By Joan Hustace Walker
In addition to receiving regular holistic care from an experienced veterinarian, you can comfort your arthritic pet at home by providing holistic care. Obviously, the treatments that require training such as acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and herbal medicine should not be attempted by you, a lay person, but there are many things you can do to boost the health of your pet, as well as decrease his pain significantly.
Caring for your arthritic pet involves paying attention to the animals comfort. For example, one of the first things you should do for your pet is make sure he has a comfortable bed. There are orthopedic beds with special pads that distribute your pet’s weight better than a regular pet bed. With a heavy pet, such as a giant dog, this weight distribution can be particularly critical; but an arthritic cat benefits from proper bedding just as much as a heavier animal. If you make your pet’s bed yourself, make sure the padding isn’t too deep because that would make it difficult for an arthritic animal to rise.
Also, take a good look at your home and yard and re-evaluate it for a pet who has trouble moving. Can your pet comfortably reach his food? You might consider elevating food and water bowls. Where do you keep your pets bed? Is it on the ground floor, or does your pet have to jump up or climb stairs to reach a favorite sleeping spot? With an arthritic cat, be sure to consider the litter box. How well can your cat climb in and out? You may want to consider providing your cat with a flatter pan-style box. Another problem can be slick floors. Your pet may need better traction in his living areas.
Remember to pay attention to your pet’s mental/ emotional condition, as well. Many diseases are thought to worsen if the patient is suffering from stress. A change in routine is enough to stress your pet or make him increasingly despondent. Many holistic practitioners believe that a pet’s immune system is heightened if the animal is happy. So try to avoid situations that stress your pet.
Keep a careful eye on your pet and report any significant changes in your pets health to your veterinarian immediately. Also, don’t assume that because your pet shows signs of arthritic pain that he has arthritis. Early intervention is key to the success of treating arthritic patients. Unless your veterinarian makes the diagnosis of arthritis, it may not be arthritis. There are many curable diseases that cause arthritis-like symptoms. Make sure you confirm your suspicions and seek professional treatment.
Without the proper nutritional building blocks, a healthy pet cannot maintain healthy bones, ligaments, cartilage, tendons, muscles, and joint fluids. His immune system is also weakened. Now, consider the fact that your pet is not 100 percent healthy (because he has arthritis) and has nutritional needs in addition to what is normally required. Without an appropriately enhanced diet, your pet’s ability to fight the progression of arthritis will be greatly decreased.
Elderly patients may have an increased need for certain nutrients, along with a decrease in the ability to absorb them. So to give your pet a fighting edge, it is critical that he eat properly. One of the first treatments a holistic veterinarian may suggest is a change in your pets diet.
If you have the time, energy, and ability to feed your pet freshly prepared meals that meet your veterinarian’s specifications each day, it is the best way to provide your pet with the exact nutrients he needs without introducing any harmful chemicals or synthetic food preservatives. Preparing a meal of meat, raw vegetables, bonemeal, vitamins, digestive enzymes, and dietary supplements every day, however, is not easy. This type of food preparation demands planning, commitment, and patience in order to create a meal that is beneficial to your pet. If you have a busy schedule, preparing home meals for your pet may not be a viable option.
For those of you who are game to the idea, you will need to work closely with your veterinarian to establish a healthful diet for your arthritic pet. For background information, read “The Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog” by Wendy Volhard and Kerry Brown, D.V.M., or “It’s for the Animals Cookbook” by Helen McKinnon. If you are a cat owner, keep in mind that a cat’s protein requirements are quite different from a dogs, so following a recipe for a dog will not suffice for your cat. For example, cats require some animal-origin supplements such as vitamin A and fish oil, not beta-carotene and flax oil as are commonly used in dog meals. Also, realize that the recipes are designed to provide for your pets needs. Never leave out any ingredients or change their proportions, unless you’re absolutely sure it’s okay for your pet. If you have questions, always consult with your veterinarian.
If your pet is allergic to some meats — or you want to create a vegetarian meal — proceed with great caution and under the strict supervision of your veterinarian. Cats require higher levels of protein (than dogs do) with a vitamin and amino acid mix found in meats, not plants. Creating the correct mix through a non-meat diet can be extremely difficult and usually is not recommended (without extensive supplementation with animal-origin foods). Dogs are carnivorous mammals (who happen to include some plant material in their diet) and in a natural environment would eat a meat-based diet along with herbs such as dandelion, Saint John’s wort, and others. Everything about a cats and a dog’s metabolism is structured around eating meat. If your pet is allergic to one type of meat, you may want to try different kinds before feeding him a strictly non-meat diet.
While on the subject of allergies, some practitioners believe that allergens can antagonize arthritis. If your pet has a sensitivity to a known allergen, avoid it in the pet’s diet. Though not necessarily allergens, food from plants in the nightshade family, such as potatoes and tomatoes, can make arthritis worse.
