As the summer sun gives way to the autumn rains and the leaves start to fall, so do the temperatures. Anecdotally, cold damp weather has long been thought of as a contributing factor to making arthritis pain worse in people. But is there any truth behind this, and do animals feel the same?

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is the common term for ‘degenerative joint disease’ where disease or damage to a joint leads to erosion of the cartilage and subsequent wearing of the underlying bone. This will result in stiffness and pain and is as common in our pets as it is in ourselves. Technically speaking, we should really call this condition osteoarthritis as there are other forms of arthritis which have differing pathological processes. The main one is rheumatoid arthritis in humans. This is where the body’s own immune system will attack the cells within the joint; resulting in the same symptoms of pain and stiffness. Dogs can suffer with a similar condition called immune-mediated polyarthritis (although it is rare). 

Does the cold make you feel old?

Many people with arthritis will tell you that their symptoms get worse in bad weather, particularly if it’s cold. But is there any evidence behind this? Scientists have run many studies to try to find a definitive link but as yet the results are inconclusive. In fact, some studies positively contradict each other. 

  • One American study found that increasing barometric pressure, increasing humidity and decreasing temperature all made joint pain worse in osteoarthritis patients
  • A Dutch study also found that increasing humidity and decreasing temperature increased pain scores. But found no relationship with barometric pressure
  • A widespread UK study used a smartphone app to analyse the effect of weather on people with any form of chronic pain. They found that increased humidity and decreasing barometric pressure were associated with increased pain. But there was no effect with changing temperature

What could be going on?

There are a few theories that could explain why those that suffer with joint pain feel that their symptoms are affected by the weather. 

  • Changes in atmospheric pressure and humidity can make muscles, tendons and any scar tissue expand and contract. This could easily cause pain in those joints affected by disease. 
  • Colder weather will also increase the viscosity of joint fluid, making it thicker and meaning arthritic joints could become stiffer. 
  • Lower temperatures can stiffen muscles making already sore joints even more immobile. 
  • When it’s miserable outside, people don’t usually feel like exercising, even if it’s just a short walk to the shops. Staying indoors and not moving around as much results in joints becoming more stiff and painful.

Does the same apply to animals?

There is no reason to believe that arthritic animals feel any differently to us as the weather conditions change. A lot of owners, particularly of older dogs and cats, will comment that their pet doesn’t like going outside or is reluctant to walk in poor weather. How much of this is behavioural and how much is clinical would be hard to tell. But it may be worth considering if pain from arthritis could be part of the problem. 

How to help your pet live with arthritis

It may seem counter-intuitive, but ensuring an arthritic animal gets enough exercise is vital. 

The key is not to overdo it, but walking dogs at least once, but ideally twice a day, will help keep muscles supple and strong, joints flexible. It will also help to keep their weight down as becoming overweight can have a hugely negative impact on arthritis. Don’t forget, activities at home can be beneficial too, especially for cats, with low fat treats being a great reward.

Consider using joint supplements to improve overall joint health. 

There are many different options out there. But look for ones with scientific proof of their efficacy or ask your vet for recommendations. 

For most patients, pain relief such as anti-inflammatory medication, will be essential to keep your pet comfortable. 

This field of medicine has come on leaps and bounds (pun intended!) in the past few years. And of course, a comfortable animal will be more likely to move around and keep supple. Alternative therapies like hydrotherapy, physiotherapy or acupuncture may also help, so speak to your vet for ideas. 

Modifications around the home can be a useful tool. 

Similar in a way to handrails and stair-lifts that might be installed for an elderly person, using plenty of anti-slip mats, or positioning ramps or steps up to the car, sofa or bed can aid in your pet moving around the house as they used to. If you do find they’re affected by the cold, always ensure the house, especially their sleeping area, is warm, cosy and well padded. 

Although currently there is no definitive proof that arthritis gets worse in bad weather, the studies so far have shown that certainly for some people, it does appear to have a negative impact. As our pets can obviously not tell us when they’re in pain, we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt and be aware that on miserable days, they may be feeling miserable too. However, with current therapies and knowledge, quality of life for animals with arthritis is constantly improving, so always make sure to chat with your vet if you feel your pet may be starting to show symptoms.

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