Although not commonly diagnosed or recognized until recently, research has shown that cats can develop arthritis. It is believed that cats’ natural survival instinct and ability to hide signs of pain has enabled them to allude diagnoses from vets and medical experts alike for years.
Because of the obvious difficulty this poses for pet owners, it is statistically difficult to quantify how many cats suffer from this degenerative disorder. However, in one study published in 2002, a startling 90% of cats over 12 years old display signs of degenerative joint disease. And more studies have proven that arthritis is actually quite common in cats and affects them before they reach senior status.
The most commonly-affected joints are the knees (stifles), shoulders, hips, elbows, and ankles (tarsi) and may be caused by a number of different reasons at any age.
Causes of Arthritis in Cats
Currently, it is not 100% clear what causes feline arthritis and most cats with arthritis do not appear to have a predisposing cause for their condition. Although there are different categorizations of arthritis, one of the most widely-recognized forms of the condition is osteoarthritis (OA).
Osteoarthritis is a complex type of arthritis that results in symptoms ranging from pain and discomfort to inflammation and swelling of the joints to ongoing degeneration in around the joint areas. Another major form of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, which is classified as an autoimmune disease.
Other types of feline arthritis include:
- Progressive polyarthritis: This condition, also known as feline progressive polyarthritis, affects multiple joints in your cat’s skeletal systems and worsens over the course of his lifespan.
- Arthritis caused by calicivirus infection: A calcivirus is a virus that is most often associated for the respiratory disease it causes (includes symptoms such as runny eyes and nose). Often included in a vaccine administered to kittens and cats, this form of arthritis sometimes develops in cats who were not inoculated and is the result of a viral infection.
- Diabetes mellitus: Occasionally, cats with diabetes mellitus(sugar diabetes) develop an unusual gait (walk) in which the hocks touch the ground. Although the condition is thought to be related to a nerve disorder, it is often mistaken for a joint problem.
- Bacterial arthritis: In many cases, a cat’s joints will become infected due to bite wounds. As a result, the joint becomes swollen, warm to the touch, and painful, causing your cat to stop bearing weight on the affected leg. Other symptoms include fever and loss of appetite. On some occasions, the infection can spread from the joint to the bone (bone infection is termed ‘osteomyelitis‘).
Additionally, it is important to recognize the factors that could put your cat at risk for developing arthritis. While some are unavoidable, it is helpful to be aware of, particularly if you are caring for a specific breed with a disposition for arthritic conditions. Several possible causes of arthritis in cats include:
- Genetics: Studies have shown that certain breeds have an increased risk for developing arthritis due to underlying joint issues. For example, feline hip dysplasia is most frequently seen in Maine Coon cats, as well as Siamese and Persian breeds. Dislocation of the knee cap, technically known as patella luxation, is found in Abyssinian and Devon Rex cats. Scottish Folds cats are prone to severe arthritis affecting multiple joints due to a cartilage abnormality specific to the breed.
- Weight: Although there is no clinical evidence that obesity is directly linked to arthritis, it can worsen existing conditions.
- Acromegaly: This unusual condition found in geriatric cats is noted by a tumor located in the pituitary gland. As a result of secreting an excessive amount of growth hormone, affected cats typically develop diabetes mellitus as a result, as well as a secondary form of arthritis in the joints.
Signs & Symptoms of Feline Arthritis
As discussed earlier, cats are known to hide any symptoms of pain or discomfort, including signs associated with arthritis – so it is often difficult to recognize the condition. However, as a pet owner, there are a few telltale signs that may indicate your beloved feline companion is suffering in silence:
- A marked stiffness in the legs, particularly after sleeping/resting
- A reduced level of mobility and activity
- Avoiding interaction with people and/or other animals
- Change in grooming habits
- Coat has a matted or scruffy appearance
- Difficulty using the litter box
- Displaying a change in behavior (irritability when handled or stroked)
- Experiences difficulty going up or down stairs
- Increased time spent sleeping/napping
- Isolation or spending more time alone
- Jumps up to lower surfaces than in the past; jumping up/down less frequently
- Lack of socialization or reduction in socializing with family & other pets
- Less frequently found exploring or hunting outdoors (if an outdoor cat)
- May be found ‘overgrooming’ or excessively licking at painful joints
- Occasional bouts of lameness or inability to walk regularly
- Overgrown claws due to lack of activity; a reduction in sharpening of claws on scratching post, furniture etc.
- Reluctance, hesitance or refusal to jump up or down
- Showing signs of irritability around other animals
- Sleeping in sites that are more easily accessible (i.e., lower to the ground)
Diagnosing Arthritis in Cats
Based on current research, arthritis has been found most commonly in cats over the age of 7. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of your cat’s overall physical health to ascertain if he is displaying any signs or symptoms indicative of this painful condition. If you notice any changes as outlined above, be sure to bring your cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
Once you have brought your cat to the clinic, your vet may be able to detect discomfort, pain, swelling or other changes affecting your pet’s joints. If there is any cause for concern, your vet may recommend taking x-rays. Additionally, your vet may run blood and urine tests to rule out any other possible underlying causes for symptoms displayed, particularly in older cats.
