How to keep pet joint pain at bay

What you need to know about prevention and management of osteoarthritis in cats and dogs

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Owners often bring their pets to their veterinarian when they notice their companions are no longer as active as they once were. These dogs and cats often overweight by the time they present to their veterinarian. If the diagnosis is osteoarthritis, the goal is to prevent any ongoing discomfort for pets. Often, owners ask if there was anything that could have been done to prevent it.

Certain breeds of dogs are predisposed to osteoarthritis (OA). Yet there are ways to help keep joint disease at bay and delay the onset of clinical signs in those breeds. Every veterinarian you ask about OA, regardless of specialty, will respond with the same No. 1 answer to preventing or delaying the onset of clinical symptoms of OA.

“The most important part of preventing the clinical signs associated with osteoarthritis is weight management and maintaining an ideal body weight,” said Martha Cline, DVM, Dipl. ACVN, a board-
certified veterinary nutritionist from Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey.

In studies, obese dogs with OA have shown noticeable improvement even with only a 6.10-8.85 percent reduction in body weight.

Controlled activity is another way to prevent injury that leads to OA. Leash walks or jogging/trotting with pets help improve joint nutrition and assist in keeping the ligaments and cartilage healthy.

“When joints are healthy, they are less likely to incur injury with explosive activity,” said Michael Conzemius, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVS of the University of Minnesota.

Dietary supplements also have been shown to help maintain joint nutrition. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, help mediate the inflammatory response in joints.2 Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are commonly found in joint supplements for pets. It’s truly buyer beware with any of these products. Nutraceuticals such as joint supplements are not FDA regulated, and more objective, randomized clinical trials that investigate the effect of specific components of these supplements need to be performed.

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“Degenerative joint disease [including OA] is one of the most significant and underdiagnosed diseases of cats and dogs,” according to the 2015 AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.3 If a pet is suffering from OA, a variety of treatment options exist for that pet.

The 2015 AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats state, “increasingly, evidence-based data and empirical experience justify a strong role for nonpharmacologic modalities for pain management. A number of those should be considered mainstream options and an integral part of a balanced, individualized treatment plan.”3 Nonpharmacologic treatment options can range from cold compression to therapeutic exercise, as well as acupuncture, physical rehabilitation and therapeutic laser.

Of the modalities listed above, therapeutic laser will be the focus of this article. The easiest way to consider how a laser works on tissues surrounding the joint is to correlate it to how plants absorb energy from photosynthesis.

“The wavelengths used are in the near infrared range and stimulate specific physiologic mechanisms in our bodies at the cellular level,” said David Bradley, DVM, FASLMS of K-Laser in Franklin, Tenn. “These mechanisms lead to a more rapid and more organized healing in all tissues. It also helps moderate excessive inflammation and can have measurable analgesic effects as well.”

OA is underdiagnosed significantly in both species, but rarely discussed in cats.

“Laser therapy is a phenomenal tool, especially as part of a multimodal approach to treating OA for feline patients,” said Lisa Miller, DVM, CCRT of Companion Animal Health in Newark, Del. “Part of what makes laser therapy such a great option for these patients is that it fits well with other interventions. Laser is noninvasive, and pets, especially cats, enjoy it and will often relax or fall asleep during therapy.

“Pet owners appreciate the treatment as being something that may be applied in a fear-free manner, often with the pet owner present in the room,” she said. “And pet owners are seeking therapies with less potential side effects and/or ways to potentially reduce their pet’s need for chronic medications, if possible.”

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There is no one-size-fits-all approach to joint care for treatment of OA. Pet owner and veterinarian will decide what is best for the pet, as well as the owner’s lifestyle and budget. If traditional pharmacologic therapy, along with nutraceuticals, controlled exercise and weight management is not as effective at tempering or relieving a pet’s symptoms, it may be time to add in other treatment modalities.


  1. Marshall WG, Hazelwinkel HAW, Mullen D, De Meyer  G, Baert K, Carmichael S. “The effect of weight loss on lameness in obese dogs with osetoarthritis.” Vet Res Comm. 2010; 34;:241-253
  2. Richardson DC, Schoenherr WD, Zicker SC. “Nutritional management of osteoarthritis.” Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 1997; 27:883-911.
  3. Epstein M, Rodan I, Griffenhage G, Kadrlik, Petty M, Robertson S, et al. “2015 AAHA/AAFP pain management guidelines for dogs and cats.” J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2015; 51: 67-84.10.5326/JAAHA-MS-7331

Dr. Meghan E. Burns owns Connect Veterinary Consulting. Reach her at meghanburns@connectveterinaryconsulting or connectveterinaryconsulting.com.

Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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