Stiffness and pain can happen to your furry friend at any age. Here’s how to ease the ache.
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Dog with ball
Credit: Getty Images / Ian Payne

If your dog or cat seems to be slowing down, it could be because of joint problems—even if she's young. Osteoarthritis, one of the most common conditions, occurs in approximately 20% of canines over age 1, according to Leilani Alvarez, D.V.M., head of integrative and rehabilitative medicine at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. Cats develop it, too, although exactly how many are affected—and at what age—is harder to pin down as they have a higher tolerance for joint pain and aren't diagnosed as often. But some estimates say that osteoarthritis impacts 90% of cats over age 12.

An animal with stiff or painful joints may have difficulty rising after lying down and be unwilling to jump, climb stairs or chase a ball, Alvarez explains. Discomfort can also manifest behaviorally, so you may notice your pet acting less social or depressed, losing her appetite or not liking to be touched.

The reasons for joint issues are many and include not just age, but also breed, genetics, a recent hospitalization or trauma. A major culprit among dogs, however, is being overweight or obese, says Alvarez. Excess pounds increase stress on joints and cause bones to move abnormally, eventually breaking down the cartilage cushioning the joints.

These steps can help keep your fur ball moving comfortably.

How to Help Joint Pain in Dogs or Cats

Maintain a Healthy Weight

More than 50% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. "So it's important to keep your pet at an ideal weight, or even slightly underweight," says Alvarez. Talk to your vet—before starting a diet—about the best weight-control strategies for your pet.

Get Moving

Regular physical activity keeps pets at a healthy weight and prevents stiffness and muscle loss, says Alvarez. For pets with existing joint problems, exercise should be moderate. Your vet can advise you on how much is right, but Alvarez says that in general, arthritic dogs should get at least an hour of activity daily, broken up into several sessions. Cats need at least five minutes a day. (Try using a toy like a laser they can chase as an incentive.)

Consider Supplements

According to Alvarez, anti-inflammatory supplements containing either omega-3 fatty acids, green-lipped mussels or undenatured type II collagen are the most effective. They've all been clinically tested in dogs and cats. Or try a prescription diet fortified with fatty acids, like fish oil. A few studies, including one at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, have shown that oral CBD may also reduce pain and lameness in dogs suffering from osteoarthritis. One popular supplement Alvarez suggests skipping: glucosamine chondroitin. It hasn't been clinically proven to be effective in arthritic pets.

Manage Pain

If your pet is in pain, there are medications you can talk to your vet about. To relieve discomfort, Alvarez recommends a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory prescription drug, such as Carprofen or Meloxicam. Consider adjunctive therapies like acupuncture, laser therapy or hydrotherapy, she says. They've been shown to ease symptoms.

This article first appeared in EatingWell, September 2021