Arthritis is a painful, progressive disorder caused by the degeneration of the cartilage that cushions the joint bones. This causes the bones to rub against each other, resulting in further damage and inflammation. This disorder can affect cats at any age, but the chances of developing arthritis increases exponentially as they get older. Cats can experience arthritis in any joint, but the joints of the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, and ankles are the most likely to be affected.
Damaged joints do more than just make your cat uncomfortable—the pain associated with osteoarthritis can also discourage your cat from taking care of their personal hygiene. This can lead to overgrown claws, greasy, unkempt fur, and litter box accidents. In addition, it can sometimes instigate angry and aggressive behavior, even in a previously friendly feline.
While the direct causes of osteoarthritis in cats are not clearly understood, we do know of some circumstances that can increase a specific cat’s chances of developing arthritis. Injury to the joints or the bones they support can trigger degenerative arthritis, as can tumors, diabetes, cancer, and some types of infection. Certain breeds of cat are more likely to develop debilitating arthritis than others, specifically Scottish Fold cats, Abyssinians, and Devon Rexes. Other breeds, such as Maine Coons and Persians, are more likely to develop hip dysplasia, which can increase the risk of developing arthritis in supporting joints.
Osteoarthritis is much more commonplace in cats than most pet parents are aware of. A study in 2010 examined 100 cats and revealed that over 90% of the subjects tested showed at least some x-ray evidence of degenerative joint disease. Cats are extremely adept at masking pain, however, making even familiar disorders like arthritis difficult to spot. If your cat is showing the following symptoms, contact your veterinarian to set up a visit. The earlier arthritis is diagnosed, the easier it is to manage.
- Avoiding the stairs
- Bald spots around the joints
- Less frequent jumping up on things
- Litter box issues
- Longer claws
- Napping more frequently
- Poor grooming
A specific form of osteoarthritis, known as spondylosis deformans, can sometimes affect the spinal column in cats. Damage to the vertebral discs, which serve as cushioning between the vertebrae, leads to friction between the bones. Eventually, this causes bony spurs to develop along the spine. In most cases, the cat’s mobility is not affected by this disorder. Sometimes the bones fuse together, however, interfering with the cat’s ability to move, and if the bone spur puts pressure on a nearby nerve, it may cause pain or lameness to develop.
At the Vet
Your veterinarian will first examine your feline family member for obvious signs of degeneration; visible deformities, swelling around the joints, reduced range of motion, and joint instability. In some cases, a scraping or grinding sound can be heard when the joints are moved, the sound of bone grinding against bone.
An x-ray will typically confirm any degeneration as well as determine the location and extent of deterioration. It can also help determine which cats are good candidates for surgery. In most cases, the cat will be anesthetized for this procedure so that the vet tech can position the cat for the clearest images.
Although there is no actual cure for arthritis, there are many ways to improve patients’ quality of life and help slow the progression of the disease.
Cats are exceptionally sensitive to NSAID anti-inflammatory medications, and it is critical that they only be given pain medication that is prescribed for them by a veterinary professional. Both human medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen, and canine medications like Rimadyl and firocoxib, can be highly toxic to our feline furbabies.
There are a few pain medications that are relatively safe for cats, with the most common being meloxicam. Even this medication can cause problems over time, so it’s important to be aware of your cat’s behavior. Side effects such as vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite, could be an indication of a problem. In January of 2022, a newly developed monoclonal antibody called Solensia was approved by the FDA to treat the chronic pain of arthritis as well. This medication is administered once a month via injection and is much easier on the kidneys than NSAID medications, making them a viable option for cats with kidney disease.
Surgery may be an alternative for some cats, especially younger cats, but it tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Cats with hip dysplasia may find some relief from both the hip pain and any accompanying arthritis after hip replacement, however, and surgery may be recommended if bone spurs are present.
Physical therapy is often very effective at reducing inflammation. Techniques included in physical therapy may include cold/hot therapy, physical manipulation of the joints, and therapeutic exercises. Hydrotherapy is also very effective and treating pain and helps to prevent atrophy of the muscles near the joint. Laser therapy shows promise as a newer treatment for the pain and inflammation of arthritis, and acupuncture is often employed as a remedy as well.
Arthritis is not yet curable, but it is manageable. There are several things that you can do at home to improve your arthritic cat’s comfort level and quality of life. Most of these lifestyle adjustments and home remedies are simple and inexpensive to implement.
Diet and Exercise
Being overweight doesn’t necessarily increase your cat’s chances of developing arthritis, but it is likely to exacerbate the situation and may speed up the erosion of the joints. Obesity also discourages your cat from being active, further aggravating the condition. Controlling your arthritic pet’s weight through diet and exercise will help reduce both the strain on the joints and the inflammation associated with arthritis.
Grooming your cat more frequently will help ensure that arthritis doesn’t lead to matted fur, skin damage, or skin infections, and trimming their claws may become necessary if they become unwilling to use appropriate scratching surfaces.
Hard floors are not comfortable when your joints hurt, and cold drafts can increase joint stiffness. Make sure that your cat has several soft, cushy spots to sleep on that are out of cold drafts and easy to get to.
Adding steps or ramps can help make it easier for your cat to reach their favorite elevated spots, and food and water bowls should be elevated to prevent additional wear and tear on the skeletal system. Large litter boxes with low sides make it easier to comfortably eliminate without making a mess, and litter boxes should be within close proximity of your cat’s preferred spots.
Heading out of town and leaving your cat at home? Contact The Comforted Kitty and get the peace of mind that comes with expert cat care.