Arthritis in Cats

Estimated Reading Time 6 minutes
Arthritis in Cats

Arthritis, or more correctly, osteoarthritis (OA) causes pain and discomfort and may make your cat slow down or change behavior. Keep reading to learn more about the signs and symptoms of OA, and how your vet can diagnose, treat, and manage OA to improve your senior cat’s quality of life.

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Do these signs sound familiar in your senior cat?

  • Our cat has always slept on our bed but lately, we notice that she prefers to sleep on the throw rug in our bedroom.
  • I noticed my 12-year-old cat is having stool accidents just outside the litterbox.
  • Our older cat limps sometimes after she’s been sleeping but then seems to improve with a little time.
  • Sometimes when we’re petting our 14-year-old cat near his tail he hisses and growls.

We often mistakenly assume that it’s normal for cats as they age, to sleep more and become less active. While they may not have the full-on energy of a kitten, geriatric or senior cats should remain active and engage in play with cat toys, climb cat trees and follow feather toys well into their senior years.

Like us, our cats age and will develop osteoarthritis (OA) in their joints. OA is usually irreversible and slowly progressive. It can develop in joints located anywhere in the body. With cats, we see it typically at the base of their spine just before their tail. Cats also develop arthritis in their elbows, knees, and hips as well as other joint spaces.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Inflammation occurring in a joint space causes swelling, heat, redness, and pain and is called arthritis, or osteoarthritis (OA). Joints respond to inflammation and joint instability by growing excess bony parts. This often leads to a decrease in the movement of the joint as well as worsening of the pain. Due to the gradual onset of OA, pet parents may not notice their cat’s decreased activity. This may include less interest in playful activity, difficulty or hesitancy to jump up or down from furniture or cat trees, stiffness, limping, and often sleeping for longer periods.

Contributing Factors of Arthritis in Cats

Being overweight contributes to OA and often makes it worse. Preventing your cat from becoming overweight through a healthy, appropriate diet and exercise has been shown to prevent OA. The results are often a longer, healthier, and happy life.

If your cat has been diagnosed with OA and is overweight, it’s important to slowly begin a controlled exercise program. Movement has been shown to benefit cats with OA and even reduce inflammation. Helping your cat become more active strengthens your bond as well, improving both the quality of life for your cat and for you! Check out this link for more information!

It’s important to talk to your vet before changing your cat’s diet and implementing an exercise program.

Signs of Osteoarthritis in Cats

Cats often hide pain and discomfort very well. This makes it difficult to tell when they’re hurting until the pain becomes severe. If your cat has arthritis, you might notice the following:

  • Hesitant to move or jump up/down furniture/cat tree, etc.
  • Limping or stiffness after exercise or after resting
  • Irritable, non-typical behavior when touched or approached
  • Decreased grooming
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Weight loss

Diagnosing Osteoarthritis in Cats

OA is often suspected based on your cat’s age as well as the signs and symptoms noted above. Confirmation requires radiographs or x-rays done under sedation or anesthesia. Sedation or anesthesia greatly decreases anxiety in your cat during the procedure as well as decreasing the time needed to get accurate, good quality x-rays so that an appropriate treatment plan can be determined.

Your vet may recommend blood work and a urinalysis to make sure your cat is healthy inside and out. Any problems found can be discussed, treated, and managed. Your vet will be able to guide you on the best course of treatment based on the lab work results and x-rays.

Treatment of Arthritis in Cats

The goal of treatment is to manage your cat’s pain, improve activity, limit the progression of OA, and improve her quality of life. The following treatments are available for osteoarthritis in cats:

  • Weight loss is key to improving your senior cat’s discomfort with OA. If your cat is overweight, talk to your vet about specific diet and exercise plans to fit your senior cat’s needs.
  • Nutraceuticals, also called supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, and more. Always check with your vet before giving your cat any supplement. Some can be dangerous or potentially interact with other medications. Follow this link for more information about supplements!
  • Pharmaceuticals or prescription medications and injectable medications including anti-inflammatory drugs and pain management drugs. These medications must be given under the supervision of your vet as they are not risk-free and need close and continued monitoring.
  • Surgical intervention depends on the specific diagnosis of OA and should be discussed thoroughly with your vet, including what to expect during recovery and long-term goals.
  • Other options such as acupuncture and cold laser therapy are often used together with the above options. Again, it’s important to discuss these therapies in addition to more traditional therapies with your vet to meet your cat’s specific needs.
  • A multimodal approach involving a combination of the above treatments (ideal)

Caring for Your Arthritic Cat at Home

While osteoarthritis can’t be reversed, you can help manage your cat’s discomfort as well as improve his quality of life. Consider the following changes to improve your senior cat’s quality of life:

  • Cats love to sit and observe from above, so placing ramps or modified steps to access higher spots on their cat tree or your bed allows them to go up/down with less difficulty.
  • Add non-slip surfaces like rubber bottom throw rugs to increase traction, especially if you have hardwood or tile floors.
  • Add soft, thick, comfortable cat beds in multiple places throughout your home.
  • Avoid interactions with active family members including kittens, puppies, and children as painful senior cats can react aggressively by biting and scratching.
  • Make sure the entrance to the litter box is low for easier entry and exit. Add litter boxes to your home especially for multi-cat or multi-level homes. You can cut down the entrance to the litter box using a box cutter if necessary. Fine litter is often softer and easier to move for senior cats with OA. For more information about choosing cat litter and litter box click on this link!
  • Invest in a baby scale to monitor your senior cat’s weight. Any significant weight changes should be discussed with your vet.

When should you talk to your vet about your cat’s arthritis?

If your senior cat has been diagnosed with OA and is under the care of a vet, continue monitoring for changes in your cat’s behavior and activity as well as appetite changes, litter box habits, weight changes, etc.

If your senior cat is taking prescription medication(s), monitor for decreased or no appetite, soft stool, diarrhea, or dark stool. Call your vet right away if you notice any of these changes.

Sudden lameness or inability to move front or back leg(s) requires immediate veterinary care.

Read more:

Diabetes in Cats

Kidney Failure in Cats

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