“He’s slowing down a bit now he’s older, of course…”  A phrase commonly heard in veterinary consultations, but is it true? Do cats just naturally slow down as they get older, or is there a more definitive reason? 

Arthritis is a well-known condition in both humans and pets, causing painful, inflamed joints and an altered gait. It mostly affects older animals, and can present as the pet just seeming to slow down a bit: walk less, play less, sleep more. But unlike age, arthritis can be managed, with a variety of ways to bring relief to the patient. So it is important that the symptoms are not missed or disregarded.

What is arthritis?

We commonly use the term “arthritis”, but this is actually an umbrella term for a range of joint disorders.  Osteoarthritis is a degenerative process caused by wear and tear on the joints – often through natural ageing. The process starts slowly, with the cartilage (the smooth, slick layer that cushions the ends of bones at joint processes) wearing down, leaving the bone ends to rub against each other. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, and can be extremely painful, as the friction of bone-on-bone causes swelling, stiffness and inflammation. Osteoarthritis can be primary (where there is no obvious underlying cause to the degeneration of joint health), or secondary to a joint injury or deformity. In humans, rheumatoid arthritis is also well recognised, which has a substantial auto-immune link. This seems to be rare in cats, however.

Do cats actually get arthritis?

Unlike their canine counterparts, in which arthritis has long been recognised as a hugely common problem, vets and owners only started diagnosing arthritis in cats much later. This is partially because cats are experts at disguising pain, and can mask the symptoms of arthritis very well. 

This can also make diagnosing arthritis in cats more challenging. But studies looking at x-rays of cats’ joints find plenty of evidence that cats do indeed suffer from osteoarthritis. In a 2002 study (Hardie), a huge 90% of cats over the age of 12 showed signs of degeneration in at least one joint. This shocking statistic was repeated in a similar study in 2010 (Lascelles). Two thirds of these had disease affecting their limb joints, the rest had spondylosis of the spine. Other studies place the prevalence of arthritis in older cats to be between 60-90%, with the severity of signs increasing as cats get older. 

It is not entirely clear what causes arthritis in cats. There has been no common predisposing cause identified, signs appear to advance with the wear and tear of ageing. So most cases are presumed to be primary osteoarthritis. There are certain risk factors: joint injuries such as fractures and dislocations predispose the joint to degeneration, and obesity is well-proven to exacerbate arthritis. 

There are some breeds that have characteristics that make them more likely to develop arthritis. Scottish Fold cats are very prone to arthritis due to the cartilage malformation that the breed is known for. Maine Coon cats are over-represented for hip dysplasia, where the hip joints fail to develop properly, which then predisposes them to hip osteoarthritis. Patella luxation is more commonly seen in Devon Rex and Abyssinian cats, which similarly increases the chance of arthritis of the knee. 

What symptoms does a cat with arthritis show?

This is the tricky bit! Cats are clever souls, and if they want to hide something from you, they will! It is deeply ingrained behaviour in cats not to show pain, and therefore weakness. The common symptoms in dogs of pain and limping are much less seen in cats. 

Instead, lookout for more subtle clues:

  • Reduced activity: cats will naturally restrict the use of their sore joints rather than obviously limp. You may see less hunting and play behaviours and more time sleeping or resting. They may interact with people less, or stop going outside as frequently. 
  • Reduced mobility: when they are forced to be active, you may notice reluctance or difficulty in jumping up and down, using a high-sided cat flap or litter tray or going up and down stairs. They may appear stiff when walking or jumping, especially after rest. 
  • Behaviour: some arthritic cats become grumpier and less amenable to being picked up or handled. This is often attributed to old age grumpiness, but is in fact due to pain or discomfort. Some cats may begin hiding away in easily accessible hiding places. 
  • Grooming: some arthritic cats, especially those with involvement of the spine, find it difficult to reach some areas to groom and may develop a matted coat. Others may overgroom sore joints and develop bald or sore patches of skin. Their claws can get long as they are less active and spend less time scratching and sharpening the claws, and they can find it painful to retract them. 

These symptoms can all vary in severity, and their onset can be so gradual that they can be missed. The International Cat Care group has produced a mobility checklist that can be very useful to judge your cat’s symptoms. 

How would the vet diagnose arthritis?

If you are concerned that your cat may have arthritis, especially if displaying any of the changes above, an appointment with your veterinary surgeon is the first step. The vet will perform a full exam, and when examining the joints may be able to say if there is pain, swelling or any obvious abnormality of the joints. Often, a diagnosis of arthritis can be presumed based on the clinical symptoms and an examination. But if there is any doubt then x-rays can be very useful to see how badly the joints are affected, or if there are any other bony abnormalities.

Sometimes, x-rays may not be necessary and trialling some pain relief medication may be a useful diagnostic tool to see how your cat responds. Blood and/or urine samples may be necessary if there are other concerns, or prior to starting some medications. Your vet will be able to discuss with you how best to approach your cat’s individual case. 

Can arthritis be treated in cats?

There are various methods for managing arthritis in cats; including changes to their environment as well as dietary management and specific medications. We’ll look at that in a future blog! 

Arthritis is a common and painful condition mostly seen in older cats. It can be difficult to recognise in cats, which has led to cases being missed. There is lots that can be done to help these cats, so if you think your cat is showing any signs of joint discomfort, please speak to your veterinary surgeon. 

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