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What is arthritis in cats?

Osteoarthritis (OA) in cats, or feline osteoarthritis, is a degenerative joint disease. It is incredibly common in older cats.  Some studies have shown over 90% of cats over 12 years of age have signs of arthritis on X-rays. 

Osteoarthritis may also be seen in younger animals. Overweight cats and cats that have breed or conformational abnormalities, have suffered trauma or who repeatedly perform high impact activities are at increased risk of developing early-onset degenerative joint disease. 

Osteoarthritis in cats leads to swelling of the capsule surrounding the joint and destruction of the cartilage lining the joints. OA is a progressive disease which, over time, leads to abnormal bone production around the joint and in the underlying bone. This can be harmful to joint health, create painful joints, stiffness and discomfort when walking or jumping. The degenerative joint disease can hugely impact a cat’s quality of life, and lead to a decreased range of joint motion that can limit mobility.

What causes osteoarthritis in cats?

It is often difficult to be sure what has caused OA in an older cat, as it usually takes a long time to develop. In geriatric cats, it is often attributed to general wear and tear on multiple joints with age. 

There are multiple risk factors which can make your cat prone to earlier onset arthritis. These include:

  • Being overweight – due to the additional strain on the joints
  • Purebred cats – this can be due to specific breed-related joint conditions such as hip dysplasia or kneecap dislocation.
  • Previous joint injury or trauma 
  • Poor diet
  • Genetics 

Signs of osteoarthritis in cats to look out for

Many cat owners may have noticed subtle changes in their pet’s behaviour, without realising that they are in pain. Cats are naturally stoic animals and do not want to show any sign of weakness. 

An animal in chronic pain will rarely vocalise or cry out but will often modify their behaviour to avoid actions that hurt. Some of the most common signs of feline arthritis include:

  • A reluctance to walk, jump and play 
  • Difficulty grooming
  • Sleeping more, becoming more withdrawn
  • Stiffness or difficulty getting up after rest 
  • Lameness in one or more legs
  • Difficulty or hesitance when jumping onto the sofa or bed, or going upstairs 
  • Becoming defensive or aggressive 
  • Weight loss (loss of muscle)
  • Inappropriate elimination (toileting in the house or outside of the litter tray)

How is cat arthritis diagnosed?

Our vets will take a history – asking you questions relating to your cat’s behaviour, mobility, signs of pain, diet, previous trauma or injuries. A full clinical examination will allow them to detect any areas of tenderness, swellings, weakness or pain which may indicate osteoarthritis. 

If you think your cat may be showing signs of osteoarthritis, please call us or book an appointment online at your local Animal Trust surgery. Our consultations are free* and our veterinary surgeons can give your cat a full health check and discuss a treatment plan with you.  If medication or investigations are required, these will be discussed with you and estimates of any costs given.

If there are other potential causes, such as injury or trauma, then X-rays may be required to differentiate between these and osteoarthritis. 

A blood test will often be required to check for other conditions which may be causing the signs reported, or before starting your cat on medication. 

How to treat arthritis in cats

Early management and delaying disease progression will allow your pet to live a longer, more comfortable life. Effective control of arthritic pain can be achieved with a combination of the following treatments:

Weight loss

A 10% reduction in body weight (or more if they are very overweight) for overweight pets and affected cats can have the equivalent effect of a daily dose of anti-inflammatory pain relief. If your cat struggles with his or her weight, our nurses can discuss a weight management plan with you at one of our free nurse weight clinic consultations. 

Exercise management

Where possible, making sure to avoid your pet having to perform high impact exercises can help limit exposure to this painful disease and osteoarthritis pain. In practice, this usually means working to minimise jumping.

Similarly, encourage your cat to get up and move around regularly. Exercise and movement encourage lubrication of the joints and resting too much will cause joints to seize up more.

Medication for feline osteoarthritis

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) – such as Meloxicam, Onsior can help with osteoarthritis pain. These are the most commonly prescribed, mainstay treatments for OA in cats. These medications control the inflammatory process, delaying the progression of the disease and reducing the pain relating to osteoarthritis. In chronic arthritis, medication is required for long-term use to control pain wind-up and hypersensitisation. 

