Arthritis in Cats

Reduce or Eliminate Your Cat's Arthritis Pain

Photo of cat of the week calypso

Pat Wolesky

Just as in humans, cats develop arthritis as they age. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage between bones deteriorates. This makes joints less flexible causing stiffness and pain.

Until recently, cats were thought to be unlikely to develop arthritis. We now know they are affected by this disease as well. 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 hide signs of pain and only show subtle indications of discomfort.

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a painful and progressive joint disease. Cats develop arthritis of the elbows and hips most frequently, but any joint can be affected. There are a number of effective approaches to minimize arthritic pain and help your cat enjoy its favorite activities.

Signs of Arthritis in Cats

Cats tend to hide signs of pain quite effectively, which makes sense if you consider their ancestry. 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 is affected and whether treatment is necessary.

Observe your cat for any change in behavior or activity. If an older cat is more hesitant to climb stairs or jump onto a bed or table, it may be suffering from feline arthritis.

A cat with arthritis also may stop using the litter box, as climbing in and out causes pain. If you notice your cat reduces or limits its grooming this may also be a sign of arthritic joints; movements that were once routine are more difficult and painful.

Watch for changes in your cat's gait. If it looks like it's doing a "bunny hop" or otherwise moving differently than usual, chances are it's trying to find a comfortable way to move around without causing more stress on the arthritic body part.

If you are in doubt about whether your cat is in pain, it's best to speak with your veterinarian, who will assess the cat and provide suggestions on how to help manage the pain.

Cat sleeping on stairs, HI
Bill Romerhaus / Getty Images

Causes of Arthritis

In addition to routing age-related changes, other bone and joint disorders can cause arthritis. 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.

Treatment

It's best to work with your veterinarian to discuss pain relief treatments for your cat. Your vet will asses 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.  

How to Reduce Arthritis Symptoms in Cats

While you can't prevent feline arthritis, there are some steps you can take to reduce the severity of signs 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 keeps your cat the most active.

Alternative Treatments for Arthritis in Cats

Some cats with arthritis benefit from non-medical therapies including:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Laser therapy

These alternative methods carry 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.

Cat receiving acupuncture.
Cat receiving acupuncture. Fran Polito / Getty Images
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.