Managing Osteoarthritis in Cats

Arthritis in cats (also referred to as osteoarthritis in cats) is a far more prevalent disease than most cat parents realize, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstation's Animal Health Literacy center. In fact, the vast majority of cats will suffer from it at some point in their lives, typically in their geriatric years.

Educating yourself about arthritis in cats can help you give your feline friend the prevention and treatment she needs.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Strictly speaking, arthritis refers to any kind of joint inflammation, whether it's due to trauma, infection, cancer or immune system disorder. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association notes that the most common form of feline arthritis is caused by the degenerative process of aging, often in association with genetic diseases, like hip dysplasia. This age-related process is called "osteoarthritis," though it's also interchangeably referred to as either "degenerative joint disease" or just plain "arthritis."

Just like arthritis in people, arthritis in cats makes your kitty's joints stiff and swollen and her movements painful. It's accompanied by thinning of the joint cartilage (the protective lining of bones), fluid buildup inside the joint and the accumulation of bony material within the joint as a result of the fluid.

Head of a ginger cat looking up

How Common Is Arthritis in Cats?

Osteoarthritis is a very common disease in dogs, afflicting one in every five pups. As such, dogs are the poster pets for this disease. Meanwhile, cats suffer at an alarmingly high rate, even higher than that of dogs. International Cat Care (ICC) estimates that as many as 60 to 90 percent of all cats over the age of 12 suffer from arthritis.

Larger breed cats also have higher rates of osteoarthritis than other breeds. The ICC reports that Maine coons, in particular, seem predisposed due to their size and risk of hip dysplasia, but Persians and Scottish folds can also be at risk.

Signs of Osteoarthritis in Cats

The telltale signs of a cat with arthritis include:

  • Stiffness after exercise
  • Loss of muscle strength
  • Reduced mobility
  • Changes in grooming
  • Swollen joints
  • Missing the litter box
  • Unexplained aggression or irritability
  • Difficulty standing up, climbing, jumping or going up stairs
  • Sleeping more
  • Possibly even a grating sound in the joints

The trouble with identifying osteoarthritis in cats is that the disease typically comes on slowly, and cats never complain about their aching joints. Most pet parents also assume the standard signs of osteoarthritis (sleeping more, walking stiffly, etc.,) are "normal" in older cats and, therefore, not evidence of a disease. If you notice these signs in your cat at any age, make an appointment with your veterinarian immediately.

Maintaining Healthy Joints

Treating arthritis in cats is a complicated affair in many cases. You should work with your vet to start your cat on a weight loss program, if necessary (and it almost always is!). An overweight kitty's joints work harder than they should and cause undue pain.

An arthritic cat should be fed complete and balanced meals rich in antioxidants and fatty acids. Supplements, like glucosamine, chondroitin, and fatty acids, may also be prescribed if a therapeutic food for joint health does not already include them. Arthritis medications for cats are few and far between, but you can ask your vet if one is available.

Finally, tailor your cat's living quarters to meet her needs if she has difficulty jumping and climbing. Move toys, food, and water to a reachable level to encourage more movement and healthy muscle maintenance. Make sure your aging kitty has a litter box with low sides and a warm, padded bed in a quiet corner of the house.

Long-haired cat relaxing on a windowsill.

Staying Vigilant

As a genetically influenced disease, there's little you can do to prevent osteoarthritis in cats. However, it is possible to delay the onset of its symptoms and dramatically improve a cat's long-term quality of life. The key is helping your cat maintain a healthy weight throughout her life and identify signs early, so she can get the treatment she needs.

Routine veterinary visits are the first line of defense when it comes to diagnosing the disease early on. Radiography (X-rays) can reveal the characteristic bony growths, internal joint swelling and other joint changes expected from cats with osteoarthritis.

What to Expect After a Diagnosis

The first step is keeping an open mind. If your vet has diagnosed your cat with arthritis, it's because they've noticed significant evidence of it. Don't ignore professional advice.

Understanding that this disease is a progressive, lifelong process is the next step. You should ask your vet about long-term solutions to the problem, so you can improve your cat's quality of life in her golden years.

Finally, cat parents should be aware osteoarthritis is a serious disease. Just because cats show few outward signs of discomfort doesn't mean your pet does not need your help. Keep her in good health by seeing your vet early and often and taking all their recommendations to heart.

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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