Arthritis In Cats

LAST UPDATED 13 DECEMBER 2023

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Belinda Stancombe BVSc (Hons) and was last updated by Dr Jacqui Victor BVSc MANZCVS (Medicine of Cats)

Is your cat getting grumpy in their old age? Do they dislike being picked up or patted in certain places? Are they reluctant to climb or jump onto furniture? Are they grooming less and getting knots around their back legs and tail?

While we might think these changes are inevitable with old age, it's likely that there is more to the story. Arthritis is a common condition seen in older pets which can negatively affect mobility and cause significant pain.

Don't let your cat suffer in silence. Find out what arthritis is, the common signs in cats and the treatment options that really work to support your fur baby and improve their quality of life.

Contents:

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis, scientifically referred to as 'osteoarthritis' or 'degenerative joint disease', is a degenerative, progressive, and irreversible condition of the joints.

While the 'itis' in the word 'arthr-itis' makes us think that it is an inflammatory condition, inflammation is actually only one component of the disease process. Granted, some degree of inflammation does occur; but arthritis in cats is also characterised by a loss of the cartilage (the soft structural component that overlies and protects the bone) and the formation of 'osteophytes' which are new pieces of bone laid down in an effort to protect the joint surface. Low-grade inflammation occurs when destructive enzymes within the joint start to break down the cartilage.

Arthritis can be classified as either primary or secondary. Primary arthritis is due to an intrinsic problem in the cartilage and is associated with ageing - this type of arthritis typically occurs in older cats as a result of years of wear and tear on the joints. Secondary arthritis occurs due to an external factor or force disrupting the normal cartilage in the joint and most commonly affects a single joint. While secondary arthritis is common in dogs and is secondary to an underlying problem such as a cranial cruciate ligament rupture, cats are far less likely to be affected by this type of arthritis.

Signs of Arthritis in Cats

Cats are masters at disguise. While lameness is often identified quickly in dogs when walking, this is often not the case for cats. Cats can spend up to 90% of their day snoozing, which leaves only a short window of time for owners to detect an abnormality. Unlike dogs, lameness is not a 'classic' feature of arthritis in cats and instead cats are more likely to display a few other behavioural changes.

Common Signs of Arthritis in Cats:

  • Reduced playing and sleeping more
  • Reluctance to climb or jump onto furniture
  • Decreased grooming (particularly over the spine or hips)
  • Trouble entering the litter tray (may toilet next to the litter tray)
  • Trouble squatting to toilet
  • Grumpy when picked up or patted over the spine or hips

It's important to understand that many cats won't vocalise when they are in pain, even with significant disease. If you notice any change in your cat's gait, behaviour or you are concerned that your cat may be in pain, always seek veterinary advice. Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, playing close attention to the joints to assess for swelling, decreased range of motion, pain, instability and lameness.

Vets are trained to look for other important clues such as muscle wasting and stiffness to determine our patient's pain levels. Your vet may recommend further diagnostics such as radiographs, blood work or evaluation of the joint fluid to differentiate from other conditions, before formulating a treatment plan.

Treatment of Arthritis in Cats

In all cases, there are a few important steps that you can take which can significantly improve your cat's quality of life. While it's nice to think that a single 'wonder arthritis medication' is effective at controlling pain long-term, in reality we need to combine techniques to be most effective. This multimodal approach means we're also less likely to see side effects associated with certain therapies.

1. Best Cat Food for Arthritis

Weight control is the single most important strategy in the management of arthritis in cats. Extra weight results in increased stress on the joints and also makes cats even less likely to move around! Fat also releases inflammatory mediators which can contribute to inflammation in your cat's body.

Just like for humans, weight control relies on diet and exercise. There are numerous low-calorie diets and veterinary prescription weight loss diets available in both wet and dry varieties. Always keep in mind that a weight loss diet requires consistency.

Most senior cat foods will also contain additional ingredients to help with joint health, such as glucosamine, chondroitin and omega fatty acids. Many older cats with arthritis will also have other diseases such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, liver disease and heart disease. Your veterinarian will be able to advise which diet options are best to suit your cat's individual needs.

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2. Best Arthritis Medications for Cats

Your veterinarian will determine the most appropriate pain relief regime for your cat. In some cases, multiple medications may be recommended to achieve the best results. Some forms of pain relief aren't suitable for some cats due to their concurrent health issues, so every case is assessed on an individual case basis. Some available treatments include:

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs - Meloxicam 'Metacam'): This is by far the most commonly prescribed medication for cats with arthritis as they help decrease the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis. Whilst extremely effective in many cases, close attention needs to be paid to your cat's kidney and liver function before and during use, so regular check ups are required including blood and urine tests.

