A Critical Moment for Osteoarthritis


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Cases of osteoarthritis in pets have been on the rise for years. How can the veterinary industry reverse the trend?

As one of the largest providers of veterinary care in the United States, Banfield Pet Hospitals has a unique vantage point from which to monitor emerging trends. One of the largest (no pun intended) in animal health has been the rise in cases of osteoarthritis (OA).

A common predictor of OA is obesity – and excess weight in pets has been an increasing trend for years, said Jo Ann Morrison, DVM, MS, DACVIM, director of veterinary science at Banfield Pet Hospital. “Analyzing the health records of millions of pets seen at Banfield each year, over the past decade we saw a 108% increase in the percentage of dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese, jumping from 16% in 2011 to 34% in 2020,” she said. “The increase seen in cats was even greater: 114%, jumping from 18% in 2011 to 38% in 2020.”

More recently, a Banfield survey of pet owners found 33% reported that their pet gained weight as a result of increased time together during the pandemic. When looking at Banfield’s data from March 2020 to December 2020, dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese rose 2.3%, the largest increase in overweight/obese canines seen at Banfield in the past 10 years.

According to Banfield’s 2021 Veterinary Emerging Topics (VET) Report, more than 150,000 dogs every year are diagnosed with OA. A 2019 report found that over a span of 10 years, Banfield witnessed a 66% increase of OA in dogs and 150% increase in cats. But just as concerning is the disease’s link to obesity – 52% of dogs and 41% of cats with osteoarthritis were found to be overweight or obese, Dr. Morrison said. And current evidence in the profession indicates that overweight or obesity in pets is under-diagnosed.

Other key findings from Banfield’s 2019 report include:

  • Dogs with OA were 1.7 times more likely to be overweight or obese
  • Cats with OA were 1.2 times more likely to be overweight or obese


“This trend has created a critical moment for veterinary teams to adjust our tactics as we continue the battle against excess weight and OA,” Dr. Morrison said.

Common signs

Simply put, osteoarthritis (OA) is a form of arthritis caused by inflammation and damage to joint tissue that can affect both dogs and cats. Factors such as genetics, injury, joint abnormalities, and age can cause OA, but a common predictor of this painful and degenerative disease is obesity. Commons signs of arthritis in dogs and cats can include limping, decrease in activity level, difficulty rising, difficulty jumping up or down or climbing stairs, swollen joints and muscle loss.

“Cats instinctively hide their pain, so detecting signs of osteoarthritis can be more challenging than with dogs,” Dr. Morrison said. Signs of OA pain in cats can include: going to the bathroom in inappropriate places such as right outside of the litterbox; decline in interaction with humans and other pets; and poor hair coat including dandruff, mats or scruff, as cats experiencing pain may not be able to reach all parts of their body to groom completely.

Scott A. Krick DVM, technical service veterinarian – Companion Animal, for Norbrook, Inc. said the profession has historically been somewhat remiss in both recognizing the incidence of OA in cats, and in educating cat owners about this problem. “This is rapidly changing,” he said. “Diagnostic and treatment modalities, as well as multimodal treatment options are continually improving, bringing more attention to this painful condition in both dogs and cats.”

Signs of OA in dogs can include reluctance or inability to go up or down steps, sitting with a back leg loosely to the side, decreased or lost interest in play, reluctance to being petted or touched, stiffness or limping. “Often pet owners think their pets are slowing down as they age, but it might be due to pain,” Dr. Morrison said.

Household changes can be made based on a pet’s specific condition and needs, but Dr. Morrison noted some changes that may help accommodate pets with mobility difficulties include:

  • If a pet has mobility issues, setting up baby gates or installing ramps can help protect them from falls downstairs; owners can also consider adding rugs or carpeting to slick floors, and indoor ‘potty patches’ or walk-in versus step-over litter boxes.
  • Furniture placement should be considered for vision-impaired pets, to prevent them from running into objects or sharp corners.
  • The use of absorptive bedding or diapers can help keep pets dry in the event of urinary issues or incontinence.
  • Raised food bowls or flat plates for meals may help pets with neck, back, or vision issues.
  • Floor bedding can be added for pets that cannot – or should not – jump on or off furniture any longer.


Discomfort from OA can keep pets from being active, which can lead to weight gain, which can then worsen the joint condition. Preventing excess weight can help to reduce a pet’s risk of developing the painful condition and is a critical part of managing OA.

Dr. Morrison said Banfield veterinarians share the following tips with pet owners:

  • Partner with your veterinarian to find the right diet for your pet. “The best nutritional option for your pet is to feed a consistent, balanced and veterinarian-approved diet that meets their individual nutritional requirements and is appropriate for their life stage. No one formula is ideal for all pets, and your pet’s diet may need to change over time based on their unique needs, lifestyle, life stage, and medical history. PREVENT weight gain rather than try to start weight loss.”
  • Measure portions, and limit treats to 10% or less of your pet’s daily intake. “Your veterinarian can help you determine the appropriate amount and type(s) of food and treats for your pet throughout every stage of life. For example, puppies should generally be fed more – and sometimes more frequently – than adult pets that require fewer calories as they age. Some treats can be surprisingly high in calories and should be considered when calculating daily caloric intake.”
  • Take a walk. “Exercise or some level of activity is helpful in not only burning calories, but also building and maintaining muscle mass, which can help arthritic joints.”

Early diagnosis key

Pet owners have always wanted their pets to live the longest and most enjoyable lives possible, said Dr. Krick. “Through better education and awareness of both the disease and the available treatment options, most pet owners are very interested in learning about diagnostic and management options for their pets,” he said. “Pets increasing role in the family dynamic is also playing a role in the increased interest in treatment of this and other conditions.”

Clinics that actively engage pet owners in conversations about their family pets, and who employ multi-modal approaches to the treatment of OA, seem to have the best success, Dr. Krick said. “Active listening to clients, careful observation and history taking, thorough orthopedic examinations, and appropriate diagnostic tests are the keys to identifying OA in patients,” he said. “Careful questioning of cat owners in particular, about their pet’s willingness to jump up onto (or jump down from) objects can open the topic to conversation since, by nature, cats are relatively sedentary and often mask pain, making it harder for the pet owner to appreciate signs of OA.”

Like Dr. Krick, Dr. Morrison emphasized that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for treating OA, so pet owners should consult with a veterinarian to determine a diagnostic and treatment plan appropriate for their individual pet. Depending on a pet’s physical examination, veterinarians may recommend an X-ray to diagnose OA and rule out other possible causes for pain or mobility issues.

“The earlier OA is diagnosed, the sooner veterinary teams can recommend a management and treatment plan,” she said. “Advanced identification, before a pet has noticeably reduced mobility, can allow for less invasive treatment options, such as starting the pet on a mobility diet or nutritional supplements. Early detection can be effective in slowing the progression of the arthritic condition, even delaying the need for anti-inflammatory or pain medications to help maintain your pet’s quality of life.”