Anyone who suffers from arthritis themselves will be well aware that the painful twinges and generalised stiffness tend to get worse when the weather is chilly, and we believe the same holds true for our cats and dogs. So, why does this happen?
Well, for some it may be due to the change in their daily exercise routine, thanks to the darker evenings and the bad weather making outdoor jaunts far less appealing. Several other theories exist as to why winter can have such an effect on joints, including increased local inflammation, decreased vitamin D levels and an increased sensitivity of pain receptors linked to the lower temperature.
Arthritis - more common than you might think
There is no doubt that arthritis is an underdiagnosed disease in our pet population, with many suffering in silence. Studies have shown that 20% of all dogs are affected, with older dogs being far more likely to have the condition than their younger peers. While cats may be less likely to show the signs, a study carried out several years ago found that about 90% of senior cats (those over the age of twelve) are affected to some degree. Any owner of an older pet should ask their vet to assess for arthritis at their regular check-ups, and should be on the lookout for symptoms including stiffness, a reluctance to jump and a decrease in activity levels. While early signs can be subtle and hard to detect, those with more advanced disease may have visible muscle wastage and creaking joints.
Management of arthritis
With the advent of safe and effective pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication as well as joint supplements, we can manage the vast majority of animals well, keeping them comfortable all year round. On top of medicine, there are plenty of ways that we can assist our pets and help to keep their arthritis under control.
While it’s never a good idea to over-do exercise, it is important to keep our pets somewhat active. In cats, this can be achieved by allowing outdoor access and encouraging play with toys such as laser pointers and wind-up mice. Our dogs should be taken for short walks every day, keeping them interested by varying the locations that they go to and allowing them to sniff and scent to their heart’s content.
On very cold days, consider using pet jumpers and coats to keep the chill away and aim to walk during the sunniest periods of the day. This advice is especially important for slimmer breeds such as Whippets and Italian Greyhounds.
If our pets come inside with snow or ice on their fur, it’s important to wash it off with warm water and dry them thoroughly afterwards with a warm soft towel. Beware of drying limbs vigorously if they are stiff and sore; your pet will thank you for being patient and taking your time!
Orthopaedic beds are available which provide good support to aching joints and the fancier ones will have an option to be heated... Perfect for those chilly nights when the heating has been turned off and everyone has gone upstairs to sleep.
There can be a trend for our furry friends to pile on the pounds in the winter months, but unlike those animals that hibernate, there is no reason that this should happen! While it can be easy to spoil our pets, particularly over the festive period, it’s critical that we prevent any extra weight gain in our arthritic patients. Maintaining a lean body condition can go a long way towards keeping them comfortable and taking pressure off their aching joints. As most are unable to exercise vigorously, their weight is best controlled by being strict with their calorie intake. Weight loss prescription diets are useful for those that struggle to lose weight and portions should always be weighed out.
Adjunctive therapies such as acupuncture, massage and hydrotherapy play an important role in the treatment of arthritis all year round. As hydrotherapy takes place in a heated swimming pool and pets are bathed and dried afterwards, there is no need to worry about them getting cold. When used in conjunction with daily medications, these alternative therapies can dramatically improve symptoms in many of our patients.
Keeping tabs on things...
While regular vet checks are important for all animals, this is especially the case for those in their golden years and who have chronic health conditions such as osteoarthritis. It can be a very good idea to have your beloved pet booked in for an ‘MOT’ in our clinic at the start of winter, to ensure symptoms are being well controlled and to discuss medical therapy options. Remember, those on long-term medication will require frequent vet visits and regular blood tests to ensure they are coping well and not experiencing any adverse reactions.