Just as in humans, cats often develop arthritis as they age. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage between bones deteriorates. This makes joints less flexible causing stiffness and pain with movement, and sometimes even while at rest if the deterioration is accompanied by severe inflammation.
Until recently, cats were thought to be unlikely to develop arthritis. We now know, however, that they are affected by this disease, just like dogs and other animals. But while dogs with arthritis show lameness and pain, cats are lighter, more agile, and smaller than dogs, allowing them to compensate for compromised joints. Cats also tend to conceal signs of pain and only show subtle indications of discomfort until the pain becomes too great to hide. Still, there is no reason for your aging pet to suffer, and there are quite a few treatments to ease the discomfort of your cat's arthritis.
What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis, also called osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a painful and progressive bone disease. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage that normally provides protection between bones wears away, causing inflammation and painful bone-on-bone grinding. Cats develop arthritis of the shoulders, wrists, knees, elbows, and hips most frequently, but any joint can be affected. Although a very common condition amongst senior cats and other mammals, arthritis is not merely a "normal part of aging." With proper care and treatment, your cat can comfortably enjoy its golden years, although there is no way to reverse the degeneration in the joints.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Cats
Cats tend to hide signs of pain quite effectively, which makes sense if you consider their ancestry as solitary hunters. A sick animal in the wild is vulnerable to predators, so any sign of weakness must be hidden. This instinct makes it difficult for owners to know their cats are affected and whether treatment is necessary. Still, there are common symptoms of arthritis to watch for as your cat ages:
The most obvious sign of arthritis in an aging cat is the loss of interest in jumping up to high places to explore, or often, even to jump up onto furniture or a bed that was once a favorite sleeping spot. You might notice that your cat walks with a stiff or uneven gait, walks slowly, and stops frequently to rest. Many cats will sleep more than usual, or simply remain still to avoid painful movements.
Arthritic pain tends to also cause behavioral changes, including irritability. Your cat might no longer enjoy being petted, and will likely lose interest in playing. Pain often prevents an arthritic cat from using its scratching post, which can lead to overgrown nails. Often, an arthritic cat will stop grooming itself, as it is too painful to bend and twist. You'll notice that your cat's coat is not as clean and neat as it once was. Some cats will even stop using the litter box, and instead, relieve themselves in inappropriate places around the house.
Causes of Arthritis in Cats
The most common cause of arthritis in cats, particularly senior cats, is the wear-and-tear on joints called osteoarthritis. In fact, as much as 90 percent of cats over the age of 12 show signs of osteoarthritis in x-rays. Obesity is also strongly associated with the development of arthritis. However, there are other less-common types of arthritis in cats. Hip dysplasia is a genetic condition that causes the hip joint to develop abnormally. The malformed hip joint deteriorates faster than other joints in the body and is more vulnerable to the development of arthritis. Trauma, autoimmune disease, diabetes, and hormonal disorders can also make a cat likelier to suffer from arthritis.
Diagnosing Arthritis in Cats
Your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination on your cat and probably order blood or urine tests as well. Occasionally, x-rays might be ordered to look for signs of wear-and-tear or other damage to your cat's joints. But for the most part, a diagnosis of arthritis in a senior cat is made based on characteristic symptoms that can't be attributed to another cause.
Treatment of Arthritis in Cats
It's best to work with your veterinarian to discuss pain relief treatments for your cat. Your vet will assess your cat and may prescribe medication to relieve pain.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are sometimes prescribed for feline arthritis, which is similar to how the condition is treated in humans. NSAIDs are highly effective at controlling pain and inflammation of joints. Side effects of NSAIDs include vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. If you notice any of these side effects, call your veterinarian right away.
Note: Pet owners must be cautious when administering medications and only use those prescribed by a veterinarian. Never give a cat medication intended for a human. A standard dose of an NSAID for a human could cause major kidney damage or death in a cat. Acetaminophen (sold under the brand name Tylenol) is another common drug given to humans to treat arthritis that should never be given to a cat under any circumstances; there's no safe dosage of this medication for cats.
Other options for an arthritic cat include dietary supplements, such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids. These supplements help support the joints and should be used with a veterinarian's approval.
Because excess weight puts more stress on aching joints, it's important for your arthritic cat to maintain a healthy weight. If your cat needs to lose weight, you should cut back on treats, consider offering meals just twice a day rather than leaving food available at all times and talk to your vet about prescription cat food, which is specially formulated to cut calories while still offering peak nutrition.
And although older cats, particularly those with arthritis, aren't always as playful as they were in their younger days, it's still important to encourage your cat to stay as active as possible by providing toys for solitary play as well as interactive playtime with you. Exercise helps to lubricate the arthritic joints and also helps with weight loss.
Some cats with arthritis benefit from non-medical therapies including:
- Laser therapy
These alternative methods carry a minimal risk for your cat, though they can be costly. The combination of medication and non-medical therapies can provide more effective pain relief for an arthritic cat.
For older cats, a heated bed or blanket or even a hot water bottle may provide relief from the pain and stiffness of arthritis. It may take some coaxing, but once your cat is acclimated to the heated bed, it should be a source of comfort.
Other ways to help reduce your cat's discomfort include raised food and water bowls, a ramp to help reach favorite sleeping spots, such as the couch or your bed, and rugs or other nonslip coverings on hard floors to make walking easier for your aging pet. A litter box with low sides makes it easier for an arthritic cat to climb in and out and may help ward off inappropriate elimination around the house.
Prognosis for Cats With Arthritis
Although arthritis might slow your cat down, it is not a terminal condition, and with proper care and treatment, your cat can have a comfortable and happy life for many more years.
Preventing Arthritis in Cats
While you can't prevent feline arthritis, there are some steps you can take to reduce its severity and maintain a good quality of life for your cat.
Maintaining your cat at a healthy weight is essential. If an arthritic cat becomes overweight, this places additional strain on already painful joints. If your arthritic cat is already overweight, talk with your veterinarian about how to safely encourage weight loss. Regulating your cat's diet and encouraging exercise are the best ways to maintain your cat's body weight. Your veterinarian may recommend a specific diet that promotes weight loss. Ration your pet's food and treats, and experiment with different types of toys to figure out which ones your cat prefers and which keep your cat the most active.