Take the "ouch" out of osteoarthritis

Give veterinary clients the tools to improve their arthritic pets' quality of life.
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Nov 01, 2012
By dvm360.com staff

Dr. Shawn Finch, a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and an associate at Gentle Doctor Animal Hospitals in Omaha, Neb. knows firsthand how difficult having a pet with osteoarthritis can be—her 16-year-old cat, Max, has been a challenge to treat for years. But he does well and is comfortable most of the time, which is Dr. Finch's hope for any of her patients. That's why she makes it a priority to help her clients identify the early signs of osteoarthritis in pets and get a jumpstart on diagnosing and treating the condition.

Dig in for the diagnosis

Although osteoarthritis was once associated almost exclusively with older, large-breed dogs, Dr. Finch says she's seeing the condition more often in older cats and small-breed dogs these days as well as younger, overweight dogs. And a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that pet owners are paying closer attention to the four-legged members of the family. "Families are becoming very good at recognizing possible signs of osteoarthritis and other health issues," says Dr. Finch. "They're bringing their pets in to be checked."

And while some pet owners are quick to bring their dog or cat to the veterinarian to address an immediate concern, others might need a little more nudging when it comes to identifying a medical condition. A good opportunity to really dig deep and get information from pet owners is during a routine wellness exam, says Dr. Finch. Simply asking pet owners if they've noticed any changes in their pet's behavior or activity level can lead to a discovery about an underlying condition (go to http://dvm360.com/arthritisform to download a free client form on the topic).

Next step: Customize a plan

Once a diagnosis has been made, it's good to work with the family to come up with a treatment plan that the pet owners can get behind, one that achieves the primary goal—relieving the pet's pain. Glycosaminoglycans, nutritional supplements, and NSAIDs have long been the mainstay of most osteoarthritis treatment plans, but Dr. Finch is also a strong believer in environmental modifications to make the pet's life more comfortable at home. Ramps and pet-tailored steps to couches, beds, and other areas that pets jump up to can make life much easier for arthritic dogs, as can soft or orthopedic bedding. Cats can benefit from lowered scratching or climbing posts that minimize the need to jump or take big steps. Most pet owners will be receptive to treatment suggestions if you give them options and come up with a plan that's custom-tailored to their pet—and easy for the family.

If the pet is carrying a few extra pounds, Dr. Finch also discusses nutritional therapy to get the pet back into a healthier weight range. And gradually adding exercise back into the pet's daily routine is critical, too. Some clients may also be willing to explore other less traditional ways to manage their pet's osteoarthritis, such as physical therapy or acupuncture.

But the No. 1 thing that Dr. Finch tells her clients is that pets with osteoarthritis need patience and grace. They're slower to rise and walk, they're achy, and they're often less receptive to affection, even to the point of becoming aggressive. But if families are prepared and ready to deal with the challenges that arise with an arthritic pet, managing the condition can be less discouraging.

"Osteoarthritis is a specific, treatable condition," says Finch. "Although it's a progressive disease, it usually has a good prognosis."