Grey senior cat being held by owner.

Osteoarthritis in Pets

Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as arthritis, is a common disorder in pets, affecting nearly 25% of the household dog population.

This chronic joint disease is characterized by cartilage loss in the affected joint, thickening of the joint capsule, and reactive new bone formation. Ultimately, all of these changes reduce mobility in the joint and are a source of chronic pain.

Signs and Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

Arthritis is usually secondary to an orthopedic disease in dogs, such as:

In some dogs, especially small breeds, there may be a genetic component to arthritis. In cats, there is believed to be a larger genetic component, which is secondary to chronic everyday activities.

Clinical signs of arthritis can be vague and subtle during the initial stages. Common clinical signs include:

If you notice these clinical signs or are seeing changes in your pet’s daily routine or behavior, it’s important to speak to your veterinarian, since these changes may be associated with pain. Your veterinarian will do a physical exam of your pet, evaluating if any pain occurs during joint palpation, and watching for lameness during walking. Definitive diagnosis of arthritis is made by taking radiographs (x-rays) of affected joints and looking for joint change or reactive new bone formation. In some cases, when radiographs aren’t 100% clear, further imaging may be recommended, such as a CT scan or an MRI.

Risk Factors for Arthritis

In dogs, there are factors that increase the risk of developing arthritis, some of which can be avoided and others which are unavoidable.

Known risk factors include:

Treatment Options

There are many treatment options for arthritis to help make your pet comfortable and maintain their quality of life.

These include:

Weight Loss

Weight loss helps immensely for pets with arthritis, since it puts less pressure on the joints. It can be achieved by developing a plan with your veterinarian, conservatively restricting calories, and increasing exercise, which can be hard for arthritic patients. Therefore, watching calories is the easiest and safest form of weight loss in this case.

Low-Impact Exercise

Increasing low-impact exercise can help arthritic patients lose weight and increase mobility. Using an underwater treadmill or swimming are the best low- impact exercises. Your veterinarian can recommend a location near you that offers these services for pets. Typically, life jackets are placed on patients during these exercises for safety and to help reduce impact on joints.

Laser Therapy

Cold therapy laser, low-level laser, or Class IV laser therapy have been shown to help in patients with arthritis. This type of laser therapy is a newer treatment in pets, but it has already proven successful at increasing circulation and stimulating regeneration of cells. Laser treatment is usually done a few times a week and then spaced out based on improvement and comfort. If not available at your veterinarian’s office, your vet can help find a location nearby that provides this service.


Glucosamine and chondroitin are commonly recommended supplements to treat arthritis in pets. Please consult with your veterinarian to discuss your product of choice, so that you can avoid incorrect dosages and contradictions. Omega 3 fatty acids have also been recommended for the management of arthritis in pets.


Dogs and cats are more sensitive to anti-inflammatory medications than their human counterparts. They should never be given human anti-inflammatory medications, since these can cause severe kidney, liver, and gastrointestinal injuries. There are veterinary-formulated anti-inflammatories that are far safer for cats and dogs. Your veterinarian will most likely want to do blood work before starting these medications.

Surgical Management

In some cases, joint replacement, such as a total hip replacement, may be necessary. Your veterinarian will discuss options with you or refer you to a veterinary surgeon if necessary.