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Do Cats Get Arthritis?

New research show cats get painful arthritis although the symptoms may be difficult to identify. 

Dr. Ernie Ward

When I graduated from veterinary school twenty years ago, we were taught that felines had the most efficient musculoskeletal system of any land mammal on the planet. We learned that because cats were so well-designed and adapted, they incurred very few joint injuries or diseases. Osteoarthritis, the most common cause of joint pain in animals, was something rarely diagnosed in cats, if ever. Turns out we were wrong.

New research proves that housecats get osteoarthritis (OA) about as frequently as dogs. Over the past decade, an increasing number of studies have found that older cats, especially cats over age 12, have a high incidence of arthritis. A 2011 study found 61% of cats over 6 years old had OA in at least one joint while 48% had two or more affected joints. If a cat was over age 14, they had an 82% chance of having arthritis. Ouch! All of the study cats were diagnosed using x-rays. So much for a practically perfect skeletal system. What happened?

What happened was that cats got fat. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but not a lot. Ten years earlier the rate of arthritis in cats was found to be about less than 26%. The sudden jump in confirmed feline arthritis cases alongside the gradual increase in numbers of indoor and overweight cats strikes me as suspicious. Twenty years ago the majority of cats were arguably thinner and more fit. Fast forward to today and we share our homes and apartments with cats that have never seen a sweaty paw. Sure, we’re performing more x-rays on cats than ten years ago, but I’m still not convinced weight isn’t playing a role. I report; you decide.

You may have noticed I mentioned that the cats in the 2011 study were diagnosed using x-rays. That’s because so few cats show signs of arthritic pain until it’s bad. Really, really bad. In fact, the majority of cats in the university study were admitted to the teaching hospital for reasons unrelated to their musculoskeletal system. They weren’t limping, holding up a leg or yowling in pain. So how can you tell if your cat has arthritic pain? It’s tougher than you think.

First of all, whenever I see an overweight senior cat, over age 11 and north of 13 pounds for DSH and DLH cats, I start looking for OA. I recently saw a 12-year old female that had started urinating on rugs, chairs, and – the deal-breaker – the owner’s bed. The “behavioral” drugs failed to curtail the troublesome tinkling. This kitty was headed for the Rainbow Bridge if I couldn’t help. No pressure, doc.

Blood tests and urinalysis were normal. In fact, I wasn’t identifying anything extraordinary other than an older obese cat (16 pounds). As I mentioned, I’m always on the lookout for pain. I recommended radiographs to evaluate the abdomen and joints. As you may have surmised, I discovered some pretty painful hips and knees. No embarking to eternity today for this kitty. She’s doing just fine with her anti-inflammatory medication, weight loss diet and nutritional supplements.

If your kitty is slowing down, not as active or perhaps having a few more accidents in the house, don’t forget to consider arthritic pain as a potential cause.  Arthritis has long been overlooked in cats and it’s time to shine the spotlight on this crippling condition.

Signs of Arthritic Pain in Cats

The signs of osteoarthritis in cats are subtle. In fact, they’re so hard to detect I advise my pet parents that if their cat just “ain’t doing right,” don’t forget arthritic pain. Here’s my short list of subtle symptoms associated with feline osteoarthritis:

  • Not jumping up on furniture or counters they previously easily pounced upon
  • Urinating or defecating outside a litterbox – especially in boxes with entries that require stepping over
  • More frequent hiding or changes in sleeping
  • Not frequenting upstairs as often as before
  • Less play behavior or sleeping through the  “midnight crazies”
  • Not eating or drinking normally
  • Slow when rising from sleeping; appears “stiff”
  • Weight loss despite no changes in food or feeding
  • Reluctance to eat hard kibble (although typically associated with oral or tooth pain, osteoarthritis can also affect the jaw)
  • Almost anything else that’s “weird” or “unusual” for a normally active kitty


Crazy for Carnitine for Weight Loss

I like easy. Easy as in you don’t have to think too much about something. When it comes to weight loss, we all want easy. I’m not going to tell you weight loss is easy; I can tell you there’s a nutritional supplement I’ve been a fan of and have taken for the past dozen or more years that helps both me and my pet patients with weight loss. That’s why I’m crazy for l-carnitine.

Carnitine has been a popular supplement for human weight loss for decades.  In our body’s cells, carnitine is required for the transport and breakdown of fatty acids into the cell’s powerhouse, the mitochondria, during energy production. This has led to much research concluding that carnitine can aid in preserving lean muscle mass and better utilizing fat. That translates into it may help you lose fat and stay lean. Turns out it works the same way in dogs and maybe cats.

Several scientific studies conducted over the past twenty years have concluded that l-carnitine can aid in weight loss and preserve lean muscle mass in dogs. That’s why it’s added to most therapeutic dog foods. If I have a dog or cat that needs to shed a few pounds, in addition to therapeutic diet and exercise, I often recommend giving an omega-3 fatty acid supplement and l-carnitine. But the benefits of carnitine aren’t limited to weight loss.

Carnitine is perhaps better known for its healthy heart benefits. In medical studies l-carnitine has been shown to balance cholesterol and triglyceride levels and support heart muscle. This is especially important in older overweight pets that may have heart problems or elevated blood fats. The good news is l-carnitine is available in a specially-formulated pet supplement with added goodness.

I typically advise my patients be given an l-carnitine supplement that has added taurine, coenzyme Q10, antioxidants such as DMG, selenium and vitamin E, and magnesium for healthy blood vessels and regular heart rhythm. The dogs and cat versions are smaller than human supplements and contain proper amounts of these vital ingredients.

