Arthritis in Cats: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

An older dog will show signs of arthritis that are very obvious. But you may not be able to tell your cat is in discomfort.

By: pelican
Is your cat moving slower? By: pelican

Our cats are living longer and getting fatter. They are enjoying life well into their teens, their geriatric years, often with some extra pounds and chronic disease. As Curious George ages, he may become more and more sedentary.

George may still be curious, but his aging joints are keeping him from poking around the house. He may be suffering from arthritis.

You may see your older Labrador start to show signs of arthritis that are painfully obvious. Your cat may be in the same amount of discomfort, but because cats are cats, they may be in pain under your radar. Your Lab may not be able to do stairs any more, or may have trouble standing up in the morning, very obvious changes. But your cat’s joint pain may be much more subtle.

If Curious G isn’t getting on the bed as much, or isn’t jumping up to drink from the sink anymore, this could be significant. Maybe he looks at the windowsill and acts as if he’d just rather sleep on the floor. Cats prefer perches and higher ground. If your cat is hesitating to jump, or is looking at his favorite chair and then just walking away, maybe old George is in some considerable arthritic pain.

Age, weight, health status and previous injuries play a big role in feline arthritis. Most cats don’t develop obvious signs of arthritis until they are at least 10. The obese cat has a much harder time dealing with aging joints.

Other conditions that can decrease his energy or affect his hydration status can certainly make arthritis worse, such as kidney disease, diabetes or a heart problem. If George had a broken bone or a dislocated hip earlier in life, that joint has a higher risk of becoming arthritic as he ages.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is relatively straightforward. The cat caretaker usually notices stiffness, a limp, slowness or an inability to jump. Since this is generally a geriatric problem in cats, a geriatric workup including bloodwork is usually recommended to make sure the cat does not have some underlying metabolic disease, causing slowness or a change in gait.

Diabetes, for example, can create a change in gait in the hind end of many cats. The diabetes must be diagnosed and treated in order to improve the cat’s mobility. Finally, X-rays of hips or other joints may be recommended to reveal the extent of the arthritic changes.

In the following video, Dr. Josie Thompson and Susan West, DC, talk about feline arthritis:

Treatment

Treating cats for arthritis can be more challenging than treating dogs for a couple of reasons. If medication is needed, we all know how easy daily dosing of meds can be in a cat! And cats have peculiar problems when it comes to using anti-inflammatories, the mainstay of treating arthritis. Many drugs are just not safe for use in cats.

Neutraceuticals

Glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, MSM, antioxidants. These are nutrients with medical properties, often used in conjunction with other medications. Often slow-acting, these may help aging kitty joints to feel better or lessen future deterioration. Dosages are not set in stone, and measuring effectiveness can be difficult. All in all, these are considered to be very safe.

NSAIDs

An NSAID is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. In plain English, aspirin, Tylenol and ibuprofen are all examples of human NSAIDs. Cats breakdown these drugs very differently from humans or dogs. That is why aspirin should never be given to cats without supervision. As I hope you all know, Tylenol (acetominophen) can kill a cat (and is dangerous in dogs too).

Recently, a new veterinary drug in this category has been approved for use in cats, and it appears very promising. Although testing has been done on the required numbers of cats, we all know that drugs can have unknown consequences, even if approved.

Think about those ads on TV saying, “If you suffered a serious side effect from taking this drug, call BAD-DRUG now.” Celebrex was used for humans with arthritis for years before very serious side effects were uncovered. Testing is much more vigorous on drugs for the human market than the veterinary market.

Even after millions and millions of dollars in drug development and safety in the human drug market, there are still unknown and serious side effects uncovered. In veterinary medicine, these drugs hit the market with less testing, plain and simple.

My philosophy, with any new veterinary drug, is to use it very cautiously or in very limited cases until it has a proven track record. I am hopeful that new drugs may be helpful in cats suffering from arthritic and other painful conditions. I just use caution!

The drug companies have developed drugs that have improved animals’ lives immeasurably. But let’s face it: Their motive, ultimately, is profit. It’s up to the veterinarian and the client to weigh the profit/risk margin on any new drug.

Other Treatments

Physical therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, laser therapy… lots of new treatment options are being used. In the next decade, I believe we will be using these techniques, and learning more and more about these treatments to alleviate pain in senior cats.

Take-Home Message

If you’re seeing your aging kitty begin to show changes in mobility, have a conversation with your vet. I think feline arthritis is under-diagnosed. We need to be more aware of our cats’ subtle movement changes, diagnose their pain and help them!

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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