Is my cat healthy? Part two: arthritis
Read time: 4 min
In our Is my cat healthy? series, we want to help you assess your cat's well-being from the comfort of your home. Today we look at a sneaky affliction that often goes unnoticed: arthritis.
Arthritis in cats tends to be underdiagnosed. Cats have evolved to instinctively hide pain and illness, so it can be difficult to detect the subtle signs. Studies have shown that up to 90% of elderly cats have evidence of joint disease and arthritis on X-ray(1) so it's worth keeping a close eye on your older cat. We're here to let you know what to look out for!
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is an umbrella term for inflammation of the joints. The condition causes the cartilage layer covering the joints to break down, and the underlying bone can become irregular. This leads to a stiff, painful and inflamed joint.
What causes arthritis?
Arthritis is a common condition, particularly in ageing animals. In older cats, it usually occurs due to degenerative changes to the joints from wear and tear. Obesity predisposes cats to arthritis because it puts extra strain on the joints and exacerbates inflammation. Abnormal body conformation (such as hip dysplasia) also plays a role. Injuries such as fractures predispose cats to earlier onset of and more severe arthritis.
What are the signs of arthritis?
Severely arthritic cats will show obvious signs such as limping or a stiff gait, particularly after rest. However, many cats, especially those with only mild to moderate arthritis, may show far more subtle symptoms. These include lowered activity levels; reluctance to jump up and down from high surfaces; or to go up and downstairs. Arthritic cats may withdraw; have a depressed attitude, or even become aggressive because they are in pain. They often lose muscle mass, and they may overgroom painful areas which results in patchy or discoloured fur. They also may mess outside the litter tray, or not go outside to do their business as they usually do. All of these can be tell-tale signs that something is wrong.
How will my vet diagnose arthritis?
If you suspect that your cat may have arthritis, it's a good idea to go to your vet for a check up. Your vet will closely examine your cat, with special attention to feeling and manipulating the limbs and joints to feel for stiffness or loss of range of motion. They will then most likely take X-rays to check the degree of degeneration and decide on a treatment plan.
What is the treatment?
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for arthritis. Management focuses on controlling weight; modifying the environment; joint supplements and medication. The emphasis will change according to the individual cat's situation and needs.
1. Weight control
If an arthritic cat is obese then getting its weight under control will be a primary focus. Sometimes reaching a healthy weight can be enough to resolve the problem, or it can reduce the amount of medication required.
2. Environmental modifications
Arthritis tends to be exacerbated by cold temperatures, so warm and cosy resting areas are important. Also, make sure that surfaces are not slippery, and that litter trays are easily accessible and have shallow sides. It's a good idea to provide ladders to high areas, and if possible to slightly elevate feeding and drinking bowls.
3. Joint supplements
Joint supplements commonly contain green-lipped mussel extract, glucosamine, MSM, chondroitin, omega 3 fatty acids, or any combination of these. They’re often recommended to help preserve the joints in the early stages of arthritis, or even before symptoms are noticed, at an age where joint pain may become a problem (usually around seven years of age).
Most cats with chronic arthritis will need medical intervention at some stage, and many will need long-term pain control. Drugs used for dogs and humans are very often toxic to cats, and even some cat-appropriate drugs can cause harm if used in combination with each other. For these reasons, it's very important to follow the recommendations of your vet.
There are different classes of medications that are used for managing arthritic cats. One is known as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and includes drugs like Meloxicam (Metacam) and Robenacoxib (Onsior). This class of drugs is very effective at managing pain but must be used with care. When used long-term, blood and urine checks should be performed (usually bi-annually) to keep an eye on kidney function.
One new and very exciting treatment option for arthritis is a drug by Zoetis called Solensia. It’s given as a monthly injection, so it avoids the need for daily administering of medication. It’s also very safe and has no dangerous side effects.
5. Other treatment options
Surgery is usually only recommended rarely, in extremely severe cases. Physical therapy (such as massage or laser) is usually not as successful as it is with dogs, largely because cats tend to be less amenable to it. Herbal remedies such as curcumin and even cannabis are getting a lot of attention, but the data supporting their use is very limited in cats at this stage.
Will my cat get better?
While there is no cure for arthritis, it can be effectively managed lifelong. Arthritis in cats is under-diagnosed and, if left untreated, can seriously detract from quality of life. The best thing that you can do for your older cat is pay close attention to their behaviour so that you can pick up a problem if there is one, and provide what they need to keep them comfortable and happy in their later years. And as always, if you have any questions please don't hesitate to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org – we're here to help.
1. International Cat Care. (2018). Arthritis and degenerative joint disease in cats. Retrieved November 7, 2021, from: https://icatcare.org/advice/arthritis-and-degenerative-joint-disease-in-cats/