These medications are very safe. However, some cats cannot take NSAIDs because of underlying health problems or sensitive tummies. If your cat is about to start, or is already on long-term NSAIDs, they will need to have regular checkups and blood tests to ensure there are no other issues developing with long-term use or with age. 

Solensia is a newer medication, given by monthly injection, for cats. This injection helps your cat to develop antibodies to the growth of chronic (or non-useful) pain nerves. It has a similar effect on the control of pain as a daily dose of NSAID, but without some of the potential side effects. 

Severe arthritis, nerve pain or acute arthritis flares may require additional pain relief such as gabapentin or amantadine as advised by the veterinary surgeon.

Alternative treatments for osteoarthritis in cats

Some other treatment options include acupuncture, physiotherapy, stem cell therapy (injection of undifferentiated cells into the diseased joint to aid regeneration) and laser therapy (to reduce inflammation and promote healing). These treatments will require referral to a specialist centre if deemed appropriate for your cat. 

Home remedies for cats suffering from arthritis

As mentioned above, once cats show overt symptoms of osteoarthritis, regular medication is often required to delay the progression of the disease and help to keep your cat comfortable and optimise their well being. In addition to these medical treatments prescribed by veterinary professionals, there are some other things that you can do at home to help your arthritic cat. 

  • Supplements – A good quality joint supplement can be useful with exercise and weight management in the early stages of OA, or in addition to medications as above. 
  • Hot/cold therapy – This therapy can be a valuable aid in easing stiff joints and additional pain relief. Application of a warm compress (e.g. a wheat bag) to affected joints prior to passive range of motion exercises, followed by a cool compress (ice pack wrapped in a towel, specific joint wraps). 
  • Hydrotherapy – Water therapy for pets can be really useful, depending on your cat’s tolerance of this! In addition to muscle building, weight loss and non-weightbearing exercise, hydrostatic (water) pressure can ease discomfort associated with OA due to a reduction of inflammation in the bone beneath the cartilage.  
  • Rugs and ramps – Soft furnishings in the home, particularly on the stairs, can help ease the pain of osteoarthritis. Most cats with OA will lose confidence if they are slipping and may find stairs or jumping up onto beds or chairs painful. By providing mats and ramps we can reduce the twisting and impact on joints and alleviate some of the pain. 
  • Providing soft bedding – Think about comfort for your pet. Avoid very deep or over-warm beds; some animals with OA will find certain types of bed difficult to get in and out of. A large but not deep bed which allows them to lie at full stretch is advised. 
  • Low level/low sided litter trays with soft litter will help your arthritic cat to manage to continue toileting in their litter box.

Can you prevent arthritis in cats?

Whilst some of the causes of arthritis are unavoidable, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of arthritis for your cat.

Ensure your cat is not overweight. Not only does being overweight put a lot more strain on their joints, fat cells are actually pro-inflammatory. This means that they are a source of inflammation in your cat’s body. Ensure your pets are fed a life stage appropriate, well-balanced, high-quality diet from a young age. 

Encourage your cat to exercise – this will aid lubrication of the joints by encouraging movement of the synovial fluid within them. 

Supplements can be given from any age. There is no specific indication to wait until they are older or showing signs of stiffness. Fish oils and omega supplements are naturally anti-inflammatory and will also help with your pet’s skin and nail health.  

If your cat has a favourite high spot to sleep or play, provide steps or a ladder to avoid repetitive high-impact jumping on and off. 

Can arthritis in cats become fatal?

Many cats with osteoarthritis can live a fairly normal life once they are on treatment. This can be for several years if detected early enough in the progression of the disease. 

The keys to success are to follow medication advice, make the additional changes needed in their environment to make their life easier and ensure you feed them an appropriate diet to keep them slim and as healthy as possible.

Sadly, some cats do suffer from severe arthritic pain, which can mean they lose their ability to toilet appropriately, have a reduced appetite, struggle to get about, and ultimately lose their quality of life. In these cases, you may need to make the hard decision to put your cat to sleep to avoid them suffering. 

If you think your cat is suffering from feline osteoarthritis, you should see your veterinarian immediately. Your nearest Animal Trust surgery can help with advice and relevant information on diagnosing osteoarthritis and booking a physical examination.

*unless outside of normal surgery hours 

Further Reading:

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