6 Signs of Arthritis in Cats: Learn About Symptoms and Treatments Options · The Wildest

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6 Surprising Signs of Arthritis in Cats

They’re not what you’d think, according to veterinary behaviourist Dr Margaret Gruen

by Daniela Lopez
16 May 2024
A woman petting her cat on the couch
Heng Yu / Stocksy

Cats are living longer than ever. As they age, the risk of developing a chronic disease increases. While osteoarthritis is commonly diagnosed in dogs, it had been seen as a disease unlikely to affect cats until recently. It turns out that feline arthritis, also referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a lot more common in cats than you’d think. Veterinary researchers estimate 45 percent of all cats and 90 percent of cats over age 10 are affected by arthritis in some way. 

Luckily, there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to help determine if your cat has arthritis. If your cat is diagnosed, there are treatments available to ensure your cat can live happily and comfortably.

What is arthritis in cats?

Arthritis is a progressive bone disease in cats where the normal cartilage cushion between joints deteriorates, causing inflammation, stiffness and pain from the bones grinding against each other. Arthritis can affect any joint but cats suffering from this condition will most commonly experience stiffness in their elbows, hips, shoulders, wrists and knees.

Diagnosing arthritis in cats

It’s strange to think that, previously, it was believed that cats were unlikely to develop osteoarthritis. But even now, with plenty of research showing how prevalent this chronic disease is, cats are regularly under-diagnosed – especially when compared to the rate of diagnosis in dogs. So, why aren’t more cats being diagnosed and treated for arthritis? Well, unlike many dogs, cats conceal joint problems more easily due to their small size and physical agility.

“It really comes down to understanding what pain looks like in cats,” says Dr Margaret Gruen, a veterinary behaviourist and Professor of Behavioural Medicine at North Carolina State University. “People tend to assume that their cat will vocalise or show their pain in the same way a dog might, but chronic pain in cats doesn’t show itself that way. Instead, behaviours that pet parents might attribute to ‘getting old’ or ‘slowing down’ can often be signs of joint pain or disease.”

Unless you know what to look for, it can be easy to miss the signs of arthritis. In fact, diagnosing arthritis in cats is difficult even for experienced veterinarians. Vets will rely on a pet parent’s observations about their cat’s activity level because changes are often subtle. This simple checklist was developed to help you watch for early signs of arthritis in cats.

Cat arthritis checklist

  • Does your cat jump up normally?

  • Does your cat jump down normally?

  • Does your cat climb up stairs normally?

  • Does your cat climb down steps normally?

  • Does your cat run normally?

  • Does your cat chase moving objects?

Signs that you’d think would be obvious (and are commonly seen in dogs) – like lameness, decreased range of motion and a crunching feeling in the joint – are actually uncommon in cats. This makes it challenging to notice the symptoms. Instead of a limp, cats will continue to do the same activities they always have, though poorly or more slowly. You might notice that it takes your cat several tries to jump up onto the bed or maybe they hesitate before climbing stairs each night.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis in cats include:

  • difficulty in jumping on and off surfaces

  • hesitancy to climb stairs

  • weight loss

  • depression, less interest in play or usual activities

  • poor grooming

  • resistance to using the litter box, or more frequent accidents

Treatment for arthritis

You can make simple changes at home to improve your cat’s quality of life. For starters, keep your cat at a healthy weight and increase exercise through play. Use a litter box with lower sides to ease the pain of entering and exiting, elevate food and water bowls, and provide your cat with a comfy bed. Many cats also benefit from alternative treatment options like acupuncture, massage and laser therapy.

But because arthritis in cats was so commonly under-diagnosed, medical treatment options have been limited. Cats are often treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), but only for short-term use. “While feline osteoarthritis isn’t curable, the pain from osteoarthritis can be effectively managed,” says Dr Gruen. That’s good news for cats everywhere suffering from arthritis.

It all starts at home

As your cat ages, keep those six questions in mind and revisit them once a year. By knowing the signs, you’ll be able to provide your veterinarian with important information to better diagnose this chronic disease. “Pet parents are so important for cats – veterinarians don’t see them in settings where these changes are obvious,” says Dr Gruen. “So pet parents have to understand what may be causing these behaviours, then see their vet. It’s remarkable how much cats still want to do when pain is relieved. When you see them get a treatment that works, it’s amazing.”

Adapted with permission from NC State University. Source: [NC State]

daniela lopez

Daniela Lopez

Daniela Lopez is a digital media specialist and long-time contributor to The Bark.

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