Autoimmune Part 4: Rheumatoid arthritis

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Posted by Dr. Nina Mantione on Sep 10 2012


The final autoimmune disease we’ll address in this series is rheumatoid arthritis. As you might have guessed, this condition involves the immune system mounting an attack against components of the body’s joints. This attack leads to inflammation within the joint and eventually erosion of the cartilage that lines the surface of the joint. As this disease progresses, the affected joints can suffer enough damage that they collapse.

Rheumatoid arthritis typically starts as a painful joint that causes lameness. In dogs and cats with rheumatoid arthritis, this joint pain and lameness may travel or shift from limb to limb and joint to joint. Often, affected pets will run a low fever and act lethargic. Early on, rheumatoid arthritis can look very similar to Lyme disease. Later on, affected pets will have chronically painful, deformed-looking joints. Some animals will also develop firm nodules under the skin.

Diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis involves recognizing the tell-tale clinical signs, and some special testing to verify the presence of an autoimmune process. X-rays of affected joints will help to rule out any other causes of lameness, and in some cases, as the disease becomes more chronic, they will show aggressive destruction of the joint. Another useful test for this disease is a blood test called Rheumatoid Factor (RF). More than half of the affected animals will have a positive RF test. Interestingly, the RF test can also be positive in some dogs with lupus.

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis involves controlling the pain inflicted by this disease and controlling the immune response in order to slow down destruction of the joints. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories are the first medications used to slow down the destructive effects of inflammation and provide pain relief. If this treatment course is unsuccessful, then immunosuppression is necessary to try to control the progression of this disease and the pain it causes.

Rheumatoid arthritis is not curable; however, there are many treatment options available today that help to slow the progression of this disease and relieve the pain caused by inflamed joints. Animals with well-controlled rheumatoid arthritis can live good quality, happy lives - and if your best friend is protected by Petplan pet insurance, you can concentrate on getting your pet the care she needs, not the vet bills.