By Carol McCarthy
Most animal lovers are aware that senior dogs can get arthritis and suffer the pain and stiffness that goes with it. But cats—despite their reputation for agility, speed, and flexibility—are hardly immune to the condition, which involves inflammation of the joints and sometimes a breakdown of cartilage that prevents bone-on-bone wear and tear.
“It’s really common. We used to think cats are cats and nothing bothers them, but of course they get arthritis,” says Dr. Cathy Lund, proprietor of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, Rhode Island.
As with people, arthritis in pets often comes with aging. Other factors include obesity, which puts added stress on joints, and heritable conditions, such as hip dysplasia, describes Dr. Neil Marrinan of the Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Lund believes that arthritis does not get adequate attention from cat parents and veterinarians because the symptoms are not as evident in cats as they are in dogs. For example, a dog parent can easily see his pet limping as he tries to chase a ball or frolic in the dog park. “Cats are much more subtle about how they show physical impairment,” Lund notes.
That reluctance to appear injured, in pain, or vulnerable goes back to their wild ancestry as both predator and prey, when signs of weakness could be a death sentence. “Cat parents must be clued in to small changes in behavior to realize their cat might have arthritis,” Lund says.
Recognizing the Signs of Arthritis in Cats
Cats often develop arthritis in their hips and elbows, Marrinan says. Other commonly affected joints include the lower back and knees.
The first step is to detect the arthritis—and the earlier the better, Marrinan says. Signs of arthritis may include behavioral changes, limping, difficulty moving, and changes in grooming habits. “A cat likely will reveal his painful or stiff joints in how he approaches his usual activities,” Lund explains. For example, he might stop jumping on the bed, or he might sit and look at the bed as if he wants to jump but never does. “If you see them staring at where they want to go as if trying to psych themselves up to make the leap, that is a sign,” she says. Accidents outside of the litterbox, which are worsened if it is in a hard to reach location or has high sides, are another often overlooked symptom of arthritis.
Because cats are sensitive to changes in weather, cold and damp days might cause arthritis symptoms to flare up, Lund notes.
Treating and Managing Arthritis in Cats
Treating arthritis in cats when it is mild can delay the need to use prescription painkillers, which can have harmful side effects.
Dietary supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, can be an effective option, Lund says. These over-the-counter products—available as treats, sprinkles, and liquids—can help protect and repair cartilage and improve the quality of joint fluid, effectively lubricating the joints and easing pain. Some prescription cat diets also include joint supplements. In general, be sure your cat is eating a quality food that is high in protein. You can also add fish oil, considered an anti-inflammatory, to your cat’s food, Lund says.
Cat parents also can ask their vet about injections with a substance called Adequan to treat joint inflammation, or noninvasive cold laser therapy, which also eases inflammation, Lund suggests. Anecdotal reports show benefits from acupuncture and massage. “There is no reason you can’t use more than one modality,” she says.
Changes to your cat’s environment can help as well. For example, you can position pet stairs, stools, and other pieces of furniture in key places so your cat can use them to get where he wants to go. Regular movement also helps keep joints and bones healthy, Marrinan says. “Use it or lose it is a good approach. Put food bowls in multiple places,” he suggests, and make sure you place low-sided litterboxes in several easy to access spots around your house.
Heated cat beds also might get your cat purring contentedly. “Older cats love them. I think it really does make a difference in these guys,” Lund says.
Pain Medication for Cats with Arthritis
Cats are extremely sensitive to common drugs, so a feline-friendly painkiller must come from your cat’s veterinarian and be managed closely, Lund says.
Cats should never be given painkillers intended for people, dogs, or other pets, our vet experts warn. Acetaminophen, for example, damages the liver and is lethal to cats, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can damage kidneys. “Never give a drug to a cat without consulting your vet,” Marrinan stresses.
If your vet prescribes pain medication for cats, he or she may need to monitor blood and urine regularly to ensure your pet’s kidneys and liver are functioning properly. Painkillers also can irritate the stomach, so cat parents should pay attention to changes in eating habits, Lund says.
Surgery is usually only indicated if there is another medical issue with the arthritic joint, Lund says, such as a torn ligament, hip dysplasia, or a dislocated kneecap.
Whatever treatment you and your vet choose, pay attention to see if the method is working, and consider another course if it is not. When arthritis is well controlled, “the cat will likely be eating better, be happier, and moving around more,” Lund says.