I’ve personally been taking l-carnitine for well over a dozen years. I pair it with chromium picolinate and coenzyme Q10 (and about 27 other supplements) as part of my optimal wellness blend. What I wish is that I had better combination products such as the ones I’m able to offer my pet patients. I understand it’s a size issue but it would be easier to swallow ten supplements a day rather than over 30. Yes, I’m “that guy.” No, I’m not interested in hearing how crazy you think I am. If you knew my family medical history and had raced an Ironman triathlon against me even as I close in on age 50, then we can talk. For now, I’ll stick with what’s working for me.

And it works for my patients. I’m always for a more natural, organic and holistic approach whenever possible. Talk with your veterinarian about l-carnitine if your pet has a heart condition or needs to lose a few pounds.


Diamond Dog Food Salmonella Outbreak Infects 14

I’ve written about this before, but the latest news is a serious reminder that humans can get sick from pet food. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least 14 individuals have been infected in a multi-state Salmonella outbreak contracted from contaminated dog food. The news began breaking a couple of weeks ago but there were no confirmed human or animal cases until the CDC news release today, May 4, 2012. A Gaston, South Carolina Diamond Pet Food plant is the source of the infection based on CDC DNA tests performed on recalled dog food and infected human patients. Brands recalled are Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, Diamond Puppy, and Diamond Naturals Lamb Meal & Rice Formula.

To date, no dogs have been reported as infected. Fortunately, dogs tend to become infected less easily with Salmonella than humans. If you live in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, or Virginia and purchased one of these foods, discontinue using it immediately and contact the store from which you purchased it.

Common clinical signs of Salmonella infection in dogs are lethargy (acting more tired or sleepy), diarrhea (even bloody diarrhea), fever, and vomiting. Some pets will experience decreased appetite, a low-grade fever, and abdominal pain or tenseness. An otherwise healthy dog can be a carrier of Salmonella and infect other animals or humans. If your dog has been fed any of the recalled foods and has any of these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian at once.

When you’re handling pet foods, use good hygiene.  Wash your hands after handling any pet food or treats. Avoid placing pet foods on treats on counters or surfaces where you put human foods. Wash your pet’s bowls with soap and hot water at least several times a week if not daily. Throw away old or spoiled pet food in an enclosed bag so other animals won’t accidentally ingest it. Remember other animals can harbor Salmonella and other pathogens and transmit them to you through direct contact or feces. Be especially careful with pet food and treats around infants and toddlers.

The good news is this outbreak was identified. The bad news is at least 14 people are known to be sick with a serious bacterial infection. Use proper hygiene and report any suspected food-borne illness to your veterinarian at once.

Open House May 12

I’ll be hosting out 19th Annual Open House and Pet Health Fair at my veterinary clinic, Seaside Animal Care and new special services and pet supplies facility, Doggone Healthy on Saturday, May 12 from 12 to 3 pm. Read about it here.

  • Free t-shirts, food, samples, and prizes
  • Behind-the-scenes clinic tours and demonstrations
  • Special kids-only tours and activities
  • Bouncy tent
  • Face painting
  • Dr. Ward’s presentation on “Natural Pain Relief – Pain-free without thePrescription Meds”
  • Tour Doggone Healthy and learn about our Day School for Dogs, Manners Meetings, Puppy School, and Dog Training Services
  • Learn about our Rehab and Weight Loss Programs
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Learn about our organic, natural, and raw pet diets and treats
  • Pet and Owner contests with fabulous prizes!

This is an event you DON’T want to miss! Bring your pets, family, and friends for a couple of hours of fun and fellowship with Brunswick county’s finest pet lovers.

Playing Young and Staying Young: Tips for Senior Pets

Dr. Ernie Ward with his senior dog, Sandy

Our pets are living longer. In fact,  11 percent of pets in the U.S., approximately 33 million, are 11 years or older. We can attribute this longevity to several factors including advancements in veterinary medicine and care, the increasing closeness of the human/pet bond and improvements in pet nutrition. Here’s a series of helpful tips to keep your aging pet playing young – and staying young – throughout their  senior years:

  • Keeping mental functions sharp – It turns out that old dogs CAN learn new tricks! Studies show that, just like people,  pets need to keep their brains stimulated throughout their lifetime to keep their mental capacities sharp and utilized. Food puzzles are a great way to keep pets intellectually stimulated and challenged. Also, try teaching your old dog – or cat – a new trick. It can be as simple as “Shake” or complex as learning to run an agility course. Even reversing your normal walking route can provide a refreshed view of the world for an older pet.
  • Providing your pet with the best nutrition – As your pet ages, their health and nutritional needs change and they require extra support based on the changes their bodies are going through. Feeding your pet the proper nutrition in their senior years, such as Iams Senior Plus formulas (visit www.iams.com for more information), is critical to helping them fight the signs of aging and keeping them active and playful. The new Iams Senior Plus formulas include specific ingredientsfor more mature cats and dogs to ensure they have the right amount of pep intheir step, including:
    • Antioxidants to restore immune response to that of a healthy adult pet, including Vitamin E
    • Tailored fiber blend,including prebiotics and beet pulp for healthy digestion
    • More fat to help maintain ideal weight and body condition andL-carnitine to help pets utilize dietary fat; and high-quality protein fromchicken and egg to help maintain muscle mas
  • Exercise is critical to keeping your pet youthful – Keeping a pet lean as they age is one of the most important factors in preventing health issues. I recommend 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise for most dogs, as well as light daily activity for cats, and items, like ChuckIt! fetch games and FroliCat SWAY, are great ways to keep your four-legged family members on their paws.
  • Visit The Vet! – Your veterinarian can help uncover any hidden or internal ailments that require medical attention. As a pet ages, it’s imperative that they see their vet at least twice a year to maintain optimal health.
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