How can I tell if my cat has arthritis and what can I do about it?
Cats are some of the most remarkable athletes on the planet, with their fast reflexes, flexible spine, and powerful muscles. What’s more, they have highly coordinated paws, equipped with retractable claws for enhanced traction and grip, and footpads that extend into their palms and fingers that mold to nearly any surface. Unlike their canine rivals, they can rotate their palms to the sky. They can reach for objects and even grasp at them. These physical attributes make them gifted climbers and expert hunters. It is no wonder why cats strut about with pride. But as they age, their movement starts to slow, and they lose that feline finesse. Have you ever wondered why?
With aging comes the insidious progression of a debilitating and painful disease – osteoarthritis. Few realize how common osteoarthritis is in cats and how painful it can be. In fact, as many as 92% of cats suffer from this disease1.
Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, progresses with time. It starts with cartilage, found within every joint. Cartilage prevents bones from rubbing together. With age, it wears thin. New bone forms, causing friction and inflammation. Arthritic joints can feel swollen and bulky to the touch and often have a shorter range of motion. Knees, hips, elbows, and the spine all fall victim to this deterioration.
Pain from osteoarthritis tends to appear gradually, and it doesn’t usually cause limping in cats like it would in dogs. Cats also tend to be stoic by nature and hide their pain well. All these reasons may, in part, explain why the disease is difficult to spot!
The trick is to draw attention to changes in behaviour, by contrasting the way they currently act to how they once acted as young adults. But even that is not as easy as it seems.
For instance, cats in pain may hide or withdraw from social interaction. At the same time, some become more affectionate, and this can be a sign of discomfort as well. Some cats will begin grooming their sore areas excessively, causing bald spots, while others may groom less. Clumps of fur can accumulate in those hard-to-reach places, such as the lower back, because osteoarthritis in the spine limits their flexibility. Cats love to send mixed messages!
Arthritic cats might play less or hesitate before jumping or using stairs. They may have a “stiff” walk. Sometimes they shift their weight from tips of their toes onto the palm of their paws, making them look flatfooted.
Cats in pain might also stop using their litter box because they find it challenging to jump in. Perhaps the journey to the litter involves overcoming many flights of stairs. Or perhaps it is the litter. It can hurt their arthritic paws because it is an uneven surface that can cause uneven pressure points. Instead, cats may relieve themselves on soft surfaces, such as the couch, mattress, or a blanket.
With chronic pain, nerve endings become more sensitive. Over time, this leads to a change in brain chemistry. The process is called pain sensitization. In other words, as chronic pain sets in, a cat can become increasingly sensitive, much like a negative feedback loop.
What’s more, the structures within the brain responsible for detecting chronic pain happen to be those that also deal with aggression. Therefore, we often see aggression and pain in tandem. Increased or newly appeared aggression toward family members or other animals may indicate chronic pain.
If any of these signs exist in your older cat, then you should be thinking about osteoarthritis.
While there is no cure, there are many ways to help a cat cope with the disease and feel more comfortable. For starters, we know that excess weight is a risk factor for osteoarthritis progression, and we also know that 60% of cats are overweight or obese2. It’s a jarring statistic, but obesity is an epidemic in cats.
A healthy weight is the most crucial element in managing degenerative joint diseases. Less weight means less wear and tear on the joints! Cats with ideal body weight are also more active, making them less susceptible to muscle wasting as they age. We want muscles to stay strong because they stabilize and strengthen vulnerable joints.
Like in people, weight loss requires a blend of exercise and calorie control. To increase physical activity, we can use environmental enrichment strategies, such as puzzle feeders or exercise feeders, encourage hunting for hidden kibble, or provide ample climbing opportunities with shelving and cat trees. For more handy pet parents, building an outdoor cat patio (a.k.a. “a catio”) can do wonders for stimulating cats to move. Cats can also go on supervised outings outdoors. Again, we want to keep those muscles strong by moving them as much as possible.
Weight loss in cats usually requires a specialized diet that can be safely calorie restricted while ensuring appropriate nutrient intake. These diets typically have a unique blend of fibres, which help with satiety and reduce begging behaviour. The aim is a slow and steady weight loss, maintaining muscle mass in the process. Your veterinarian will be able to assess your cat’s weight and, if needed, implement an appropriate weight loss program that is safe and tailored to your cat.
Ingredients such as green lipped mussel powder, glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) can help reduce signs of arthritis and inflammation and provide joint support. A safe and affordable combination of these ingredients can be found in specific veterinary therapeutic diets.
Some cats may benefit from additional veterinary guidance when diet and exercise are insufficient for controlling arthritic pain. Prescribed medications, such as anti-inflammatories, are particularly effective in relieving arthritic pain. Many veterinarians offer complementary treatments such as laser therapy and acupuncture, both can be beneficial for remediating pain. Don’t forget the time-tested massage! As with people, massaging knotted muscles can help reduce tension and be relaxing.
The bottom line is that osteoarthritis is a common, lifelong, degenerative disease of the joints affecting most cats. It invariably causes pain. Chronic pain in cats often appears as subtle changes to their normal behaviour. A healthy weight will make everything easier on them. When this is insufficient, many complementary treatment options are available. Be proactive about your cat’s discomfort; they will feel much better and thank you every step of the way.
- AAFP, Degenerative Joint Disease in Cats Feline Arthritis, American Association of Feline Practitioners, 2017, https://catvets.com/public/PDFs/ClientBrochures/DJD-BW.pdf
- APOP, “Press Release and Summary of the Veterinary Clinic: Pet Obesity Prevalence Survey & Pet Owner: Weight Management, Nutrition, and Pet Food Survey”, Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 2018, https://petobesityprevention.org/2018
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