Just like in humans, arthritis in cats is typically part of the aging process. As cats get older, the cartilage between bones deteriorates, which makes the joints in the body less flexible, leading to pain and stiffness.
For many years, the prevailing wisdom was that since cats are agile and flexible, they were unlikely to develop arthritis. Dogs display signs of arthritis, such as limping, more clearly, but cats are much more subtle. But feline arthritis is not at all uncommon, it's just that cats were better at hiding it.
What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis is a disease that affects joints and can cause pain and discomfort, and it is just as painful for cats as it is for people. Fortunately, there are a number of effective approaches to minimizing arthritic pain and helping your cat to enjoy its favorite activities.
The joint most affected in cats with arthritis is what would be considered the "elbow" joint on a cat's front legs. Hips and legs are also common areas affected by feline arthritis.
Symptoms 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 as much as possible. In domestic cats, however, this instinct makes it difficult for a human owner to decide whether treatment is necessary.
Watch out for any change in your cat's behavior and activity. For example, if an older cat is more hesitant to climb stairs or jump from a table to the floor, it may be suffering from feline arthritis.
A cat with arthritis also may stop using the litter box, as climbing in and out of the box may cause 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 will become more difficult and painful.
And of course, 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 can assess the cat and share some suggestions on how to help manage the pain and ease your cat's discomfort.
Causes of Arthritis
In addition to old age, hip dysplasia, a genetic condition that causes the hip joint to develop abnormally, is a major factor in many cases of feline arthritis. The malformed hip joint deteriorates faster than other joints in the body, and is more vulnerable to the development of arthritis.
It's best to work with your veterinarian to discuss pain relief treatments for your cat. Depending on the cat's situation, the doctor may prescribe medication for pain relief.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are sometimes prescribed for feline arthritis, which is similar to how the condition is treated in humans. NSAIDs can be very effective at controlling pain and inflammation of joints.
Note: Never give a cat medication intended for a human. A standard dose of an NSAID for a human could cause major kidney damage 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.
Pet owners need to be cautious when administering medications, and they should always be used as prescribed by a veterinarian, or under the supervision of a vet to avoid the risk of side effects. Common side effects of NSAIDs include vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. If you notice any of these side effects, call your veterinarian right away.
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 all cases of feline arthritis, there are some steps you can take to reduce the symptoms.
Allowing an arthritic cat to become overweight places additional strain on already painful joints. Regulating your cat's diet and encouraging regular exercise are the best ways to maintain your cat's body weight. Ration your pet's food 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
There are a few alternative therapies that work quite well for some cats in reducing arthritis pain. These therapies include:
- Laser therapy
In many cases, these medications and techniques can be combined to provide more effective pain relief for an arthritic cat. These alternative methods are risk-free for your cat, though they may be costly.
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.