Arthritis in cats

Arthritis or osteoarthritis (to give it its proper name) is a rapidly growing area in feline medicine.  Cats are very cunning at hiding illness and pain, as this is seen as a sign of weakness and could influence their survival in the wild. So often the signs of arthritis in a cat are very subtle indeed. 

The cartilage cushions that line most of the joints in the body are gradually worn away and expose the underlying bone, which in turn causes the joint to become inflamed and painful.  The oily liquid in the joints that help to lubricate the movement also become less viscous (slippery) over time. 

Recent studies have shown that up to 90% of cats aged over 12 years are showing signs of osteoarthritis, thus indicating that it is a much under-diagnosed problem.

Some of the causes of arthritis include:

  • breed predisposition eg Scottish Folds, Burmese, Maine Coons, Abyssinians
  • injury to the joint
  • obesity (tends to exacerbate the problem rather than cause it)
A normal hip joint without arthritis -  Cartilage lining and joint space shown by the purple area
Advanced arthritis - Showing no cartilage lining or joint space between the bones

Signs of Arthritis

Depending on the personality of your cat and the severity of the arthritis, you may notice some of the following signs:

  • Reduced ability to move
    • This may present as an inability to get up or down from furniture and their beds meaning that they will sleep down lower or in different locations to previously.
    • Arthritic cats may have difficulty getting into and out of high-sided kitty litters and may start to have accidents when toileting.
    • Some cats have a noticeably stiff gait when walking.
  • Changes in grooming behaviour
    • May be too painful to groom and develop a matted or scurfy coat
    • Could be over-grooming painful joints with self-trauma causing hair loss as well as inflamed and infected skin
  • Personality changes
    • Can become less tolerant to being patted or held which results in them possibly becoming aggressive or hiding more
  • Changes in activity level
    • Tend to be reluctant to go outside, play, hunt and explore which results in their claws becoming long from inactivity

Managing arthritis in cats

1. Veterinary consultation and diagnostic x-rays

This is an excellent starting point in setting up a treatment plan for your cat.  It provides an opportunity to discuss with your Vet about your observations at home (remembering that cats put on a brave face in the clinic).  During this consultation your feline friend will receive a full body examination, as well as a blood and urine sample to check for any concurrent disease that may influence the medication chosen. X-rays can help to confirm the diagnosis.  Regular revisits are recommended to ensure your cat is responding well to the medication and is not experiencing any side effects.

2. Weight control

Excess weight can place more pressure on painful joints, so getting rid of unwanted kilos is recommended.  Cats need to loose weight in a slow and controlled manner to prevent metabolic problems.  Please discuss the best way to do this with your vet or vet nurse.

3. Joint support medication injections

These are a course of injections that help to recoat the cartilage and increase the viscosity of the fluid in all the joints in the body.  Boosters are required at regular intervals to ensure continued efficacy.

4. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s)

NSAID’s are most commonly used once the health of the liver and kidneys are established in the initial consultation.  Sometimes an opioid medication will be prescribed.

5. Nutriceuticals

These are a food or food product that provide health or medical benefits.  The main ones used in feline medicine are Joint Guard and Hills feline j/d. They contain chondroitin and glucosamine supplements.

6. Home comforts/ environment change

Things that you can do to assist your cat include:

  • providing your cat with soft bedding
  • a quiet and non-drafty places to sleep
  • self-warming beds or wheat bags
  • low sided kitty litters for easy access and to prevent toileting accidents
  • placing steps near favourite furniture and beds to aid in getting up and down
  • extra grooming of coats and nails

If your cat is showing any of the above signs, please make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss a diagnostic and treatment plan.