It’s a fact . . . with age comes creaky joints

Today treatments are abundant and improving

 Levi receives laser therapy at OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Levi receives laser therapy at OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital

It can happen anyone. Whether caused by genetics, lifestyle, excess weight, or a no-pain-no-gain approach to sports and play, many middle-aged and elderly humans and animals develop some arthritis. The condition, osteoarthritis, is a wear-and-tear condition. It happens when the soft, lubricating cartilage that protects and cushions the joints wears down. The resulting increased friction causes inflammation and pain.

As common as it is, it’s nothing to dismiss. Arthritis can become debilitating, drastically decreasing quality of life or shortening a pet’s life. There is a silver lining, though: treatment options abound. Early treatment is key, so when an animal friend is limping, stiff, painful, or less willing to do daily activities like playing, climbing stairs, or grooming, it’s time to visit the veterinarian. Your biggest challenge may be choosing from the many options, but here’s a summary for you to discuss with your vet.

Lifestyle Changes 

All arthritis patients benefit from weight management coupled with moderate low-impact exercise. While weight management can be a bit more challenging for older, more sedentary pets, keeping extra pounds to a minimum lightens the demands on painful joints. Exercise helps control both weight and arthritis pain, but doctors with the American Veterinary Medical Association warn that either too little or too much exercise can increase pain. With some time and attention, you’ll likely learn the right types and amounts of exercise for your arthritic friend, and can couple that with home massages, supportive bedding, and mats or rugs to make hard or slippery floors more paw-friendly.

Food and Supplements

As with the many contradictory theories about the best diets and healthiest foods for humans, any research about proper pet nutrition and supplements can lead you down a rabbit hole of confusion. Always ask your veterinarian. Few doctors recommend supplements as the sole treatment for arthritis pain, but many see them as a helpful part of a treatment regimen. Some, like Chicago-based Dr. Donna Solomon, wholeheartedly recommend glucosamine chondroitin and omega 3 oils as a complement to anti-inflammatory drugs, pain medication, and acupuncture or physical therapy. Bear in mind that nutritional supplements are largely unregulated and vary in quality and effectiveness. For this reason, doctors often recommend veterinary-specific supplements with dosage and formulas geared to your pets. One chondroitin supplement called Dasuquin comes in a tasty chewable for dogs and a break-apart capsule for cats.

 The author, left, comforts her dog Levi, age 13, as he tries out a wheelchair

The author, left, comforts her dog Levi, age 13, as he tries out a wheelchair

There are veterinary diets formulated with supplements to support joint health, although, as always, it’s best to talk to your veterinarian about the best options. And while vegetarian diets are difficult and controversial for cats, they help many arthritic or arthritis-prone dogs. Meat-free diets show some promise in relieving inflammatory conditions, but making home diets that are nutritionally sound for dogs can require research and vigilance. Some commercially available formulas by Natural Balance and other manufacturers take away the guesswork. 


These widely-available drugs often are the first recommendation of veterinarians. There are several non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs available and approved for dogs, cats, and other species.  Some even come in tasty chewable or liquid form. With all NSAIDS, there are possible side effects and health considerations with long-term use, so your doctor will likely want to do an initial blood test and re-check every six to 12 months.

Pain Medications

Veterinarians are increasingly willing to prescribe pain medication as attitudes and treatment options continue to evolve in the pain management field. Drugs like Tramadol and Gabapentin are widely available and fairly affordable in pill form. Another common pain med, buprenorphine, comes in liquid or injectable form for notoriously hard-to-medicate cats. Pain-management views vary by veterinarian, and might not be necessary for milder conditions that are well managed with other therapies. However, don’t hesitate to advocate for your arthritic fur kid if their pain level seems to warrant medication. As Dr. Solomon writes, withholding pain medication when it’s needed is “antiquated and non-compassionate.” 

Specialty Clinics

Rehabilitation services available for pets now rival the care available in any human physical therapy clinic. From therapy pools to underwater treadmills, laser therapy, neurological re-education, and ultrasound therapy, these clinics can customize a treatment plan for your buddy’s condition and ability. The veterinary teaching hospital at Oregon State University in Corvallis has a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility for large and small animals. A referral from your veterinarian is required, but visiting with the specialists there will expose you to multiple options. 

Alternative Therapies

Therapies once considered alternative are fast becoming mainstream, as growing numbers of local clinics offer Traditional Chinese Medicine modalities such as acupuncture and herbal medicine. Local clinics, such as Whole Pet Veterinary in Salem, increasingly blend Eastern and Western treatments. At Whole Pet, Dr. Julie DeMarco says acupuncture can dramatically increase quality of life in arthritic pets, and Chinese herbal treatments sometimes cure conditions that Western medicine cannot. It’s also increasingly easy to find non-veterinary practitioners who offer massage therapy that may soothe aching joints and increase flexibility.

Emerging Therapies

 Levi learns to use the underwater treadmill at OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Levi learns to use the underwater treadmill at OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Among the growing field of proven arthritis treatments, there are more promising ones on the horizon. Stem-cell therapy is a prime example. An extensive article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association says, “The anecdotal evidence for stem cells as a therapy is compelling, but research is still under way.” Even while research is ongoing, numerous doctors across the country — including Oregon and Washington — are already relying on this treatment for animals who don’t tolerate anti-inflammatory medications or whose conditions haven’t responded well to other treatments. It’s a more costly and complex procedure than most, because doctors must collect blood, fat, or bone marrow from the patient, send it to a lab where stem cells are grown and harvested from the sample, and then inject those stem cells back into the animal. Many doctors and clients report impressive improvements in patients who are able to regrow deteriorating hooves or regenerate joint cartilage in previously painful joints. The procedure can cost $2,000-$3,000.


·        Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association regarding stem cell therapy in horses, dogs, cats.

·        Dr. Solomon writes in Huffington Post about caring for an arthritic dog or cat

·        The Oregon State University veterinary teaching hospital has a summary of rehabilitation services here

Michelle Blake is a Salem, OR-based massage therapist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications. Her husband wants you to know she's a REALLY crazy dog lady too.