• Matthew Scott

An owner’s guide to managing Osteoarthritis (OA) in small animals – Part 2: Keeping them moving

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Following on from the last OA blog, here is part 2 of an owners guide to managing OA. This time round, we’re discussing how to keep them moving in a safe and pain free way.

Keeping them moving

Moving “little and often” is often the prescribed exercise level for arthritic patients but what does it actually mean? Well, it’s a term used to prevent dogs going on 1 hour long walk every day followed by 23 hours of sleeping but at the same time allowing for enough rest in order to recover, because dogs do need around 16 hours of sleep. This applies to cats too. So it’s about finding a happy medium between the two, moving in short bursts throughout the day to prevent stiffening up. We all feel this if we’ve sat for too long but throw OA into the mix and it can make things quite painful. This can obviously be quite subjective and a certain level of exercise that work for one animal, may be too much or not enough for another. Hopefully this blog will help give you some ideas of how to incorporate this type of exercise into your daily life.

Things to avoid

Avoiding high-impact, repetitive activities for any patient with OA is always a good idea. This includes chasing balls, running up/down the stairs, navigating slippery floors, and jumping in/out of the car, to name just a few.

Trying to minimise climbing up and down stairs is also important as this subjects the animal’s joints to a lot of pressure. Baby gates can be used to block of areas that you don’t want your dog going but, in some instances, this can cause the animal a great deal of stress. In these cases, the amount of stair walking should be kept to an absolute minimum and they should be assisted up and down the stairs with the use of a harness and sling. Purchasing some handicap ramps can help for any exterior steps.

Slippery flooring is difficult for dogs of all ages and can be the cause of some injuries. If possible, providing good footing throughout the house (rubber backed mats, carpet, or grip tape) would be ideal, even if this consists of several runners that the animal can move between. Rubber backed matting or carpet are good to place next to your pet’s bed and food/water bowls too, to provide good footing when getting in and out of bed, reducing the risk of slipping and falling.

Jumping into and out of the car is another area where a simple activity for some can cause a lot of pain for an arthritic animal. In fact, jumping out of the car places 4 times a dog’s body weight on their front legs! To avoid this, there are several ramp and step systems available to help get your dog into the car if they are too big to lift. If you have a large 4x4 type car, the step systems are usually easier for dogs than ramps.

Training dogs how to use ramps when they’re young can really help to improve their acceptance of them when they get old and actually need them. But if your older dog wasn’t trained, just gradually introduce it to them before forcing them to use it for the car will help their compliance and hopefully stop them from trying to avoid it by jumping.

Photo credit: Pet Loader

Avoiding jumping onto and off your bed or the sofa is also really important but if this is something that your dog loves to do, try placing the sofa cushions on the floor to reduce the height that your dog has to go to get to the soft cushion. If your pet loves to get on your knee, the best way to solve this is to get on the floor with them, this eliminates any possibility of them hearing something and jumping off before you catch them. When it comes to your bed, avoiding this entirely would be the best practice as it will be nearly impossible to always stop them jumping off if they hear someone at the door.

Photo credit: Pet + ER Maryland on Pinterest

Things to try

Walking, especially on different terrains, can be a great way to maintain muscle mass and fitness in older dogs. However, an arthritic animal will have their limits and it’s important to understand each individual’s limits in order to make sure we don’t continually push passed those as dogs will often walk as far as we want them to, regardless of how much it hurts. Additionally, whether an animal has OA or not, they should all have at least 10 minutes (depending on total duration of walk) spent warming up and cooling down before and after any running, trotting, or more specific forms of work. For a standard pet dog with OA, this warm up/cool down can involve something as simple as just a slow on-lead walk.

Another idea to achieve this is to spread some of their daily dry food allowance around the house, garden, or put in a slow release toy. It keeps them moving, mentally stimulates them, and burns a few extra calories.

For cats, try giving them platforms to work with rather than trying to completely stop any jumping. If they have a favourite ledge they like to get onto, place some blocks or steps for them to use to either reduce the height between the start and end of the jump or simply allow them to walk up.

Another exercise alternative is hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy provides the chance to exercise with reduced load on a patient’s joints and is therefore, low impact, it is resistance based and so helps with maintenance of muscle mass, and improves an animal’s cardiovascular fitness. All this put together provides a great therapy for arthritic patients and aids in weight loss too.

Play time

It’s also important that we find safe ways to play with toys as this can be another area that increases an arthritic animal’s pain. Chasing after a ball that was thrown at the park puts a lot of strain on a dog’s body and requires a lot of athleticism to do. So unless they are completely healthy and have undergone a specific conditioning programme, most dogs will not be able to cope with repetitive ball chasing without picking up an injury. Using alternatives such as rolling the ball to them, placing the ball out in front for them to retrieve, or using toys for scent work, can be excellent ways to provide both mental and physical stimulation and allow your dog to continue playing with their ball. These ideas are also good ways to encourage older patients to move more.

While attempting to avoid an arthritic animal doing too much exercise and overdoing it, we also have to consider excessive play with other dogs. Arthritic animals may try to keep up and, in the process, become much more stiff, painful and even lame. However, play with other animals does stimulate activity, can be a nice change from controlled exercise and, as mentioned, keeping arthritic animals moving is really important. This can be a difficult balance to achieve and may take some time to get the perfect amount for each individual. Make sure to monitor how your pet is moving and feeling after play, including a couple of days afterwards, and use this as a guideline for how much they, as an individual, can physically handle. If you notice that the playing is getting overly physical and the other dog looks as though it may knock your arthritic dog over, it is important that you gently separate them to avoid an injury occurring.

Time for a pedicure?

Don’t neglect their claws, when dog’s claws get too long they begin to twist and turn the joints of the toes making them really uncomfortable especially if there’s already OA present in them. Older dogs tend to get hairy feet too which can cover their pads and reduces the friction with the surface underneath their feet and make it even more slippery (think about if you’ve ever stepped on a big lump of hair on the floor of the hairdressers!).

Part 3 to come soon!

Have a great rest of the week,


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