Managing Arthritis In Cats


This article is written by Pet Circle Veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski, BVSc (Hons).

Understanding Arthritis - Why cats are not just 'small' dogs

Could your kitty be suffering in silence from joint pain? 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.

The 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.

Signs of Arthritis in Cats can present as:

  • - Reduced playing
  • - Reluctance to climb or jump onto furniture
  • - Decreased grooming (particularly over the spine or hips)
  • - Grumpy attitude when being picked up
  • - Trouble entering the litter tray (may toilet next to the litter tray)

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 or 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.

As vets, we're taught 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 and evaluation of the joint fluid to differentiate from other diseases such as inflammatory arthritis.

How You Can Help

In all cases, there are a few important steps that you can take which can significantly improve your cat's quality of life and pain. 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. Weight Control and Diet

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 available in both wet and dry varieties - and even special diets with joint care ingredients. Always keep in mind that a weight loss diet requires consistency and must be fed exclusively without tidbits or leftover table scraps.

With regards to exercise, keep in mind that your cat's joints are sensitive and minimal weightbearing movements are ideal. Playing is the best form of exercise for cats, and you may need to find what types of play your cat will tolerate. You can try to encourage your cat to move with teasers, laser pointers, or chase toys.

READ MORE In our article Tips to Help Your Cat Lose Weight.

Top Diets for Cats with Arthritis

2. Pain Relief

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 treatments available include:

Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): including Meloxicam. This is by far one of the most commonly prescribed type of drug for arthritis in cats (and humans). While 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.

Disease modifying arthritis drugs (Pentosan polysulfate - "Cartrophen"): Your vet may also prescribe a course of arthritis 'injections' called pentosan polysulfate - 'Cartrophen' or 'Zydax'. The active ingredient is of plant origin and acts within the joint to preserve joint health and provide pain relief. These are a series of injections, one injection per week for 4-6 weeks, followed by a booster injection at a time frame specificed by your vet.

Opioids: including Tramadol, may be prescribed for animals with preexisting kidney or liver disease. In cats, this medication should provide good pain relief (unlike dogs) but it can create sedation.

Gabapentin: Particularly beneficial for neurologic or spinal pain, and may have some anti-anxiety effects. Gabapentin can cause sedation especially in cats.

DID YOU KNOW Paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen, and found in Panadol, Tylenol, and Codral Cold + Flu) is extremely toxic to cats. It can destroy your cat's red blood cells, leading to a haemolytic anaemia. NEVER give your cat human pain relief unless expressly advised by your vet!

3. Joint Supplements

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): GLM 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. A product containing GLM for cats is PAW Blackmore's Osteosupport Capsules.

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. There are a number of products available such as Vetalogica Joint Support Chewables and Seaflex Joint Function Health Supplements.

Top Joint Care Supplements for Cats

Check out all joint supplements here

4. Physical Therapy and Explorative Feeding

When it comes to exercise, balance is key. We don't want to over-do it and lead to discomfort and accelerated cartilage destruction, however we do want to achieve a healthy weight which requires some degree of exercise. Encouraging your kitty to move can be a real challenge sometimes, especially when they've found that comfy snoozing spot by the window.

Fortunately, there's a range of interactive toys and feeding mazes available for cats which help to slow down eating, keep their minds active and encourage activity to help burn some calories.

Many arthritic cats also respond well to muscle massage and acupuncture. Why not apply a warm compress over sore joints and perform gentle massage yourself at home? Always take care to avoid injury from excess heat when using warm compresses.

Our top food enrichment products for cats:

5. The Importance of the Right Bed

For an arthritic cat, the physical strain of getting out of bed can be quite challenging. When looking for a bed, try to find a well-padded bed that is elevated slightly. Rising from ground level can be difficult with stiff joints and an elevated bed requires less movement to get up. Avoid beds with a large lip as this can be hard to step over and ideally find a sturdy bed with memory foam such as the Snooza Magnomat. The solid structure will provide better support whereas soft, fluffy beds can make getting up a more difficult task.

Carpeted, non-slip flooring is also advised around bedding and if possible, in all areas of the house your cat travels to. Cold weather can cause stiff joints, so a heating mat can help soothe sore joints and improve mobility when getting up. It is best to place the mat over half of the bed only. If the heating mat covers the whole bed, your cat will not be able to regulate their temperature and may overheat. Heat mats should always have a cover and supervision during use is required as some cats may remove the cover. Direct contact for prolonged periods can cause burns, so please exercise caution. Check out the Petlife Self Warming Throw Pad.

Our top beds for arthritic cats:

Shop Cat Osteosupport and Heated Beds and Cushions here

You can make a difference!

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.

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If you have any questions, the Pet Circle vets are here to help! You can contact us here.