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Arthritis in Cats: No It’s Not Just a Dog Thing

Posted by Mary Ida Young on
Arthritis in Cats: No It’s Not Just a Dog Thing

Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD), causes pain and inflammation in a cat’s joints. You might be surprised to know that studies show that arthritis affects three in ten cats. And of those, only seven percent are treated. While arthritis is more difficult to notice in cats than, say, dogs or humans, it is no less debilitating to our feline friends. Since arthritis is a progressive disease, it will worsen as your cat ages. But never fear, there are steps you can take to ensure that you have a happy, comfy kitty.

What causes arthritis in cats? At present it is not entirely clear what specifically causes arthritis in cats. But it is known that arthritis occurs when the cartilage within the joint becomes damaged. In a healthy cat, each joint contains cartilage that acts as a buffer between the bony surfaces. The cartilage creates a "cushion" between the bones that form the joint. As cats age, the normally surfaces of their bones wears thin. As this erosion takes place, the body works to repair it, but over time the surface of the joint continues to deteriorate at a rate the body can no longer fix, eventually losing the cartilage within. This can cause our fur babies to experience a great deal of pain and inflammation. Once the cartilage is gone, the two bones that meet in the joint will rub together, as that cartilage cushion is now gone. The resulting damage to the joint and bones is what’s known as arthritis. The elbow is the most commonly affected joint in cats, while others such as the shoulder, elbow, hip, and ankle are also frequently affected. Even the spine can be involved.

How do I know if my cat is at risk for arthritis? Any aging feline is at risk for arthritis, however there are a number of factors that make arthritis more likely for your cat. Feline arthritis is more common in middle-aged and older cats, but the following also make your cat a more likely candidate to develop arthritis:

  • Genetics. Certain breeds of cats have an increased risk for arthritis due to various underlying joint problems. Genetic abnormalities within a particular joint can make your cat more likely to suffer the effects of arthritis. Hip dysplasia is an example of a congenital abnormality that can lead to arthritis.
  • Injury or trauma. Past injuries such as fractures, dislocations, and other joint injuries may cause abnormal joint conformation, which can result in secondary osteoarthritis.
  • Obesity. While there is no evidence that obesity is a direct cause of arthritis, cats that are obese are more likely to be affected by the symptoms of arthritis than those cats that are lean.
  • Acromegaly. In this unusual condition found in older cats, a tumor in the pituitary gland secretes too much growth hormone. Cats affected by acromegaly will usually develop diabetes mellitus, but some also develop secondary arthritis in their joints.

If your furry friend has a history of any of the above conditions, it may be more susceptible to arthritis. However, it is also important to note that a seemingly healthy cat can develop arthritis just as easily. To be sure, pay attention to any of the signs listed below and seek assistance from your veterinarian.

What are the signs of feline arthritis? By instinct, cats hide any signs of pain. This makes it especially difficult to diagnose joint pain in cats. Symptomatic cats will restrict their activity to minimize the use of their sore joints, so they won’t visibly show symptoms as much as other animals. They will very rarely show an obvious limp or pain. As the pet owner, it is your responsibility to be on the lookout for subtle changes in your cat. If you notice any of the following symptoms, bring your cat to your vet for an exam to see if the arthritis is causing your pet discomfort. There are several major signs of arthritis in cats. They include:

  • Reduced mobility
    • Reluctance, hesitance or refusal to jump up or down
    • Jumping up to lower surfaces than previously
    • Jumping up or down less frequently
    • Difficulty going up or down stairs
    • Stiffness in the legs, especially after sleeping or resting for a while; occasionally there may be obvious lameness
    • Altered gait (the way they walk)
    • Difficulty using the litter tray
    • Difficulty going through the cat flap
  • Reduced activity
    • Increased time spent resting or sleeping
    • Not hunting or exploring the outdoor environment as frequently
    • Sleeping in different, easier to access sites
    • Reduced interaction and playing less with people or other animals
  • Changes in grooming habits
    • Reduced frequency of time spent grooming
    • Matted and scruffy coat
    • Sometimes over-grooming of painful joints
    • Overgrown claws due to lack of activity and reduced sharpening of claws
  • Changes in temperament
    • More irritable or grumpy when handled or stroked
    • More irritable or grumpy on contact with other animals
    • Spending more time alone
    • Avoiding interaction with people and/or animals

Arthritic cats will generally not experience swelling in their joints, and because the pain is dull and aching in nature (and because they are cats), they will not vocalize or cry out in pain. The symptoms they display will depend on the amount of pain your cat is experiencing. They may also exhibit changes in their appetite, so pay attention to your pet’s eating habits. Cats with high entries to their litter boxes may begin going outside the box. Some will lick or bite at the painful area while others may begin sleeping in a new, soft and warm location. Pay attention to these subtle changes in their habits as they may be signs of a cat arthritis. Arthritis and its accompanying symptoms are not life threatening, but they can worsen as your cat ages if gone untreated. Many cats will live out their lives within the limitations of their arthritis because of negligence, or because the signs are so subtle that their owner never notices and simply attributes the symptoms to the natural causes of aging. Knowing your cat’s behavior and habits and monitoring any changes provides a good base for determining whether your cat is in pain. If it is, treatment can greatly improve your cat’s life. If you have any suspicion that your cat might be suffering from joint pain pain, seek out your vet and get a proper diagnosis. Together you will put together a treatment plan best suited to your pet.