Managing Your Cat’s Arthritis
There are a number of options worth exploring when caring for a cat with arthritis. In addition to traditional medicine, there are other ways you can modify your home’s environment to create a more comfortable space for your feline friend. While they may not be ‘preventative measures’ in the sense of stopping the advancement of your cat’s arthritis, you will be improving his overall quality of life while also inhibiting further damage from this debilitating condition.
Create A Comfortable Environment for Your Cat
See below for a few suggestions to assist and improve your arthritic cat’s quality of life:
- Place your cat’s bed in easily-accessible, quiet, and warm areas
- Use ramps where possible, such as steps up to your bed, a favorite windowsill or other sites that require climbing
- In homes with cat-door entries: be sure that it is easy to enter so that your pet doesn’t need to exert excessive force
- Keep litter boxes conveniently located; use boxes with a low side for easy access
- Be sure your cat’s food and water bowls are easily accessible
- Keep everything at one level if possible – make sure your cat doesn’t have to travel up or down stairs to access food, water, or his litter box
- Spend time cleaning and grooming your cat when possible, as it is difficult for cats with arthritis to do so on their own
- Remember: overgrown claws require regular trimming; if you are uncomfortable doing so, be sure to bring your cat to a groomer
The Benefits of a Proper Diet & Oral Supplements
Maintaining an appropriate weight will not only improve your cat’s quality of life, but will reduce pain as well as wear and tear on his joints and skeletal system. Particularly important for senior cats, formulating a healthy diet and a carefully-controlled weight loss plan with your vet can add years to his life.
You may also wish to discuss the benefits of adding supplements to your cat’s daily routine. Useful dietary supplements that your vet may recommend typically include combinations of essential fatty acids (EFAs) to reduce inflammation, while oral supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin are taken to support and improve cartilage and joint density. As with any supplements, be sure to consult with your vet before administering.
Pharmaceutical Treatments: Consult Your Vet
Although there are a number of medications on the market that may offer a great deal of relief to your arthritic cat, be sure to weigh the pros and cons of each treatment carefully with your vet, as any drug has potential side-effects. One of the most commonly-used class of drugs includes NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Because there are a variety of NSAIDs on the market that range in safety regulations, discuss the best options with your vet staff when considering a course of long-term treatment. Your cat’s physician may also prescribe alternative or supplemental analgesics (pain-killing meds) in cases where NSAIDs aren’t sufficient/appropriate.
Other medications that your veterinary professional may prescribe include:
Holistic Arthritis Treatments for Cats
For those who prefer to take a more natural approach whenever possible, holistic medicine may be the right choice for you and your cat. One of the most effective methods of treatment – used on both humans and animals – is acupuncture, a system of complementary medicine that involves pricking the skin or tissues with needles.
Used to alleviate pain and to treat various physical, mental, and emotional conditions, this ancient practice originates in China and has received recent widespread incorporation into alternative Western medicine. It is strongly advised that you consult with your vet before using this form of treatment. It should always be administered by a licensed and trained vet and never used as a substitute in severe cases of medical distress.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cat Arthritis
Q: Is it ok for cats with arthritis to exercise?
A: Yes – in fact, it is encouraged to talk with your veterinarian to discuss an exercise program suitable for your cat’s age, condition, and overall health. Incorporating gentle daily activities into your cat’s routine can help stave off atrophy and promote better overall health. Introduce suggested exercises or playtime gradually and avoid any vigorous play or rough-housing.
Q: What are some common symptoms of arthritis in cats?
A: Cats suffering from arthritic conditions may display signs of generalized stiffness, lethargy, swollen joints, a decrease in flexibility, and discomfort when you touch or handle them. In extreme cases, they may also suffer from lameness. Other signs include behavioral changes, such as poor litter box and grooming habits (due to lack of mobility and coordination), decreased activity/socialization, and a marked hesitancy to run, climb stairs, or jump.
Q: What causes arthritis in cats?
A: Over the course of your cat’s lifespan, joints naturally degenerate as part of his aging process. Forming a cushion between the bones in each joint, cartilage eventually wears down over the years, deteriorating and becoming less flexible.
Your cat may develop arthritis in a variety of different ways, including injury-related, dislocation, or infection in the joint. Obesity can also put additional strain on your cat’s skeletal system.
Q: Which cats are most susceptible to arthritis?
A: Although arthritis is most commonly seen in senior cats, other arthritic conditions can occur from trauma or infection in cats at any age.
Genetics may also play a part in your cat’s long-term health, as certain breeds have a predisposition to certain types of arthritic conditions.