Modern Day Orthopedics for Animals

Strong bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles are vital to healthy movement and a healthy lifestyle in animals. Now, when these functions go awry in a pet due to unhealthy habits or unfortunate circumstances, a pet’s quality of life can still be sustained due to the modern day procedures of orthopedics for animals.

Dr. Sharon Kerwin, professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and a specialist in orthopedics and neurosurgery, says that orthopedics is the treatment or prevention of conditions affecting the bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles. Kerwin notes that orthopedic procedures in animals are much more advanced than most people are aware of.

“We perform many of the same types of procedures that are available for treatment of similar problems in humans, with the goal of getting the injured animal back to normal activities as quickly and comfortably as possible,” Kerwin explains. “Advances in anesthesia, implant technology, pain control, and physical rehabilitation have made this a great time to access top quality care for animals with injury or disease of the bones and joints.”

Kerwin says that two of the most common problems she sees in dogs and cats are cranial cruciate ligament disease (similar to an ACL tear in humans) and hip dysplasia. Twenty years ago, affected patients of these problems would have resulted in cases of crippling osteoarthritis. Fortunately, with today’s modern conveniences and knowledgeable specialists, these patients may enjoy full recoveries.

The Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) at the CVM is trained and equipped to cover orthopedic problems in many different species.

“On the large animal side, there is an active sports medicine, lameness, and trauma service that provides arthroscopy [minimally invasive surgery using an arthroscope to treat damage in the interior of the joint] and fracture repair for horses and other large animal species,” Kerwin explains. “Our exotic and zoo animal service often sees birds, pocket pets, and exotic animals with bone and joint problems, many of which can be treated successfully. While dogs traditionally have been more common patients than cats, we are beginning to discover that orthopedic disease, particularly osteoarthritis, is emerging as a major health problem for cats over 10 years of age.”

Orthopedic diseases in animals have not yet been confirmed to be related to just hereditary or environmental conditions. A lot of research has been targeted toward the inherited basis of the more common orthopedic diseases. Kerwin suggests that orthopedic problems can spur from both aspects.

“There is definitely a hereditary basis for hip dysplasia, with multiple genes involved.” Kerwin says. “Environment plays a big role as well, with diet and exercise as key factors involved in the development of signs of problems in affected animals. Certain types of problems are more likely to occur in certain breeds of dogs and cats. For example, the Scottish Fold breed of cat is predisposed to the development of osteoarthritis.”

Preventative measures are always important for owners to keep in mind, and there are many preventative measures that may help alleviate future orthopedic diseases in animals.

Kerwin suggests that the best thing you can do to prevent many diseases is to keep your pet healthy and in-shape. This will not only help to ease orthopedic diseases, but it will help in all aspects of your pet’s livelihood.

Kerwin explains that, “research in dogs indicates that dogs kept in an appropriate body condition will live two years longer than their overweight counterparts, which is a very long time in dog years. In addition, their risk for osteoarthritis is much lower.”

Kerwin also points out the necessary environmental precautions that an owner can take on a day-to-day basis. Such as, allowing your “trained” dog to ride in the back of the truck may result in a tragic accident or even death. Always keep your pet on a leash in an unfamiliar environment to keep them out of harm’s way. If you have a house cat, ensure that all of the furniture is secured to the wall and will not fall in case your cat likes to explore.

Kerwin is enthusiastic about where veterinary orthopedics has come. But, she also understands what is possible in the future and that there are a couple of challenges to face.

“Although this is a great time for veterinary orthopedics, we have a lot of work left to do,” Kerwin says. “Educating pet owners regarding prevention of orthopedic disease is very important and an ongoing challenge. In addition, orthopedic treatments can be very expensive, and we would like to explore ways to provide the best care possible in the most cost-effective way to reach the largest number of pets. Further work is needed, particularly in cats, regarding causes of orthopedic diseases and preventive strategies. For dogs, better outcome assessments are needed to help decide which treatments are best, just as in people.”

The VMTH at the CVM is always eager to help educate pet owners and work with pets affected by orthopedic diseases. For more information on veterinary orthopedics, please visit /services/orthopedics.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

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