Joint Health for Your Dog or Cat

Joint Health for Your Dog or Cat

Just as with humans, the normal range of motion for a pet's joint can become "stuck" for a variety of reasons. If you have ever casually stepped off a curb and thrown your back out, you know what I mean. Joint problems can range from minor 'stuckages' to those severe enough they may require chiropractic care.  Stuck joints can interfere with your pet's normal activity and cause other health problems, but there are some simple things to do every day that can help you pet have more healthy joints. As a bonus, many of the activities that will help your pet's joints will help yours, as well.

Here are several ways to help keep the joints moving and functioning naturally:

  • Regular natural movement: Keep moving, every day. A trot in the park, some "chase the ball" or "worry the squirrel", or any activity that naturally stretches the muscles and juices the endorphins can profoundly help joint health. A cool-down walk home and, perhaps, a relaxing massage could top off the perfect joint workout. For cats, you may need to be a little more creative, encouraging them to exercise with games and toys. Try hiding small treats throughout the house and in high places, so they will have to search around and climb to get to them.
  • Weight control: Obesity is, arguably, the number one disease of today's pets. Obese animals are more subject to many diseases including cancer, arthritis and diabetes, but worst of all, fat animals don't want to exercise and all their joints suffer. As a good first step, don't let it happen. A combination of a healthy, low-carbohydrate diet that maintains a pet's ideal weight, along with adequate exercise, will keep your pet healthy. If your pet has already added some extra pounds, don't let the fat get in the way of daily exercising, no matter how many objections your pet—and well-meaning human—try to give you. For an overweight pet, modify exercising to shorter routes, but take them out more often. Start out slow and taper off, cutting back on the calories you're feeding. Don't overdo it, but don't let obesity get in the way of your long-term program to assure your pet's good health.
  • Nutrition: Healthy nutrition benefits the whole body, including muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints. Antioxidants are especially good for helping to maintain joint health, and there are some nutrient supplements such as glucosamine and certain vitamins and minerals, which are specifically used to aid joint health. Your holistic vet can help you with more information on dietary supplements.
  • Massage: Massage can be helpful for easing muscle soreness and thus encourage more, and healthy, movement. A qualified animal massage therapist can show you how to do this yourself. It's a wonderful thing to do for your pet and promotes the human-animal bond, which I frequently speak of, that benefits you both.

In addition to the above, there are some parts of a pet's body that we don't often associate with joint health, but can be an integral. For example, nails that aren't trimmed properly can contribute to an improper gait, which, in turn, can result in sore and eventually "stuck" joints. An annual, whole-body veterinary exam will help confirm that all the pet's body parts are functioning properly and help assure healthy joints.  

Exercises to Promote Joint Health

Getting some pets going on the road to joint and spinal health can be a challenge. Here are a few suggestions for adding joint and spine exercises to your pet's daily routine that might help: 

  • Tempting treats: Most dogs, and some cats, can be encouraged to move their spine through its full range of motion by tempting them with treats. Hold the treat at the pet's hip so he will need to flex his back in that direction to get to it; hold the opposite hip steady so he can't just spin around to get to the treat. Then, hold treats up over his head and then down beneath his front legs, so he has to flex his neck up and down to get them.
  • Full body stretches: A full-body backstretch can feel simply delightful. For small dogs and most cats, take a firm but gentle grip with one hand just in front of the pet's hips and use the other hand to grip just behind the shoulders (for larger dogs, this may require two people, each of them using two hands, one person placing a hand on either side of the hips, the other person at the shoulders). Slowly, gently and gradually pull and stretch the spine. Take about 15 seconds, or so, to do this and count while you are stretching, watching for any discomfort and to see when he feels he's had enough. Release gradually, taking the same amount of time it took to complete the stretch. If helping your pet with full body stretches sounds a bit complicated, have an animal chiropractor show you how it's done. 

Some "exercises" are not healthy. In fact, some activities are downright unfriendly to the spine and/or other joints, including:

  • High-impact activity: Any high-impact activity, especially when it is done routinely or with excessive intensity (during competition, for example), can cause unhealthy wear and tear to the joints. In fact, recent attempts have been made to limit competing dogs to jumps that are no more than 1 times their height at the withers. In my opinion, the animal's weight and body type should also be taken into account. It's unfair to expect a blocky-built basset, for example, to be able to jump over the same-sized obstacle that a nimble fox terrier of the same height can easily clear. In any event, encouraging an animal to continuously jump over obstacles that aren't appropriate for his height and body type exerts far too much impact on the front quarters when he lands.
  • Extremes in play: We've all seen pictures of cute little dogs that will hang onto a rope toy while they are being tossed in circles. While this tug-of-war to extremes may look like fun, think for a moment about how much abnormal strain this puts on neck vertebrae. Remember that it's the excesses and the chronic usages that cause trouble. An animal should be able to play tug-of-war occasionally, he should be encouraged to occasionally jump up and down, and he should be encouraged to romp and play, but avoid the excesses that can do damage to spine and joints.
  • Jumping for treats: Some dogs ping-pong up and down for treats, and while this is pretty cute, it puts a lot of unnatural pressure on the lower back, hip and lower leg joints. Also, keep in mind the body type of the animal and what this type was meant to do. A dachshund, for example, was made short and long so he could chase prey down small holes. His long back and short legs are not an ideal body type for repeated jumping.   

Collars are a necessity of a dog's socialized life, but they can be a real menace to the spinal joints of the neck. The neck bones and their joints are really pretty small, and a quick jerk on them can force them out of alignment. So, be gentle with collar control, or better yet, use a harness. A well-trained dog should respond to the slightest pressure.

Along with a good diet and avoiding activities that are bad for spine and joints, all animals can—and should—walk or trot on a daily basis. This keeps their muscles and joints in shape and promotes overall good health. If your pet is not getting the exercise they need, use chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy, and other medicines to get them back into shape. Sometimes, a few treatments will make it possible for an animal to overcome the pain that has kept him from exercising. When a pet can return to daily exercise routine, it will help their joints return to, and stay in, a healthy state.

Image: Yukari /via Flickr

Randy Kidd, DVM, PhD
Holistic Veterinarian

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