Arthritis In Cats: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

arthritis in cats featured image

Veterinarians have been treating dogs for arthritis for many years, while the condition has only been recognised as a serious and common problem in cats relatively recently.

There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that veterinary science has become better at diagnosing the condition, and better medications have been developed to provide effective treatment. We now know that arthritis is very common in cats, especially in older pets.

Causes Of Arthritis In Cats

There are two alternative names for feline arthritis:

  • “Osteoarthritis” is a better description of the disease than “arthritis”, in that the bones (“osteo”) and other associated structures are also inflamed in this condition, rather than just the joints (“arthro”).
  • “Degenerative joint disease” arguably explains the problem more clearly. Arthritis is a disease caused by wear and tear of the cat’s joints, with the joint surfaces and surrounding tissues becoming inflamed due to daily use. There are many other factors, including inherited issues such as hip dysplasia, but age-related bit-by-bit damage to joints after years of daily use is the main problem. Up to 90% of senior cats over the age of twelve suffer from some degree of degenerative joint disease.

There are, of course, other causes of cat arthritis, including septic arthritis (joint infections), rheumatoid arthritis (an auto-immune disease), and arthritis caused by trauma or instability of the joints.

Symptoms Of Arthritis In Cats

Signs of pain may not be immediately obvious to cat owners, as cats are good at hiding their discomfort. Lameness, or limping, is the most obvious feature, caused by pain in affected joints. However signs of joint pain caused by arthritis are often much broader, including slower movements, such as walking rather than running.

Sometimes there’s a stiff gait because of painful joints, with the back legs moving with more of a straight-legged, short-stepping style than normal. Cats may not be able to jump up onto their favourite sleeping place, and they may have difficulty going upstairs.

They may have difficulty accessing the litter box. Affected cats tend to be quieter, and more withdrawn, for the simple reason that they are suffering from ongoing low-grade chronic pain.

Diagnosis Of Arthritis In Cats

If you suspect that your cat has arthritis, ask your DVM veterinarian for an opinion. A physical examination is often enough to confirm suspicion of the problem, but x-rays (radiographs) may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Advanced imaging, such as CT and MRI scans, may be recommended in some cases.

Treatment Of Arthritis In Cats

Treatment of Arthritis in Cats

Treatment of arthritis in cats involves a variety of therapies, including medication, dietary changes, weight management, and more.

Arthritic cats can now be treated using a range of different treatment options. A “multi-modal” approach is often recommended, using several different therapies which can work well together.

  • The most effective treatment is to give daily pain-relieving medication in the food. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as meloxicam are often used. These drugs can have adverse effects if a cat is suffering from liver or kidney disease, so it’s often advised to carry out blood tests to rule these out before starting onto long term treatment. In a healthy older cat, this type of treatment can be given for many years without significant side-effects, and it can bring about an immediate improvement in the quality of life.
  • Other pain medications like gabapentin may also be recommended.
  • An injectable, joint-modifying medication called glycosaminoglycans may be suggested.
  • Nutritional supplements (“nutraceuticals”) such as glucosamine chondroitin sulphate and omega-3 fatty acids. These can be provided as dietary supplements, or they may be included in specific diets formulated as “joint support diets”.
  • Massage, physiotherapy, laser therapy and acupuncture can be very useful in some patients. Other aspects of a cat’s lifestyle may need to be reviewed, including weight reduction in obese cats.

Home Remedies For Arthritis In Cats

Home remedies for arthritis in cats

While home remedies can be risky and it’s best to talk to your vet before trying any treatments, there are several ways to help your cat feel better.

Cat owners should be careful before giving any home remedies to cats: they can be especially vulnerable to toxicities and harmful effects from medication that may be well tolerated in other species like dogs and humans. It’s best to follow your veterinarian’s advice when selecting treatments.

It’s important to ensure that a cat’s environment is as “arthritis-friendly” as possible. An electric heater pad beneath the bed to ensure a warm, cosy sleeping place, and easy access to favourite places (e.g. using carpeted ramps) are examples of simple changes that can be made. If a cat struggles to go down stairs, the cat’s resources may be placed in areas that are easier to access.

Pet owners should also be aware that obesity is a prime driver of arthritis, and weight loss is an effective way of providing pain relief in overweight animals.

How To Prevent Arthritis In Cats

Arthritis is more common in overweight cats, so keeping your cat lean and fit is probably the most important single factor in preventing arthritis. Extra weight places more pressure on joints, causing more long term wear and tear.

Conclusion

Arthritis is a common problem affecting senior cats, but once this has been identified, effective treatment is possible using a range of treatment modalities.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What can I give my cat for arthritis pain?

Pain relief can be dangerous for cats, so you should always discuss this topic with your veterinarian, rather than giving home-chosen remedies.

How long can cats live with arthritis?    

Cats can live for many years, even decades, with arthritis, which is why it’s so important to have an effective treatment regime in place.

What are the signs of arthritis in cats?

See above, but the main signs are lameness, stiffness of movements, and reluctance to jump up onto surfaces.

How can I treat my cat's arthritis naturally?

Some safe joint-supportive supplements may be given (such as essential fatty acids, and glucosamine chondroitin sulphate that’s licensed for cats). You can modify your home environment to make it more “joint-friendly” (with ramps, low surfaces and a heated bed for your cat). However professional treatment, with the help of your local veterinarian, is always recommended.

Pete Wedderburn DVM

About Pete Wedderburn DVM

Dr Pete Wedderburn qualified as a vet from Edinburgh in 1985 and has run his own 4-veterinarian companion animal practice in County Wicklow, Ireland, since 1991. Pete is well known as a media veterinarian with regular national tv, radio and newspaper slots, including a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph since 2007. Pete is known as "Pete the Vet" on his busy Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, regularly posting information on topical subjects and real-life cases from his clinic. He also write a regular blog at www.petethevet.com. His latest book: “Pet Subjects”, was published by Aurum Press in 2017.

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