Arthritis is a term we all commonly use, but one we often don't really understand. Some people think that it means lameness. Others might think that their animal must be in obvious pain to have arthritis. Many people have rheumatoid arthritis or know someone who does, and many of us think that arthritis means the same thing as rheumatoid arthritis. None of these are necessarily true.

Arthritis is an extremely broad term, including many different disorders. "Arthro" means Joint and "itis" means Inflammation; so arthritis simply means joint inflammation. This includes joints of the legs and the back.

There are a number of causes of arthritis:

  • Trauma (sprains)
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis does occur in animals; however, one of the most common reasons to have autoimmune-caused arthritis is an adverse reaction to a drug or to vaccinations
  • Dysplasia:
  • Often involves the hips, and is thus called hip dysplasia
  • Means that a joint has not formed correctly while the animal was growing up
  • Therefore the joint doesn't fit together properly and will deteriorate and wear down rapidly
  • Can occur in almost any joint, including elbows and shoulders
  • The end result of a dysplastic or poorly constructed joint is cartilage erosion, bone spurs, joint mice, and ligament damage. The affected joint will be painful and stiff; the animal will develop limping or exhibit difficulty rising.
  • Ruptured Ligaments or Tendons:
  • The knee is the most common joint to suffer from this problem and the most common type of injury occurs when the Anterior Cruciate Ligament is ruptured
  • A torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament is commonly referred to as an ACL injury
  • Lack of Motion:
  • All joints need regular exercise to work correctly. As your animal ages, exercise often decreases; a secondary problem to this sedentary life is that the joints start to become stiffer. This is one reason we all should exercise routinely throughout life.

Degenerative Joint Disease is also a fairly broad term. It simply means that, due to a variety of reasons, the joint becomes unstable, wearing out faster than normal, and begins to develop secondary structural problems. These problems include abnormal joint fluid, cartilage erosion or even total loss of cartilage, meniscal tears (when involving the knees), bone spurs, joint mice, and ligament and tendon damage.

Signs of Arthritis

  • Limping
  • Stiffness, especially in the morning
  • Decreased exercise tolerance
  • Doesn't want to climb stairs or jump up as much
  • Pain
  • Difficulty rising or sitting or laying down
  • Trouble sleeping through the night

As the joint becomes stiffer through the night, it also becomes more painful so the dog, cat or bird will not sleep as well

What Can Be Done


A veterinarian should examine all animals with lameness, weakness or any other signs that might mean arthritis. The veterinarian will give a physical exam, evaluate the animal's gait, and perform a neurological examination. After the examination, your veterinarian might recommend radiographs to help with the diagnosis, evaluate if surgery is indicated, and help you understand the potential for future problems.


Most arthritic conditions do not respond well to surgery. Some acute problems, such as a ruptured ACL, will respond well to surgery, as do some dysplastic joint conditions. However, even the most successful surgery will eventually lead to a worsening of the arthritis. To slow this progression, keep the joint as healthy as possible for as long as possible, and to relieve discomfort, we always recommend complementary therapies.


Conventional-minded veterinarians will typically recommend a drug called a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agent ("NSAIDs"). Trade names include Etogesic and Rimadyl. One well-known example in people is Advil (Advil is not safe for animals). All NSAIDs have in common the following characteristics:

  • Strong anti-inflammation properties
  • Moderate pain-relieving properties
  • A tendency to accelerate the rate of deterioration of the joint
  • May cause liver and/or kidney disease
  • May cause stomach or intestinal ulcers believes that NSAIDs are needed in some conditions, but should be reserved for the more serious conditions due to their cost and potential for adverse side effects.

Aspirin, unfortunately, is sometimes used in dogs (do not give aspirin to cats without veterinary approval as it can cause toxicity and even death). Aspirin causes intestinal bleeding and should not be used in dogs or cats.


Acupuncture is remarkably effective for the treatment of arthritis. It can be called the "gold standard" of therapy because it is so effective. To find a certified veterinary acupuncturist, look at the web sites for the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society or the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture.

Joint Support Formulas

There are a number of herbs, nutraceuticals, minerals and vitamins that can reduce the pain of arthritis, help restore normal joint fluid (the lubricant of the joint), rebuild damaged cartilage, and improve joint mobility. It is likely that an effective combination of these supplements will slow the progression of arthritis, may reverse the damage arthritis has already done to the joint and may help decrease the inflammation and immune damage that autoimmune joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis cause. has analyzed a number of these products carefully and clinically tested several for effectiveness. Our current favorite is a product called Megaflex by Rx Vitamins.

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