Arthritis is one of the most common chronic conditions that affect dogs and cats. But, despite safe and effective treatment options, many pets endure prolonged pain, impaired mobility, and a reduced quality of life. Learning how to identify arthritis-related signs at home can ensure your pet receives prompt veterinary care and you avoid or delay their disease and pain from worsening.
Why would your pet hide their pain?
Despite hundreds of years of domestication, dogs and cats retain their survival instincts. This means they naturally hide vulnerability such as pain and weakness, which could make them an easy target for predators in the wild.
This drive to survive—along with arthritis pain’s chronic (i.e., ongoing) nature—forces pets to adapt and avoid discomfort by subtly altering their posture, movements, or behaviors.
Early intervention is essential for arthritic pets
Arthritis is a progressive inflammatory condition that worsens with time, making early diagnosis and intervention essential to alleviate your pet’s pain and preserve their quality of life. Although arthritis most commonly affects senior and geriatric pets, arthritic changes can occur at any age, including as young as 6 months, and especially after traumatic injury to a joint.
However, effective and safe pharmaceutical treatments, plus pain-reducing therapies and lifestyle modifications, allow most arthritic pets to live a relatively normal life.
Check “Yes” or “No”—the pet arthritis quiz
Is your pet suffering from hidden arthritis? To find out, review the following statements and mentally circle “Yes” for those that you agree with, and “No” for those that do not currently pertain to your pet.
Yes or No? My pet sits, stands, lies down, or moves abnormally
Painful pets don’t always limp, but they will compensate by changing their posture or shifting their weight away from uncomfortable limbs. Noticeable changes include:
- Hunched or arched spine
- Leaning to one side
- Lifted paw (i.e., toe-touching)
- Sitting “crooked”
- Collapsing or flopping on their side when lying down
- Bunny hopping (i.e., moving both back legs simultaneously when trotting)
Yes or No? My pet seems stiff on rising
Arthritis affects not only your pet’s joints but also the surrounding structures, including ligaments, muscles, and tendons, and the changes cause not only pain but also generalized weakness and reduced range of motion. Most pet owners can relate to stiffness on rising, because they—or someone they know—have a similar experience
Unlike other joint stiffness conditions, arthritis-related restrictions appear to improve as pets begin to move and warm up their muscles and joints.
Yes or No? My pet hesitates before climbing stairs
Incline and decline-related actions force pets to shift their weight onto potentially painful joints, including their limbs and spine. Stairs require a greater range-of-motion for their hips and elbows, which can be common sites for arthritis in pets.
Affected pets may pause before attempting stairs or go up or down using an abnormal action, such as:
- Resting or pausing halfway
- Hurrying or scrambling
- Moving diagonally
Yes or No? My pet hesitates or struggles when jumping up or down
Like stair climbing, jumping and landing place extra force on your pet’s joints. Additionally, arthritis-related muscle atrophy can make these actions more challenging and increase the pet’s risk of falling.
Along with obvious hesitation, changes in your pet’s behavior may include:
- Taking several small jumps instead of one large jump
- Avoiding elevated areas (e.g., favorite perches or furniture)
- Anticipatory behavior (e.g., prolonged preparations, such as moving their paws, hovering on or clinging to the edge, or rocking back on their haunches)
- Decreased speed when jumping up (i.e., reduced power will make jumps seem slower)
Yes or No? My pet no longer plays, or tires easily when they do
Arthritic pets may show less interest in previously preferred activities or behaviors, such as playing with their owner, fetching toys, or interacting with fellow house pets, or may disengage after a few minutes or intentionally lie down to rest if they do participate. Their reaction times during play or physical activities may be decreased, although this can also be attributed to age-related changes (e.g., reduced vision). Less active and engaged pets may also be overweight, especially when unmanaged pain is the reason for their inactivity.
Yes or No? I have witnessed my pet slip or fall
Arthritis can affect your pet’s balance, flexibility, and strength, and make them more prone to slips, falls, and injuries. Slick floors are often the first area where pet owners appreciate their pet’s struggle, but you can easily provide weakened or painful pets with traction and help preserve their safety and confidence with rugs and non-slip yoga mats.
Yes or No? My pet’s personality has changed
Anyone who’s ever experienced physical discomfort knows that pain changes your reaction to everyday occurrences, and pets are no exception. In fact, because pets cannot rationalize their pain (e.g., “My elbow hurts because I jumped off the couch”), they may appear more sensitive or reactive, with uncharacteristic changes, such as defensive aggression, anxiety, avoiding physical contact, or total isolation.
Although abrupt personality changes are emotionally challenging for owners to witness, it’s helpful to remember that they most often have a medical cause.
Answer key—what the results mean for your pet
While joint assessment and range of motion is a standard component of your pet’s annual wellness examination, pets can mask or hide their pain because of stress and adrenaline. Vigilant at-home monitoring and behavior observations are often the best chance for early disease detection and diagnosis.
If you’ve answered “Yes” to any of the statements above, don’t let your pet’s pain remain a secret—schedule an appointment at Palm Valley Veterinary Center.
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