What is it?Although there are many forms of arthritis, when we use the term in cats we almost always mean “Osteoarthritis”. It occurs in joints when the cartilage that lines the joint gets worn away. This results in painful inflammation and over time the joint responds and changes to try and protect itself - but this actually creates a negative vicious cycle which makes the disease worse.
Why is it important?Arthritis in cats is extremely common but frequently under diagnosed, with between 60% and 90% of older cats affected. It can occur due to long-term ‘wear and tear’ as part of the normal ageing process but can occur earlier when underlying disease is involved.
What’s the risk?As arthritis is a progressive disease it is more common in older cats, particularly within the leg joints. Currently, most cats do not appear to have an underlying cause of their arthritis other than general wear and tear. However, some breeds are predisposed to joint disease e.g. Scottish Fold, Maine Coon, Devon Rex and some conditions such as a previous broken leg or acromegaly can also contribute to developing arthritic changes.
What happens to the cat?Symptoms can often be subtle, as cats are very good at hiding pain and don’t always limp like dogs would. At home your cat may be less active and sleep more than normal, especially in easy to access places. The pain and stiffness in the joints may make it difficult for them to groom themselves, leaving their coat unkempt or matted. It may be more difficult for them to climb into their litter tray encouraging toilet-trained cats to find alternative places to urinate/defecate. They can also struggle or hesitate to jump up or down from high surfaces and resist using stairs or cat flaps. Finally, they can seem to have a change in personality; previously affectionate cats can become withdrawn and can even become grumpy when handled due to them being in pain.
How do you know what’s going on?
Your vet will start considering arthritis in your cat once they reach middle age (around 7 years old) and may mention it to you at a routine appointment. If you notice any of the symptoms described above please talk to your vet. On examination they may be able to detect pain, stiffness, swelling or thickening of the joints.
X-rays can be taken to confirm arthritis and exclude other diseases e.g. bone cancer. Early arthritis is not always visible on x-ray but advanced imaging such as CT or MRI can be used if needed. Further testing including blood and urine samples is not needed to diagnose arthritis, but is frequently recommended to check for other underlying disease and help decide on an appropriate treatment plan.
What can be done?
Treatment options are aimed at managing pain and inflammation in the joint, as well as promoting healthy cartilage and weight control with diet and supplements. Other factors relating to managing your cat’s quality of life in the home are also important.
Medication is often prescribed to manage the cat’s pain and decrease the inflammation. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are typically used first but other drugs (e.g. buprenorphine, gabapentin) can also be used in addition to NSAIDs or as an alternative if the cat experiences side effects.
Overweight cats have more pressure on their joints making their symptoms worse. Weight control is therefore a key step in managing arthritis and your veterinary practice can help your cat achieve their ideal weight. Joint supplements incorporating essential fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin are typically safe to use and are aimed at providing nutrients to promote healthy cartilage turnover.
Adapting the home environment can help keep your cat happy and able to enjoy their daily life. Comfortable padded beds, low sided litter trays, and steps/ramps to access their favourite spots can help maintain their quality of life. Make sure food, water, beds and litter trays are easy to access. Your cat may also need help grooming, including having their nails cut if they are unable to shed them normally.
Other alternative therapies such as acupuncture, hydrotherapy and K-laser are available and may help in some cases.