If you choose to purchase your pets foods, avoid products containing ethoxyquin preservatives, as well as BHA, BHT, nitrates, and nitrites. Feeding foods with these chemicals over a long period may be harmful. Keep in mind that if you feed foods without these preservatives, the food will have a much shorter shelf life. Check expiration or recommended purchase dates before purchasing foods. Also, keep store-bought food in a truly airtight container to maintain freshness. Do not feed your pet rancid or rank-smelling foods — throw them out or return them.
Monitoring Weight And Exercise
Pay attention to your pets weight. The more your pet weighs, the more stress is placed on his joints. More stress equals more pain and more degeneration. This does not mean you should starve, underfeed, or restrict your pet’s necessary nutrients in any way, though. To help slow the degeneration process, you should make sure your pet is at his optimal weight: not too fat and not too skinny.
Keeping an arthritic pet at an optimal weight can be a challenge. Because of aching joints, your pet’s regular romping may be severely curtailed. Without frequent exercise, your pet may gain weight more easily. Your veterinarian may suggest feeding your pet a low-fat diet to help compensate for this.
Though your pet may not be particularly thrilled with the idea of exercising his arthritic joints, moderate and gentle exercise is of great benefit. Exercise keeps the joints mobile and strengthens the muscles surrounding the joint, which provides stronger support to the affected area.
The key to exercising your pet is in the words moderate and gentle. Moderate is not taking your dog hunting all day. Gentle is not asking your cat to repeatedly leap or climb to reach a toy. The best form of exercise is swimming. Swimming allows the arthritic joints a full range of motion and builds muscles without putting any weight on the joints. Of course, a daily swim may not be possible for many dog owners (and too stressful for cats and their owners). If you cannot take your pet swimming, then consider low-intensity walks or slow range-of-motion physical therapy. If you have a cat, you may have to be more creative in designing walks or exercise for him, but if your cat tends to follow you from room to room or can be enticed with a tidbit, take advantage of these opportunities.
Hot And Cold Treatments
Heat is effective and comforting treatment for pets who suffer from arthritis for a long period of time. If your pet’s joints are painful and swollen most of the time (not just from flare-ups), heat therapy will allow you to relieve pain, increase blood circulation to the joint and surrounding muscles, and relax muscle spasms. A hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel is good for many large dogs; a lighter, smaller version would be more appropriate for a small dog or a cat.
If your pet is a new sufferer of arthritis (within a year) and has acute swelling in a joint, he may benefit from the application of an occasional cold pack to the affected joint. Be careful with applying a cold pack since a little bit of cold goes a long way. In fact, five minutes of application should be plenty. Anything beyond five minutes might produce negative effects by decreasing the blood circulation to the joint and even perhaps damaging tissues. A good method for making sure you don’t accidentally overdo your cold application is to use a sealed freezer bag of frozen corn or peas. The little vegetables are easier to apply than a brick of ice, they are lightweight, and they thaw before they create any problems for your pet. If you are making home-prepared meals for your pet,you might chop up vegetables that are to be included in your pets daily meals and freeze them in bags for this purpose.
If your pet protests either the hot or cold treatments, don’t force the issue.
Taking pets to professional massage therapists is the optimal option, but even if pets are getting regular massages, therapists often ask owners to perform simple massages at home on a daily basis between office visits. Most often, this is a gentle massage given to the pets neck, shoulders, and lower back. If you’re interested in getting the technique right, ask your massage therapist or veterinarian to show you how he or she wants you to work on your pet.
Though TTouch is not a true form of massage, this gentle modality invented by Linda Tellington-Jones has been found to relax muscle spasms and the pets themselves. For more information on how to perform this therapy, owners can ask a veterinarian who is skilled in TTouch to give them some pointers. Owners can also read Tellington-Jones’s book “The Tellington TTouch: A Revolutionary Natural Method to Train and Care for Your Favorite Animal.”
Acupressure is a close cousin to acupuncture. The difference is that acupressure doesn’t use needles. Acupressure uses finger pressure on specific areas to unblock meridians of energy, which in turn release endorphins that help relieve pain and strengthen an animal, both physically and mentally.
Cheryl Schwartz’s book “Four Paws, Five Directions” is an excellent resource for learning acupressure, but it would be even better to have hands-on training. Most holistic veterinarians skilled in Asian medicine will be more than happy to show you what acupressure points benefit your pet’s condition, as well as teach you how to perform acupressure.
Empower yourself with knowledge. The more you know, the more you will understand, and the better you will be able to seek out the best possible care for your pet. New studies and theories are constantly emerging from the field of veterinary medicine. If you stay on top of the emerging treatments in both conventional and complementary veterinary medicine, you will be a much more informed consumer and reap the benefits of this. To get started on learning more about arthritis, refer to the selected bibliography for a list of books, magazines, journals, and websites.
Reprinted from “The Essential Guide to Natural Pet Care for Dogs & Cats: Arthritis” © 1999. Permission granted by Lumina Media.