When dogs and humans develop arthritis, the signs are nearly impossible to ignore, but in arthritic cats, signs are much more subtle and difficult to detect, because cats are adept at masking pain and pretending everything is OK. Cats are also naturally agile and flexible, so their decreased mobility is less noticeable. Because signs are difficult for owners to recognize, many arthritic cats go undiagnosed and untreated, and suffer long-term pain and diminished quality of life. Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital believes arthritis and pain management are key to your aging cat’s health management, and we want to help you recognize and understand this condition.

What is cat arthritis?

Arthritis refers to inflammation inside one or more joints, which can result from injury, wear and tear, infection, or immune disease in cats. Osteoarthritis—the wear and tear type—is most commonly associated with aging and what mostly comes to mind when people hear the word “arthritis.” Arthritis can affect any joint, but most commonly affects the spine, hips, knees, and elbows. In osteoarthritis, cartilage between bones breaks down, joints become inflamed, and bone spurs can develop. Inflammatory substances in the joint cause further breakdown, which leads to more inflammation. Arthritis is a self-perpetuating process and always progresses over time.

What are cat arthritis signs?

An estimated 60% of cats older than 6 years have evidence of arthritis, and this number shoots up to 90% by age 12. However, many cats hide their early signs and are not diagnosed until their condition becomes severe. Each cat reacts differently to pain, so signs will vary, but arthritic cats will generally show the following:

  • Behavior changes — Cats in pain may hide and withdraw, or lash out at people or other pets. 
  • Hesitancy to jump, run, or play — Arthritic cats may have decreased mobility or pain that impacts their movements.
  • Limping — Cats with painful limbs or spinal joints may favor one or more legs.
  • Muscle atrophy — Cats favor painful joints by changing their movement patterns, and the muscles surrounding those joints waste away from disuse. Muscle loss reduces joint stability and perpetuates further disuse, causing the condition to worsen.
  • Decreased grooming — If spinal or hip arthritis prevent your cat from grooming adequately, their coat may become greasy or matted in difficult-to-reach areas.
  • Urinating or defecating outside the litter box — Getting in and out of a high-sided box is difficult for arthritic cats. Some may develop an aversion because they associate the box with pain.

How is cat arthritis diagnosed?

Arthritis can be diagnosed using a combination of physical examination and imaging, usually X-rays. Arthritic joints often make a crunching or grating sound called crepitus that your veterinarian can recognize on physical examination, along with pain, swelling, or decreased range of motion. Often, arthritis is diagnosed “accidentally” during a routine physical examination or X-rays for another condition, such as vomiting. Annual wellness examinations are an important tool to diagnose arthritis in the early stages, because waiting until obvious signs develop means the disease has advanced and will be harder to treat and control. 

How is cat arthritis treated?

Historically, arthritis treatment options for cats were limited. Cats metabolize drugs differently than dogs, so finding safe and effective medications has been a challenge for veterinarians, but the recent advances in feline pain control and the advent of complementary and alternative therapies have made many treatment options available. The treatment goals are pain reduction and improvement in muscle tone, strength, joint stability, mobility, and overall quality of life. Arthritis is a progressive disease that cannot be cured, but treatment can stop or slow progress and minimize associated pain.

Your veterinarian may choose or suggest treatment options based on your cat’s overall health, their temperament, and disease severity. Medical, surgical, and alternative therapy options may include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) — These drugs are not safe for long-term use in cats, but can be used for a few days at a time to quiet severe pain or inflammation.
  • Pain medications — Gabapentin, originally used for seizures, is a good, safe option for long-term pain control. Opioids may cause behavior changes and are usually used only short term.
  • Joint health supplements — Joint supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin can protect against further cartilage damage.
  • Adequan — This injectable medication protects cartilage and improves joint fluid health, and administration may be easier than oral supplements.
  • Biologics — A new drug on the market, Solensia, targets and blocks a specific mediator in the pain pathway. This medication is given as a once-monthly injection, which is helpful for difficult-to-medicate pets.
  • Acupuncture — Studies show acupuncture can relieve pain in cats who tolerate the process, which can actually be quite relaxing.
  • Laser therapy — Cold laser therapy uses light energy to stimulate healing in damaged tissues.
  • Physical therapy — Therapeutic exercise and other modalities can rebuild muscle and stabilize joints. 
  • Surgery — Surgery is usually a last resort to salvage a severely damaged joint and reduce pain. Surgery may include joint fusion, joint replacement, or amputation.

Early intervention can reduce pain and improve quality of life for cats with arthritis, which our veterinary team can detect during routine annual wellness examinations. Contact us to schedule a wellness examination at Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital, or if you believe your cat could be suffering from arthritis.