Cats are capable of amazing physical feats, thanks to their uniquely flexible spine and agile, lightweight structure. Despite these capabilities, they still can suffer joint deterioration over time, which can lead to pain and dysfunction associated with arthritis. In decades past, arthritis treatment options were limited for cats, and awareness of the disease among pet owners and veterinary teams was low. 

With advances in veterinary science and treatments, however, we now know that arthritis is widespread in aging cats, and we have new, exciting treatment options at our disposal. The Tender Touch Animal Hospital team wants to share our knowledge with pet owners to help them recognize the signs of arthritis earlier for more effective treatment.

What is cat arthritis?

Over time, cartilage inside joints can start to break down from wear and tear. This sets off an inflammatory reaction that creates more damage, and the joint continues to deteriorate. Because arthritis is self-perpetuating, the damage is always progressive and rarely reversible, resulting in increasing pain and impaired mobility. Treatment cannot cure arthritis, but it can stop or slow the disease’s progression, manage pain, and improve mobility. 

What causes cat arthritis?

Arthritis is most often associated with aging, but may occur after a musculoskeletal injury or in abnormally formed joints. Uncommon types of arthritis can be caused by the immune system (i.e., autoimmune disease) or serious infections.

What are cat arthritis signs?

Recent studies show that around 60% of cats have early arthritic changes by 6 years of age, and up to 90% of cats are affected by age 12. When arthritis first starts at a younger age, most cats do not show any signs. As the disease progresses with age, signs may include:

  • Limping
  • Hesitation on stairs or when jumping on and off furniture
  • Poor grooming
  • Not using the litter box
  • Irritability or increased hiding behavior
  • Poor appetite
  • Decreased muscle mass

How is cat arthritis diagnosed?

Arthritis is best diagnosed during a cat’s wellness visit, but some pets are not diagnosed until they have noticeable changes at home. Your veterinarian may note the following arthritic changes on an orthopedic exam:

  • Swollen joints
  • Joint grinding, popping, or clicking (i.e., crepitus)
  • Reduced or painful range of motion
  • Abnormal gait

X-rays are the best tool to see joints and diagnose arthritis. If your veterinarian suspects an infectious or autoimmune process is causing your cat’s discomfort, you may be referred to a specialist for more advanced imaging and testing, such as a joint fluid tap, CT scan, or blood work.

What are the treatment options for cat arthritis?

Cats metabolize medication differently than dogs or humans, so we cannot use the same anti-inflammatory medications that are helpful for other species. However, we do have many other treatment options, including:

  • Short-term anti-inflammatories — A few non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are approved for short-term use in cats to help control acute inflammation. 
  • Pain medications — Gabapentin, and occasionally opioids, help control pain.
  • Laser therapy — “Cold” laser therapy uses light energy that penetrates deep into tissue, reducing pain and inflammation.
  • Alternative therapies — Chiropractic and acupuncture treatments may help some cats.
  • Physical rehabilitation — Physical therapy for cats can be challenging, but a skilled rehab practitioner can help cats rebuild lost muscle tone and regain mobility.
  • Joint supplements — Dasuquin Advanced and Flexadin Advanced with UC-II Extra Strength are commonly used, among others, to promote joint health.
  • Solensia — This new treatment is a once-monthly injection that specifically targets a substance in the arthritis pain pathway. This breakthrough treatment has minimal side effects and lets cat owners avoid the stress of having to administer daily medication to their cats. 

What else can I do to support my cat’s joint health?

If your arthritic cat is overweight or obese, weight loss should be your number one priority. Excess weight puts stress on your cat’s joints, and studies show that obesity can cause inflammation that contributes to arthritis progression. Exercise to help rebuild muscle loss from painful limb disuse is more difficult for heavier cats, which slows their recovery. Talk to your veterinarian about a weight-loss strategy that works for your cat and your family.

You also can modify your home to ensure your cat has easy access to their necessities by providing a low-sided litter box, and placing food and water at ground level or providing pet stairs to reach elevated bowls. Provide soft, cushioned sleeping surfaces near the main “hub” of the house so your cat still feels included.

Because many cats hide arthritis signs until their joint damage is already advanced, the Tender Touch Animal Hospital team recommends twice-yearly wellness examinations so we can detect subtle changes earlier. Contact our team to schedule your wellness visit or if your cat shows any arthritis signs, so we can start treatment to keep your cat mobile and agile throughout their senior years.