Managing arthritis in cats is difficult. The drug class that is the mainstay of treatment for both dogs and people—nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)—can be quite toxic to cats. While I might consider using NSAIDs for short term pain management in cats under certain circumstances, I try to avoid using them over the long term… and arthritis treatment is almost always for the long term.
Buprenorphine, an opioid pain reliever, is my favorite analgesic for cats. It is safe and effective but relatively expensive if we are considering using it day in and day out for the rest of a cat’s life. I do recommend it when other forms of treatment are no longer able to keep a cat comfortable, but I tend to reserve it (and other pain relievers like gabapentin) for late-stage arthritis.
Thankfully, dietary modifications have proven to be an excellent way to treat arthritis in cats. Most importantly, arthritic cats should not be overfed. The weight of extra body fat stresses arthritic joints and results in pain. Fat tissue also secretes proinflammatory hormones and since inflammation is at the heart of arthritis, anything that increases inflammation needs to be avoided. For these reasons, I recommend that arthritic cats be fed the amount of food that keeps them a little on the skinny side.
Diets for cats with arthritis should contain adequate amounts of protein. Strong muscles help to support joints. Most cats with arthritis are older, and research has shown that a cat’s ability to digest protein can decline over the age of 10 or so. Foods for arthritic cats should contain high quality sources of animal-based protein among the first few spots on the ingredient list. The minimum protein percentage on the product’s guaranteed analysis should not be less than around 35% or so, on a dry matter basis.
Dietary supplements are also quite helpful in treating arthritis in cats. Cats with arthritis can benefit from chondroprotectants (supplements that promote the health of cartilage). A combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate or extracts from green lipped mussels are commonly used and can be mixed into the food or given as pills. An injectable chondroprotectant (e.g., Adequan) is another option.
But fish oil, the best source of omega 3 fatty acids for cats, is probably the most important dietary supplement for cats with arthritis. Several studies have shown that arthritic cats fed high doses of omega 3 fatty acids tend have less lameness and be more active than do cats who did not receive the supplements. If you are buying an over the counter fish oil supplement to add to your cat’s diet (rather than relying on a pet food manufacturer to do it for you), plan on mixing the contents of a one gram capsule into your cat’s food two or three times a day.
Mixing all this fish oil into your cat’s food adds a significant number of calories, so make sure that you are starting out with a diet that is relatively low in other sources of fat. The last thing you want is for your cat’s arthritis supplements to make him or her fat, thereby undoing all the good you are hoping to gain from altering the diet in the first place.
Dr. Jennifer Coates