Dr. Angela Beal is a full-time veterinary writer who joined Rumpus Writing and Editing, a veterinary copywriting company, in 2020 after practicing veterinary medicine and teaching veterinary technicians.Read Articles Written by Angela Beal
An estimated 40% of dogs and over 50% of cats suffer from joint disease, with an even greater prevalence in senior pets. Given those statistics, your veterinary practice likely sees pets with osteoarthritis daily. However, many patients might be in the early stages, and the signs might not be apparent to the owner or you. These situations are an opportunity for you to make a significant difference for stricken pets, their owners and your practice.
It’s no secret that OA causes chronic pain and discomfort, significantly lowering a pet’s quality of life. Even without a veterinary education, many pet owners know how devastating OA can be. However, many don’t know that their pet might be at risk for OA or already showing early signs of it. Veterinary professionals can help owners identify the signs and improve the prognosis.
By implementing a comprehensive program of early detection and treatment, you can support a longer, healthier, more active life for your patients and build priceless bonds with their owners. The benefits for everyone are enormous, so let’s dive into them.
Stronger Client Relationships
When you tell pet owners that osteoarthritis might be on the horizon for a puppy or kitten and teach them to recognize the early signs, you set the stage for a partnership built on trust and faith in your practice. Your actions repeatedly reinforce that you have a pet’s best interests in mind and are prepared to help the owner through the diagnosis and management phases if they arise.
This article is the third of a three-part series focusing on joint health and client education and is brought to you by clinically proven Rejensa® joint care chews.
Tamara Grubb, DVM, Ph.D., DACVAA, the president-elect of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, emphasizes the importance of building a solid client relationship by discussing OA regularly.
“When we start early and educate owners and show them that we care about their pets and do not want their pets to be in pain, that’s very big,” said Dr. Grubb, an adjunct professor of anesthesia and analgesia at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “We make the client part of that team. So now they will trust us, they will come back, and they will watch for signs of pain.”
When clients are prepared for a potential OA diagnosis and know how to recognize the signs, they feel like crucial members of the health care team. In addition, if their dog or cat develops OA, they’ll be more likely to trust you and your recommendations.
Improved Quality of Life
Clients taught to recognize pain will bring their pets in at the first sign of discomfort. (See PennVet’s Canine Brief Pain Inventory and pet owner questionnaire at bit.ly/3ht5Qrq.) You then can recommend weight management, controlled exercise and supplements to slow the disease’s progression and preserve mobility for as long as possible. Owners will notice when osteoarthritis advances to the point that additional therapies are needed, and you can provide multimodal options such as weight-loss programs, laser therapy, acupuncture, anti-inflammatories and supplements.
Bolstered Team Morale
Repeatedly seeing pets with mobility issues that might have been avoided can take a toll on you and your team. However, when your team participates in early-diagnosis protocols, they’ll take pride knowing they are helping pets live better, more active lives.
Every team member can play a role. For example, receptionists can educate clients over the phone, triage calls that might involve OA pain and watch for OA signs as pets walk through the lobby. You can train veterinary technicians and assistants to ask history questions that screen for OA and to alert veterinarians about any positive indicators.
When well-controlled OA pets come in for maintenance visits, team members can see first-hand the difference they make in the lives of those patients. Detecting signs of early osteoarthritis during an exam or conversation and watching the pet enjoy an active, pain-free life can empower team members who successfully put their skills and knowledge to work.
More Healthy Visits
Taking a proactive approach to joint disease benefits the patient, pet owner and veterinary practice in multiple ways. For example, pets with advanced OA might be euthanized before reaching their original life expectancy, whereas pets with controlled OA can live longer, which equates to a lengthier, stronger bond between the client and pet as well as with your practice.
“Our goal for every pet should be to keep them in the clinic as our patient for as long as possible,” Dr. Grubb said. “Whatever we can do to keep that pet comfortable so that it has a longer, healthier life is better for everyone, including the clinic, because the owner keeps bringing the pet back.”
Clients who navigate an OA diagnosis and management with your guidance can become loyal to your clinic and bring in other pets. On the other hand, clients not taught about OA might resent a pet’s “sudden” diagnosis and blame you for not preparing them. In that case, they might ignore your recommendations and seek care elsewhere.
Happy clients share their pets’ stories with friends and family, leading to organic, word-of-mouth referrals. That’s better than any marketing strategy. Potential clients want to collaborate with a veterinarian and often trust a friend’s recommendation.
The Cost of Waiting
Despite your best intentions, not every client will heed your advice and watch for signs of osteoarthritis. Late-stage OA is more difficult to treat, and many of the options are minimally successful for pets with advanced disease. Additionally, treatment is more costly for pets with severe OA.
“In almost every case, prevention is more cost-effective and health-effective than treatment,” Dr. Grubb said. “If clients haven’t followed our dietary and weight recommendations, for example, we end up with an earlier onset of pain that has to be managed, which adds to the cost. It’s harder to manage the pain because it has advanced more quickly, which adds to the cost.”
Dr. Grubb pointed out that cost is not only measured in monetary terms.
“There is also a human-animal bond cost because they now have a pet in pain at a fairly young age that doesn’t want to interact with them,” she said. “The pet doesn’t want to sit in the lap or be petted, for example. The caregiver burden can also be significant. We now have to do a lot of treatments, which can be exhausting and an emotional burden for the caregiver. That can be the biggest cost.”
CLIENT HANDOUT: RECOGNIZING JOINT DISEASE
Joint disease and osteoarthritis (OA) affect 40% of dogs and over 50% of cats, which means your pet could be affected at some point. Recognizing the early signs of joint disease and starting proactive treatments will help you support the best long-term prognosis.
MAINTAINING HEALTHY JOINTS
Partnering with your veterinary team can help preserve your pet’s joint health.
Actions you can take include:
- Keeping your pet at a healthy weight.
- Providing regular exercise.
- Feeding your pet according to your veterinarian’s instructions.
- Watching your pet for any signs of joint disease.
- Scheduling annual wellness visits for an adult pet.
- Scheduling biannual wellness visits for a senior pet.
Actions your veterinary team will take to keep your pet’s joints healthy include:
- Closely monitoring your pet for signs of joint disease.
- Educating you about what to watch for at home.
- Monitoring your pet’s body condition.
- Devising a healthy weight-loss plan for overweight pets.
- Recommending a diet appropriate for your pet’s species, breed and activity level.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS OF JOINT DISEASE
Pets with advanced joint disease might display obvious symptoms, but detecting the signs of early disease can be challenging. Be on the lookout for any behavioral changes that seem out of character for your pet, such as:
- Changes in posture.
- Walking differently.
- Walking slower.
- Difficulty or slowly rising from a sitting or lying position.
- Stiffness after exercise.
- Reluctance to play or go on walks.
- Having potty accidents in the house.
- Difficulty climbing stairs.
- Hesitating to jump on furniture or into the car.
- Aggression or irritability.
- Avoiding being touched or petted.
- Difficulty getting comfortable.
- Vocalizing when touched in a certain area of the body.
Ask your veterinarian about any behavioral changes you notice so that joint disease can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible if it is present.
THE BENEFITS OF EARLY DETECTION
Joint disease can cause chronic pain and reduce a pet’s quality of life. However, early intervention can slow the disease’s progression and alleviate discomfort. By partnering with your veterinarian to detect the early signs of joint disease, you can give your pet the best chance for a long, healthy and active life.