Osteoarthritis and obesity in pets go hand in hand (slowly)

Cases of osteoarthritis (OA) in pets have increased at an alarming rate in the past decade, and that increase corresponds with rising rates of obesity in companion animals.

That’s the conclusion reached in Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2019 State of Pet Health Report.

Cases of OA have increased 66% in dogs and 150% in cats, according to the report. The report’s findings are based on medical data collected from more than 2.5 million dogs and 500,000 cats treated at Banfield’s network of hospitals across the US.

The link to obesity is pretty clear.

The report found that 52% of dogs and 41% of cats with OA are also overweight or obese, which, the report says, suggests that weight management is an important part of treating OA, even if a pet isn’t currently overweight.

While OA is more common in older pets, the disease can develop in dogs and cats of any age, the report said. The report also notes that because OA is a progressive and degenerative disease, it can often go undiagnosed, with pet owners frequently mistaking signs of OA as normal “old age” behavior. Pets, like people, just naturally slow down as they age. That’s why veterinarians should advise their clients of the warning signs of the degenerative disease, says Molly McAllister, DVM, MPH, Banfield’s chief medical officer.

Sometimes the statistics can seem a little chicken-and-egg-like: Overweight or obese dogs are 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with OA, while dogs with OA are 1.7 times more likely to be overweight or obese.

NEWStat talked to Felix Duerr, DVM, MS, DACVS-SA, DECVS, DACVSMR, to ask how veterinarians can help pet owners recognize signs of OA. Duerr oversees the Orthopedic Medicine and Mobility Program at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Duerr says OA is a tricky disease. “It’s caused by so many underlying problems. One of them is being overweight. If you’re overweight, that causes arthritis. If you have trauma, that causes arthritis. It’s a multifactorial disease.”

Duerr says it can be particularly hard to spot OA in very young dogs because of the way they walk: “Clients frequently associate a puppy gait incorrectly with a normal development, but the dog [might] actually have an abnormality. So in a dog with both sides of the body affected [by dysplasia], it’s harder for people to actually identify that.”

Duerr said it’s important to tell clients to look for subtle symptoms, “like slowing down, not wanting to play, sitting down at the dog park, all of these things. That’s across the board, whether they’re young or old.”

“Early diagnosis is key,” Duerr stresses, especially in younger dogs. A diagnosis of hip dysplasia in a puppy, for example: “There are some things we can do very differently if you catch it early,” Duerr says. “If you’re finding that puppy has hip dysplasia at four months of age, there are some very different surgical options than if the dog is one year old.”

“We have to do more work on the osteoarthritis prevention front,” Duerr adds, but agrees with the conclusions of the Banfield report: For managing OA, the single most important thing that clients should do is weight control.

“Obesity doesn’t cause arthritis, but it definitely worsens it,” Duerr says.

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