Many people believe arthritis affects older pets, but young pets can also develop the condition. To help keep your furry pal pain-free and mobile for many years to come, our Midtown Veterinary Hospital team must identify the disorder early in the disease process to be able to manage your whiskered pal’s signs. Learn how to help keep your cat active and comfortable by reading our guide to feline arthritis.

What is arthritis in cats?

Arthritis is a chronic degenerative disease that causes irreversible changes to the joint tissue, including the cartilage, capsule, and surrounding bone. While not much is known about feline arthritis, experts believe the disease develops because of a primary joint problem (e.g., abnormal shape) or normal wear-and-tear activities.

As cartilage degrades, the joint’s bones lose their cushion, causing them to rub and grind together. Over time, jagged edges and bone spurs form, causing an affected cat to experience pain and a decreased range of motion.

What arthritis signs will my cat show?

Dogs exhibit arthritis signs more often than cats, and you may have difficulty determining whether your whiskered pal is developing the condition. Cats typically do not limp or become lame as do arthritic dogs, which is attributable to cats’ small size and their excellent ability to compensate for joint pain. In addition, cats often develop arthritis in contralateral joints (i.e., the elbows or hips on both sides of the body), so they do not favor one side over the other.

Despite a cat’s incredible ability to hide illness, injury, and pain, behavior and habit changes may indicate they have arthritis. Your feline friend may have this degenerative joint condition if they exhibit any of these signs:

  • Reluctance to jump or climb
  • Difficulty getting in and out of the litter box
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Trouble crouching down to eat and drink
  • An unkempt hair coat 
  • Overgrooming a particular area, such as a painful joint
  • Less interactive behavior
  • Irritability or aggression when petted
  • Decreased activity
  • Inappetence

Cats generally exhibit arthritis signs in a gradual, subtle manner, and you may have difficulty spotting them until the disease has advanced and your whiskered pal’s pain is significant. A majority of cats develop arthritis during their lifetime, with about 60% exhibiting signs by age 6. Up to 90% of cats have the disease by age 12.

How is arthritis diagnosed in my cat?

Diagnosing arthritis in a cat is often more challenging than diagnosing the disease in a dog. Cats often refuse to participate in a gait analysis or cooperate for an orthopedic evaluation and physical exam. Most often, our Midtown Veterinary Hospital team diagnoses a cat’s arthritis by doing the following:

  • Learning about the signs your whiskered pal has been exhibiting at home
  • Joint changes (i.e., swelling, crepitus, decreased range of motion) detected during a physical exam 
  • Pain on joint manipulation
  • Arthritic joint changes viewed on X-rays
  • Improvement after arthritis treatment is initiated

Our team will perform blood work and a urinalysis to rule out other potential health issues and to assess organ function. Depending on the signs your cat is exhibiting and initial diagnostic test results, we may perform additional tests such as a joint fluid analysis, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans.

How is my cat’s arthritis treated?

Although arthritis is a progressive condition, our Midtown Veterinary Hospital team offers various therapies that can slow your feline friend’s disease process and alleviate their discomfort. In rare cases, we may recommend surgery to improve an arthritic cat’s comfort and mobility. However, our team initially recommends these feline arthritis treatment options:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — Typically, NSAIDs are the first drug we prescribe to combat a cat’s joint inflammation and pain. While long-term NSAID use can cause adverse effects, particularly on organ function, administering the lowest effective dose can help your cat enjoy a good quality of life for years to come.
  • Pain medications — As arthritis progresses, additional pain medication may be needed to keep your cat comfortable. Opioids and neuropathic pain medication may be indicated as add-on treatment options.
  • Disease-modifying products — Cartilage-preserving and pain-reducing products are exceptionally effective for cats because they cause few, if any, side effects. In addition, our team injects these medications during a patient’s visit, meaning you do not have to administer oral medication to your whiskered pal every day.
  • Alternative therapies — Not all cats are easy to medicate, nor do all cats tolerate medication. For these cats, we offer alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, and laser therapy, which can make a world of difference to their discomfort. 
  • Joint supplements — Even before your cat exhibits any arthritis signs, you should initiate a joint supplement regimen, as supplements are most beneficial for preserving joint health. Ingredients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussels, are particularly effective for maintaining and improving joint health.
  • Prescription diet — When you feed your cat a prescription diet, they will receive the benefits of weight loss and joint health support. Many cats are overweight, which puts additional stress on painful joints, and a prescription diet can help them safely and effectively lose weight.

How can I help my arthritic cat at home?

Professional veterinary care is your cat’s first-line treatment for arthritis signs. However, you can also make your arthritic cat’s life easier at home by following these tips:

  • Keep food, water, litter boxes, and beds easily accessible
  • Use carpet runners and yoga mats to provide traction on slick floors
  • Offer firm bedding to cushion painful joints
  • Install steps or ramps to help your whiskered pal reach favorite spots on windowsills or furniture
  • Keep your cat at a healthy weight

While you may associate your cat’s decreased activity as part of the normal aging process, they may have arthritis. If your feline friend isn’t jumping as high, or is struggling to climb or use their litter box, schedule an appointment with our Midtown Veterinary Hospital team.