Feline arthritis or degenerative joint disease is a slowly but continuously progressing condition that requires life-long management. Once the arthritis changes start, they cannot be reversed. In this article, we will explain some of the most popular ways of helping your arthritic cat. We will describe how and why degenerative joint disease in felines occurs and give tips on efficiently handling the condition.
Causes of Joint Pain in Cats
Although the pathophysiology of arthritis in cats is the same, different scenarios lead to arthritic joints in cats. These are the most common:
- Natural wear and tear – it is normal for cats to develop arthritis because of the prolonged joints stress and overuse. Natural wear and tear is the reason arthritis is much more common among older cats.
- Orthopedic abnormalities – cats with orthopedic abnormalities are at increased risk of developing arthritis at an early age. For example, a cat with abnormal hip joint development will soon show arthritic changes in the knee and hip joints.
- Genetics – genetic makeup plays an important part in orthopedic abnormalities and arthritis because certain issues are prevalent in specific cat breeds. The aforementioned hip dysplasia is prevalent in Siamese cats, Maine Coons, Persian cats, and Scottish folds.
- Injuries – a cat that has sustained a severe joint injury or bone fracture is very likely to experience arthritic changes in the affected joint and develop arthritis.
- Obesity – increased body weight is a significant risk factor for arthritis. The extra weight increases the pressure on the joints, thus resulting in more severe cat arthritis symptoms.
Arthritis in Cats – Pathophysiology
Regardless of the risk and triggering factors, the pathophysiology of arthritis in cats is the same. Arthritis is defined as painful joint inflammation or degenerative joint disease. Arthritis develops when the cartilage loses its shock-absorbing ability. Namely, the cat’s joints are complex structures. Normally, the two bones forming each joint are separated with cartilage. The cartilage acts like a cushion that prevents the bone surfaces from rubbing. The healthy joint fluid lubricates the cartilage and enables smooth joint movement. In the arthritic cat, the cartilage becomes damaged and continues to deteriorate, leading to signs of arthritis – low-grade but chronic pain and impaired mobility. In the long run, these issues negatively impact the cat’s quality of life.
Degenerative Joint Disease Diagnosis
The vet will start with a full-body physical exam and then perform a more specific orthopedic evaluation. Then the vet will order x-rays of the suspected joints. If there are visible signs of arthritis on the joint x-ray images, the vet will be able to set a definitive diagnosis – feline arthritis (at least one joint needs to be affected with arthritis changes). Assessing the cat’s overall health status is an important part of diagnosing arthritis. For this purpose, the vet will perform blood and urine tests. Sometimes, if necessary, the vet may refer your cat to an orthopedic cat clinic for a more detailed diagnosis and specific treatments.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Cats
Most cats mask distress and tend to hide signs of arthritis, making it hard for cat owners to notice something is going on with their cats. The obvious signs of pain (crying, meowing) are seldom seen in cats. Considering all arthritis symptoms stem from painful joints and impaired mobility, the following red flags are objective reasons the schedule an appointment and see your trusted vet.
Reluctance to Move
If your cat is reluctant to move (no jumping, no running through stairs), it might be because of painful joints. Once your cat starts associating movements with a joint ache, she will avoid activities that require physical activity and be more inclined to sleeping and snoozing.
Most cats with arthritis develop limping at some point. In some cases, the limping is subtle and, in others, quite obvious. Instead of classic liming, cats with hip issues tend to show the so-called bunny hop gait.
Difficulty Using the Litter Box
There are many different litter box designs. If the litter box has elevated sides and is hard to get inside, many cats will start doing their businesses outside. If your cat has joint issues, you can help by replacing the regular litter box with a litter tray. It would help even more if you placed litter trays in multiple locations.
Cats are notorious for their mood swings and easy irritability. However, if your cuddly and affectionate cat suddenly becomes anxious or cranky and refuses all forms of interaction, it might be because of a painful underlying condition such as arthritis.
Difficulty Using the Food and Water Bowls
Standing over food and water bowls requires a certain body position that overstresses the joints. Arthritic cats may refuse to eat and drink to avoid stressing the joints. You can help your older cat by providing raised food bowls and water bowls. To ensure adequate food and water intake, you can even place these elevated bowls in several different locations around the house.
Less Time Spent Grooming
A cat with achy joints will not be interested in keeping her hygiene and regular grooming. The lack of strict grooming habits results in coat quality decline and an overall unkempt appearance.
Reduced Height in Jumps
Cats with arthritis experience difficulty jumping. They are less likely to jump in higher places, especially on a smooth surface that makes it hard to stay stable when landing. Even if your cat is still willing to jump, there will be a reduced height in those jumps. You can help your cat reach higher surfaces by lifting her.
Hiding or Sleeping More Than Normal
The tendency to hide more and sleep more is characteristic of cats in distress. Cats hide signs of distress and prefer to be alone when in this mode.