How is cat arthritis diagnosed? Arthritis is more common and severe in older cats, and should be looked for in any cat over the age of seven. A diagnosis is made between the signs you notice and report to your veterinarian, and the results of their examination. Oftentimes, they can detect arthritis without taking x-rays, but sometimes they might be needed. If they aren’t certain, a trial period of anti-inflammatory drugs may be used. 

How can I make my fur baby’s life easier? You can do plenty more than simply find the right medication for your cat. Here are some of the symptom management techniques you can use to control cat joint pain.

Modify your cat’s environment

  • Soft, easily accessible beds, like the igloo style, can make your cat more comfortable and secure when they sleep.
  • Add steps or ramps for your cats to reach their favorite high locations
  • If you have an outdoor cat, make sure their flap is easy to open
  • Keep their food, water and litter box on the same floor so they don’t have to go up and down stairs to access them.
  • Help them with grooming and cleaning, including trimming their claws.

Weight management As mentioned earlier, overweight cats are more susceptible to arthritis, and obesity can exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis. Basically, avoid having a chubby cat if you can! Thus, the first thing to address with arthritic cats is their weight. Half of pets in the U.S. are overweight, which makes any surgical or medical treatment more difficult. This means getting a cat’s weight down to and maintained at its recommended level may vary well be the most important thing you can do. If your cat could afford to shed a few pounds, a carefully controlled weight loss is the safest plan for a healthy kitty, especially with older cats. And as their owner--you control their diet! Make sure not to cut back their caloric intake too far or too much, as rapid weight loss can cause serious liver problem. Your vet can help you put together an appropriate weight loss plan. Older, arthritic cats may also be too thin. Other conditions may also play into their weight loss, but if it is determined to be due to their arthritis, a high calorie food with varying flavors may help them gain some back. Your cat’s weight loss plan should be supervised by your vet, who can provide you with a healthy diet plan and dietary supplements to go along with it.

A healthy diet It is imperative to establish a healthy diet for your arthritic cat. Getting proper nutrients can go a long way in combating the various symptoms. Many feline foods and supplements for cats are loaded with superfoods that are particularly powerful agents in the fight against arthritis. are loaded with superfoods that are particularly powerful agents in the fight against arthritis. Certain superfoods, like blueberries, spinach, cantaloupe, and broccoli, are bursting with antioxidants and can help reduce swelling. Not to mention that they promote a healthy coat as well! Other fruits like apples, strawberries, and bananas are great for providing cats with additional nutrients and can serve as healthy treats. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are also great for cats with joint issues. Omega-3’s are found mainly in fish, which cats typically love, and have proven anti-inflammatory effects. Cats are notorious picky eaters, so make sure you find some of these superfoods that your cat enjoys and implement them into their diet in moderation.

Dietary supplements There are also several supplements available for arthritic cats. They will typically contain combinations of essential fatty acids (EFAs), that are designed to reduce inflammation, and probiotic and dietary fiber to help support energy levels, immune systems, and ligament function.

Additional treatments

Acupuncture Acupuncture has been used in other animals, such as dogs, to treat the chronic pain of arthritis. The efficacy of acupuncture is still debated and this treatment has not been proven in controlled studies, but anecdotal reports suggest it could be a useful adjunctive therapy for some cats. It should always be performed by a specially trained vet and not used as a substitute for medication in severe cases. Exercise While some cats can’t sit still and other practically become part of the couch, exercise is beneficial for any feline pal. Get them to walk if you can or motivate them to play with new toys or catnip.

Massage and physical therapy Some cats are more sensitive than others when it comes to human touch, so start slow to build trust. Pet the area first and gently knead the muscles around the joint with your fingers. You can gradually work your way to the surrounding muscles. Ask your veterinarian to show you the proper technique.

Ok. I think my cat has arthritis. What should I do? Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian! Your vet can take x-rays to determine if your cat has arthritis. Together, you can form a plan for your cat’s individual needs. If you take the appropriate steps to treat your fur kid’s arthritis, you are sure to have a happy and healthy feline companion for years to come! It’s important to remember that arthritis isn’t the end of the world… just a slight obstacle that can be overcome.

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