Cat Mobility 101: Managing Cat Joint Health

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A spirited romp, an impressive leap, a lazy feline stretch — movement is vital to a cat's everyday life. And your cat's joint health is key to their ability to squirm and swipe and jump. Their joint health and mobility go hand in hand.

But if your kitty has a disease that affects their joints, or if they're older or overweight, they may experience joint issues that limit movement. Read on to learn what you, as a cat parent, should know about cat mobility and joint health for cats.

Causes of Declining Cat Mobility

The two most common causes of reduced cat mobility are a decline in joint health and obesity. Obesity can speed up and worsen normal joint aging. However, cats of all sizes can experience joint issues at as early as 6 months old.

The most common reason for a decline in joint health for cats is degenerative joint disease (DJD), commonly referred to Cat pawing at a small ball outside a cat tunnel.as osteoarthritis. DJD occurs when a cat's joint cartilage weakens and ultimately deteriorates. The absence of cartilage leads to the bones of the joints rubbing together, causing inflammation and pain, especially when a cat moves.

The following conditions can contribute to DJD and reduced mobility:

  • Hip dysplasia
  • Cruciate ligament disease
  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Infections
  • Trauma (including declawing)
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Autoimmune diseases

Signs of Declining Cat Mobility

Cat parents should pay close attention to their kitties' behavior. Cats usually only show subtle signs of weakening joints, so pet parents may mistake the behavioral changes they see as normal or age-related.

Watch out for the following signs when evaluating your cat's mobility and overall joint health:

  • Reduced jumping (or failure to reach higher surfaces)
  • Walking less frequently and spending more time at rest
  • Walking with a hunched posture
  • Loss of muscle mass, especially in the hind limbs and around the spine
  • Hiding behavior
  • Unkempt coat appearance
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Sensitivity to brushing or petting, especially on the lower back

If you see any of these behaviors in your cat, be sure to make an appointment with the veterinarian. All of these signs point to declining joint health and could mean your kitty is in pain.

How to Support Your Cat's Mobility

There's plenty that cat parents can do to maintain their kitties' joint health and mobility, and prevent future joint pain.

To promote joint health, keep your cat at an ideal weight from an early age, help them maintain an active lifestyle and make sure they get routine veterinary care.

Smart cat parents intent on improving their cats' mobility will also recognize the role of nutrition early on. Feeding your cat with an eye toward portion control and obesity prevention is crucial, but picking the right meal plan for optimal joint health is equally important. Always ask for your vet's help when selecting cat food and nutritional supplements. Beyond just your cat's meals, it's on you and your family to also ensure that she doesn't get additional scraps of human foods that can quickly add on unwanted pounds.

Persian cat pawing at feather toy while standing on a cat condo.

The Role of Exercise in Cat Mobility

A cat's mobility and overall joint health vary greatly depending on how active she is. Regular exercise is important for all cats, regardless of size. Here's why: Sturdier bones with well-used joints leads to increased flexibility and protection against injury. And micro-injuries that occur from regular wear and tear can cause osteoarthritis.

Consider the following tips to keep your kitty active and engaged in her environment, and support her mobility:

  • Engage in multiple play sessions throughout the day. Having kitty playmates adds additional opportunities for playful exercise.
  • Offer your cat a more physically challenging home life by adding shelving and cat trees. This not only leads to more jumping — it expands a cat's territory, which is always a good thing.
  • Feeding several small meals a day (instead of two large meals) improves mobility and environmental stimulation, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Using puzzle feeders and having your kitty "forage" for her food also promotes physical activity. This is different from free feeding, which is leaving food out all day and allowing your cat to eat at their desire. Rather, this means providing scheduled smaller meals based on your veterinarian's recommendation.

Treating Cats With Joint and Mobility Issues

Veterinary intervention is crucial for cats with joint and mobility problems. First, the vet will conduct a complete examination of your cat. They may perform X-rays and blood tests. Based on the test results, the vet may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and other pain medication: Can safely alleviate pain and swelling in joints
  • Amitriptyline: Also commonly prescribed for pain
  • Alternative medical treatments: Could include acupuncture or laser treatment
  • Therapeutic cat food: Be sure to ask your doctor about foods specially formulated for joint health, as promoting your cat's mobility could improve simply by swapping her food for one of these therapeutic meals.
  • Nutritional supplements: May be helpful in the treatment and prevention of degenerative joint disease

No matter your cat's age or size, encouraging more activity is always a good idea. And be sure to check in with your vet if you notice any reduction or change in your cat's movement. As a cat parent, it's up to you to keep your kitty moving!

Contributor Bio

Dr. Patty Khuly

Dr. Patty Khuly is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program. She's now the proud owner of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida. But that's not all. Dr. K is a nerdy reader, avid knitter, hot yoga fanatic, music geek, struggling runner, and indefatigable foodie. She lives in South Miami with three dogs, countless cats, two rescued goats and a hilarious flock of hens.

You can follow her writing at DrPattyKhuly.com and at SunsetVets.com.

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