Joint Pain Treatment Options
Managing arthritis requires a multimodal approach and using several treatment options together. In addition to the following options, you can also help your cat with her achy joints by providing an orthopedic and heated bed (additional heating pads are beneficial too) and mobility aids (braces, pet wheelchairs). You can learn more about the importance of environmental enrichment for the arthritic cat on the International Cat Care site or by clicking here.
Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important osteoarthritis management aspects. This is because the extra weight adds more stress on the joints, thus aggravating the arthritic issues. Overweight and obese cats need to be put on special weight loss programs. Considering the arthritic cat’s limited mobility and reluctance to move, weight loss can be a challenging journey. It is advisable to talk to your vet and ask for an individually tailored weight loss plan for your cat – diet and exercise tips.
There are many different forms of physical rehabilitation options for the arthritic cat, including:
- Laser therapy
- Pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy
- Passive range of motion (PROM)
All options have the same goal – to ease pain and reduce inflammation, thus promoting improved mobility.
Treating severe arthritis in cats requires surgical correction. There are several surgical management options for the cat’s arthritic joint – from simple arthroscopies to complex joint replacements. Not all patients are good surgical candidates. The vet will explain the pros and cons of the intervention.
Pet owners must be careful when choosing the right joint supplements for their cats. Not all joint products are of equal quality. Choosing the right product requires veterinary help. The most popular joint health-promoting dietary supplements include:
- Green Lipped Mussels
- Hyaluronic acid.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese method involving the use of sterile needles for pressure relief. The needles are inserted at certain so-called acupuncture points – places in the body where blood vessels and nerves converge.
CBD for Arthritic Cats
CBD products (oils, chews, capsules) for cats make excellent joint supplements. Pet CBD products are made of organically sourced and high-quality hemp. Older cats and cats with arthritis can benefit from the CBD’s active ingredients (cannabinoids) because of their abilities to:
- Promote healthy bones and musculoskeletal structures
- Support joint health and flexibility
- Ease stiffness due to normal daily exercise and activity
- Provides connective tissue support
- Helps maintain a normal inflammatory response in the body
- May help discomfort associated with normal daily exercise and activity.
Oils rich in essential fatty acids can relieve pain and reduce swelling and inflammation. The two most important fatty acids are alpha-linoleic (omega 3) and linoleic (omega 6). The best source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids is fish oil. In a study from 2012, “The effect of dietary long-chain omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on owner’s perception of behavior and locomotion in cats with naturally occurring osteoarthritis,” the researchers divided cats into two groups. The cats from the first group were supplemented with corn oil, and the cats from the second group with fish oil. At the end of the study, the cat owners were asked to describe their cats’ behaviors. Based on the results, cats supplemented with fish oil were more active, less reluctant to go up and down the stairs, capable of making higher jumps, and more social.
Preventing Pain in the Arthritic Cat
Feline arthritis is a painful condition that warrants life-long pain management. Pain is a detrimental state with a negative impact on the cat’s overall health and life quality. Pain management is a complex process and often requires combining common drugs for pain relief with certain alternative treatments.
Steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the treatment of choice for cats with arthritis. NSAIDs reduce pain and manage the inflammation processes within the joints. Most feline patients tolerate NSAIDs well. However, prolonged use can be associated with certain side effects, requiring regular checkups and close monitoring. The steroidal drugs can also ease pain and manage inflammation. In fact, compared to NSAIDs, the steroids’ anti-pain and anti-inflammation properties are stronger. But, there is one caveat – they are also linked with higher side effects risk.
Other pain relief prescription medication options
If the steroids and NSAIDs do not achieve satisfactory pain relief or are not tolerated well (too many side effects), the vet will prescribe other stronger medications like opioids (tramadol) and gabapentin.
Our Final Thoughts
Arthritis in cats is not a life-threatening condition, but it limits normal mobility, thus affecting the quality of life. Luckily, with the advances in veterinary medicine, taking proper care of pets with osteoarthritis has never been easier – there are many different treatments and management options. Basically, osteoarthritis is not a death sentence, but it requires significant modifications and specific care to maintain your cat’s quality of life on a satisfactory level.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I tell if my cat has arthritis pain?
If your cat is experiencing joint aches, it will probably manifest the following signs and symptoms: reluctance to move, limping, and irritability.
What can I give my cat for arthritic pain?
Ask your vet to prescribe medication for your cat and stick to the vet’s administration instructions and guidelines.
How can I help my old cat with arthritis?
There are many ways of helping your older cat with arthritis – from dietary supplements and weight management through physical therapy and exercise to prescription medications and joint surgeries. Each case is different and requires a different approach.
Can you tell if a cat is in pain?
Yes, if you carefully observe your cat and are familiar with her normal behavior, you will be able to spot the subtle differences due to painful conditions.