What does pet health look like this month?
Welcome to the July edition of our ‘We Are One Health’ pet owner blog series for 2019, aimed at exploring and raising awareness on a whole host of topics related to our companion animals.
This month we’re extending the conversation to the pet world by kicking off the month of July with a focus on joint care. We will be discussing the importance of healthy joints and how to keep them healthy, whether you have a tiny puppy or kitten or a faithful veteran.
What are joints?
Joints are complicated structures of the body, which are found in the area that connects two bones. Joints include cartilage to help reduce friction, synovial fluid for lubrication and ligaments for strength. All components are crucial for smooth and easy movement.
Joint care in pets
Many of our pets love to run, whether it’s chasing a ball in the park or a toy mouse in the house: their quality of life depends a great deal on their joints functioning well. It is therefore important to keep them as healthy as possible to facilitate easy movement and avoid pain, discomfort or injuries.
As with people, exercise can sometimes cause joint-related problems or worsen existing issues. The most common issues veterinarians see are cruciate ligament tears, osteoarthritis and hereditary issues like hip dysplasia. If you notice any subtle changes in your animal’s behaviour or gait it is important to talk to your vet as soon as possible as early diagnosis can help the long-term outcome of these diseases.
How do I know my pet is having joint issues?
If you notice your pet is slowing down, limping or moving in an abnormal way, this may be related to joint discomfort that your pet may be experiencing. Keep a close eye on them to make sure they are not displaying difficulty in getting up in the morning, going up or down stairs or doing normal walks.
A common issue in smaller breed dogs is a three-legged hop; this is when your dog lifts one of the hindlegs for a short period of time and then continues as normal thereafter. It can be a sign of knee-cap related issue and should always be checked by a veterinarian.
As pets can develop joint problems at any stage of their lives, regardless of age, breed or size, it is important that we are mindful of the symptoms and catch them early. The earlier problems are diagnosed and treated, the better the prognosis will be in the long-term. If your pet is getting older, don’t think joint issues are just an inevitable consequence of old age as there is much that can be done to manage the conditions and help maintain your pet’s quality of life.
Main threats to joint health
According to James L. Cook, head of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory of the University of Columbia, the two major categories of joint problems are developmental, like hip or elbow dysplasia, where joints do not develop correctly, or degenerative, which covers a wider number of issues and happen over time.
Developmental joint problems
Hip dysplasia occurs early in your pet’s life. It is a genetic condition, which is caused by the bones of the hindlegs not lining up correctly with the hip joint of the pelvis. It often causes pets severe pain as every movement causes pressure to be applied to the wrong area. In the long term the cartilage, which is found in this area, will erode and osteoarthritis can occur. It is more common in medium to large breed pedigree dogs, but it can occur in all breeds and even in cats.
How do you know if your pet is suffering from hip dysplasia?
Stiffness, difficulty getting up, ‘bunny hopping’ (i.e. moving with both back legs together) and a general not wanting to go for a walk could be the initial symptoms. If you notice any of these, or an abnormal gait or difficulty climbing the stairs or jumping in the car, then you should take your fellow companion to your vet to get a full check-up. If your vet suspects hip dysplasia, they may advise radiographs (X ray) to confirm the diagnosis, recommend what to do next, and if needed refer your pet for a consultation with a specialist orthopaedic surgeon.
Degenerative joint problems
Osteoarthritis is the most common degenerative condition affecting cats and dogs, mainly in their middle and senior years. Osteoarthritis often affects animals for a long period of time and has recently been classified by the Royal Veterinary College as the disease that most severely affects dog welfare.
If you notice your pet licking a joint, seeming slower and stiffer, or an overall decrease in activities, these could be early signs of osteoarthritis. The main causes of osteoarthritis are divided into two main categories: 1. abnormal stress on normal joints, caused by e.g. injuries to normal joints or obesity, and 2. normal stress on abnormal joints, caused by developmental defects or genetic disposition. Osteoarthritis can develop very slowly or very quickly, depending on your pet’s age, activity level and weight.
Osteoarthritis treatment is based mostly on the management of pain. As it is an irreversible disease, we can only do our best to prevent it or manage it once diagnosed.
- Diet and weight management
Obesity is one of the leading causes, therefore weight management not only helps prevent onset, but weight loss in an obese animal can also help alleviate pain and discomfort. The PFMA produces a useful guide to assessing if your pet is the correct weight and you should also talk to your vet about feeding them a balanced diet.
- Medical treatment
There are many products available for animals suffering from osteoarthritis and your vet will advise on the most appropriate treatment for your pet. They will be able to help you manage the condition in the longer term.
There are many different supplements available for pets that may help prevent onset. Speak to your vet or pet care adviser as they can advise and help you find an appropriate product.
- Controlled exercise
Low impact exercise to help strengthen muscles and therefore supporting joints is important. Speak to your vet about possibilities like hydrotherapy, acupuncture, etc.
How can I improve joint care for my pet?
Taking care of your pet’s joints is not an easy task particularly as sometimes signs can be very subtle and hard to catch. If you notice your pet experiencing any discomfort, it is best to consult your vet who can help you diagnose any issues and instigate treatment, if needed, as soon as possible.
Prevention is better than cure, so keeping your pet at a healthy weight throughout their lives is vital.
If you have a puppy, introduce walks slowly and in a controlled environment; any injuries at a young age are more likely to cause issues as they get older.
Now that you know more about joint health and how to make sure your pets have an active and mobile life, why not read more top tips from Emma on how she keeps Jasper (Sprocker - 4.5 years) and Alfie (Cockerpoo - 10 months) happy and healthy?
1. How do you keep Jasper’s and Alfie’s weight healthy?
One thing I'm always really conscious of is ensuring they aren't over fed. We check how much kibble they should be eating and measure it out in scoop for dinner. We only feed them in the evening, so they are more responsive to treats when training, and if treats have been given out on walks for rewarding good behaviour, then we adjust their evening meal accordingly. When doing intensive training (i.e. when we got Alfie from the rescue centre) we encourage them to work for their food rather than having a ‘dinner’. We kept a bag full of kibble with their meals measured out and used this as rewards throughout the day.
2. Is there any specific activity that you and your dogs do?
The dogs get taken out on a walk every day without fail to keep them fit and healthy – anywhere between 2 - 6 miles. If it’s less than a 3 mile walk, then normally we involve quite a bit of ball throwing to get them sprinting around!
I like to treat my dogs similar to a PT client and try and give them a bit of a warm up before getting them to sprint to make sure they don’t get injured – although this is hard with spaniels as they are a bit bonkers!
3. Do Jasper and Alfie show any signs of joint problems?
At the moment there are no signs of joint problems from either dog. They appear to have fantastic mobility and their walking gait is normal.
I had a dog, Zeena, who had arthritis in her hip joints and it was quite obvious when this came about so I’m very aware of looking for joint issues. I would be looking to see if their gait changed, if they avoided certain movements, if they struggled going from laying down to standing, if their hind legs buckled etc.
4. How did you work with your vet to ensure Zeena was receiving the right treatment?
Zeena had painkillers from the vets and joint supplements to try and ease her condition. Our primary goal was to get the right balance of painkiller making sure she wasn't in pain, but taking the minimum dose to achieve this.
We also adjusted her walking pattern from one long walk a day to two short ones around the block to try and keep her moving gently, but we eventually had to reduce this further as the pain became too much for her.