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 i