Disease modifying arthritis drugs (Pentosan polysulphate - brand names include 'Zydax' and 'Cartrophen'): Pentosan polysulphate is an ingredient of plant origin which acts within the joint to preserve joint health in several ways including stimulating cartilage production, slowing cartilage damage by destructive enzymes, lubricating joint fluid, blocking inflammatory mediators and improving blood flow to the joints to help with mobility. Although it's not registered for use in cats, it is commonly used 'off-label' in cats with mutual consent between vet and owner. The initial course involves weekly injections for 4 weeks, after which your vet may recommend another course of 4 injections 3-6 months later.

Monoclonal Antibody Therapy (Frunevetmab - brand name 'Solensia'): Solensia has recently been released in Australia, and is registered to help control the pain associated with feline osteoarthritis. It is a monthly injection, and works in a different way to other drugs commonly used for arthritis. Frunevetmab (the active ingredient in Solensia) is a cat-specific monoclonal antibody that binds to a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF), which is involved in the regulation of pain. By binding to and blocking the effects of NGF, it prevents pain signals from reaching the brain.

Opioids (eg Buprenorphine, Tramadol or Fentanyl): These stronger pain reliefs may be prescribed for cats with pre-existing kidney issues which are unsuitable for NSAID therpay, or may be used in conjunction with other pain relief modalities for cats that require a higher level of pain relief.

Gabapentin: Gabapentin is particularly beneficial for neurologic or spinal pain, and also has some anti-anxiety effects. Gabapentin can cause sedation especially in cats.

WARNING! NEVER GIVE YOUR CAT HUMAN PAIN RELIEF WITH CONSULTING YOUR VETERINARIAN.
Paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen, and found in 'Panadol', 'Tylenol', and 'Codral Cold + Flu') is extremely toxic to cats as it destroys their red blood cells leading to a haemolytic anaemia, a serious and life-threatening condition. Ibuprofen (brand names include 'Nurofen' and 'Advil') is also very toxic to cats and can result in life-threatening kidney damage.

3. Natural Joint Supplements for Cats with Arthritis

There are a number of natural extracts and herbal products with proven anti-inflammatory properties. Some are antioxidants, which slow the actual progression of arthritis, while others intercept the inflammatory cascade to limit pain and inflammation.

Green Lipped Mussel (Perna canaliculus): Green Lipped Mussel contains key omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, glycosaminoglycans (a source of chondroitin), vitamins and minerals which have been shown to have beneficial anti-inflammatory effects in cats with arthritis. Similar to other joint supplements, it may take several weeks to notice visible effects, however it has been shown to play a role in reducing inflammation and pain in the joints.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin: Glucosamine and Chondroitin are the building blocks of normal healthy cartilage. Despite a lack of strong evidence in the veterinary literature, some veterinarians and owners have found supplementation to be helpful. With minimal side effects compared to some of the common pain relief medications, they are a good option for mild cases and to use alongside other therapies.

Omega Fatty Acids: Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have been demonstrated to have many benefits including anti inflammatory properties. As far as supplements for arthritis go they are backed by the most convincing evidence. Omega 3's can be obtained from lots of difference natural sources including fish oil and green lipped mussel powder.

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4. Natural Remedies for Cats with Arthritis

Encouraging your kitty to move can be a real challenge sometimes, especially when they've found that comfy snoozing spot by the window. When it comes to exercise, keep in mind that your cat's joints are sensitive and minimal weight bearing movements are ideal.

Gentle play is recommended to help stimulate your cat and keep them moving. You may need to find out what types of play your cat is interested in. Try encouraging them with toys such as wand toys, laser pointers, or chase toys. If they are food motivated, you can try feeding them their regular diet in an puzzle toy to make them work for their food and burns some calories.

Provide stairs or a ramp so that your cat can reach their favourite places without having to jump and impact their joints. Also make sure that your cat's food and water bowls, and litter trays are easily accessible at floor level.

Provide your arthritic cat with a larger litter tray that has a lower entry lip so they can easily get in and out, and spend time grooming your cat as this may be difficult for them. Many arthritic cats will also respond well to muscle massage and acupuncture.

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5. Best Beds for Cats with Arthritis

Make sure your cat has plenty of soft, comfortable beds placed in easily accessible and quiet locations (igloo beds are great way to help your kitty feel warm and secure). Well-padded, elevated beds are also great for arthritic cats, as the physical strain of getting out of bed can be quite challenging with stiff joints.

Cold weather can cause stiff joints, so a heated bed or mat can help soothe sore joints and improve mobility. Carpeted, non-slip flooring is also advised around your cat's bedding and ideally in all areas of the house your cat explores.

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Arthritis is a very common condition and while it's hard to watch our feline friends get older and everything that entails, take some comfort from knowing that there are small actions you can take that can make a big difference to the life of your best friend. Don't hesitate to seek veterinary treatment if you are concerned that your cat is suffering from arthritis as there are many treatment options available to improve the quality of life of our feline friends.

Further Reading

10 Must Have Products For When You're Away From Home

Why Do Cats Purr?

Looking After Your Senior Cat

Dental Care For Cats

9 Best Indoor Cat Toys

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