By Kevin Wright, DVM, DABVP
If you suspect your small animal pet has arthritis, take it to be examined by an experienced exotic pet veterinarian. A thorough review of your pet’s home care and a physical examination is needed. The veterinarian may put your pet on the floor to watch it move around. He or she may ask you many questions about its diet and its home environment to determine if there are any contributing factors that need to be corrected. For example, guinea pigs that do not get 90 to 150 mg of vitamin C daily are more likely to have joint problems. Rabbits and guinea pigs often develop arthritis due to overgrown toenails that put unusual pressure on the toe joints.
The veterinarian may feel swelling and grinding when a pet’s arthritic joint is moved. Many arthritic pets are underweight, because they no longer eat as well due to the pain or may be overweight because they eat a lot and do not exercise.
Your veterinarian will need radiographs to assess the extent of the arthritis. Although a pet may be limping on its left hind leg, it may also have arthritis in other legs and in the back. Blood work is helpful to rule out some infectious causes of arthritis and to make sure a pet is healthy enough to go on certain medications. Other tests may be suggested in order to understand what will help your pet feel better. Appropriate foot care, a proper diet and exercise are essential to treat arthritis.
Depending on what your veterinarian finds, some of the following therapies may be recommended. Always consult with your veterinarian before beginning any of the therapies.
1. Proper Diet
A balanced diet is the first step to having a healthy pet. If your pet is overweight, a weight-loss program may be needed. If your pet is underweight, it may need extra calories and protein to regain weight.
2. Nutritional Supplements
Antioxidants like vitamin E and Coenzyme Q may be helpful. Red palm oil helps reduce inflammation (pain and swelling). I use and recommend HealX Booster, a red palm oil supplement with a proprietary ingredient. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate help restore damaged cartilage. Hyaluronic acid may be given by injection or by mouth to improve the lubrication of the joint fluid. Cetyl myristoleate is a newer supplement that seems helpful and was originally isolated as the underlying reason a strain of white mice was resistant to joint stress. Many other joint supplements may be considered. As a general rule, horse products are appropriate for herbivores such as rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs and hamsters. Dog products are appropriate for omnivores such as rats, mice and sugar gliders. Cat products are appropriate for carnivores such as ferrets and hedgehogs.
3. Foot Care
Proper trimming of the toenails, proper cleaning of dirty feet, and treating any wounds or infections that have developed helps minimize any pain.
Regular vigorous exercise will help keep bones and joints strong and will help your pet maintain a healthy weight.
5. Anti-Inflammatory Medications
Meloxicam is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that will reduce pain and swelling associated with arthritis. For some pets, prednisone or another corticosteroid may be needed instead of an NSAID. Pets that are placed on these medications long-term require blood work periodically to monitor how their livers and kidneys are functioning.
6. Opioids And Other Pain Relievers
Tramadol, buprenorphine, morphine, and other medications may be used short-term to relieve pain. For some pets, these medications may be prescribed long-term.
Antibiotics may be prescribed if your pet has cellulitis or onychitis (infection of the toenail), foot abscesses or certain infections of the joint. It’s important to give antibiotics as directed. Do not stop an antibiotic early just because your pet appears to be doing well.
8. Physical Therapy
Many pets benefit from gentle range-of-motion manipulation of their legs. Walks or access to exercise wheels and other exercises may be helpful.
9. Complementary Therapy
Acupuncture, cold-laser treatments, massage and other complementary therapies may help improve the overall response to treatment. Cold-laser therapy seems to be very helpful with small mammals, but it and other complementary treatments may not be available in all areas.
10. Surgical Arthroscopy
A look inside certain joints allows removal of injured cartilage and can improve healing. This is quite expensive, as it requires an orthopedic veterinary surgeon willing to work with your pet; this may not be available in all areas. This is not going to be practical with smaller pets.
Minimize Or Prevent Pain
If your pet is slowing down, limping or just is not acting like it used to, have it examined by a veterinarian. If arthritis is the cause, you may be amazed at how much better your pet will feel once its treatment starts. If you have a young pet, take steps now to reduce its risk of severe arthritis. Keep the nails trimmed, keep its weight within a healthy range and exercise it regularly. Provide a balanced diet and make sure its diet provides the proper nutrients. Have regular wellness visits with your veterinarian so that any problems are detected and treated early.
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