, noninvasive treatment with multiple applications. It can provide pain relief and improve healing in cases of arthritis, acute and chronic pain, back injuries, strains, and sprains, inflammation, and edema, wound healing, and more. When used to treat acute or chronic pain (such as with arthritis), pain medications can often be reduced or eliminated after laser therapy treatments.

The type of cold laser used by Heaven at Home Pet Hospice emits billions of photons of light that are absorbed and transformed into chemical energy by the body to promote faster cell regeneration and healing. The process, known as photo-biotherapy, stimulates protein synthesis and cell metabolism, which improves cell health and functionality.

How Laser Therapy Works:

There are three key ways in which photo-biotherapy can reduce, eliminate or prevent pain in your cat or dog:

  • Inflammation is reduced through vasodilation (opening of blood vessels), and by activating the lymphatic drainage system, thus draining swollen areas. Swelling caused by bruising or inflammation is reduced which alleviates pain.
  • Laser therapy stimulates nerve cells that block pain signals from being transmitted to the brain.
  • Laser therapy stimulates the production of high levels of endorphins, which are pain-killing compounds naturally produced by your pet.

While cold laser therapy is not indicated in every case it is very often an additional adjunct treatment worth trying.

Many pet owners have seen dramatic improvements in their dogs and cats who underwent the treatment. In most cases, pets feel better within 12-24 hours of treatment.

Don’t Try This At Home:

Heaven at Home staff and other trained professionals use pro laser gear that’s been industry tested, such as the ML830, FDA-cleared, Class 4 Therapeutic Laser.  Dr. Brush cautions well-meaning pet-owners against the “wild west” of internet laser sales, where an unregulated industry currently passes off various calibrations as being effective. 

“The research, and hence, our usage, is based on very precisely calibrated equipment that delivers exactly the intended amount of energy. While I wish there were proven, affordable, home versions of Cold Laser for pets, the industry is not there yet, so beware of internet ads hawking low priced lasers — they’re not proven,” Dr. Brush says.

For an at-home pain management consultation, Contact Us.