You may be surprised to read that arthritis in senior cats is just as prevalent as it in senior dogs, but less reported because we don’t recognise the signs as readily.
Cats have the evolutionary benefit of being smaller and lighter than most dogs, but they can still suffer from joint pain. In fact, a 2011 study showed that 61% of cats over the age of six had arthritis and over 82% of cats over the age of 14 (1). So why don’t we recognize the signs of arthritis in cats, and how can we manage it?
How to spot the signs
You have to remember that in the wild and not too distant past, cats lived mostly outdoors and while they were predators to small animals, they were also prey to larger animals. A cat that showed it was sick or in pain was more likely not to survive, so cats have evolved to hide their pain.
Fortunately, feline behaviour, specifically in relation to pain, has been a subject of study for many decades. We have discovered that cats can show signs of arthritis pain in many ways, we just have to be aware of what we are looking for. Signs of arthritic pain in cats can manifest in a number of ways, such as refusing to jump up to elevated surfaces, increased aggression or hiding, litter box problems including urinating and defecating outside of the box, a decrease in playful behaviour and changes in appetite. Arthritic pain is stressful and can also cause stress cystitis: inflammation of the bladder wall that can cause bloody urine, straining to urinate, increased urination and urinating inside the house. If the pain is severe, then it may cause a cat to limp.
If you notice any of these signs in your cat, schedule an appointment with your local veterinarian. Arthritis is typically diagnosed based on history, exam findings and x-ray results.
Preventing the onset of arthritis through exercise and wellbeing
Because we know that arthritis is common in cats as young as six, it is important to start early to try and prevent, or at least delay, the onset of arthritis in your cat. The most important strategy you can utilize is to maintain a healthy weight in your cat. A cat has a healthy weight and ideal body condition if you can feel your cat’s ribs. If your cat’s ribs are covered in a layer of fat, then he or she is at an unhealthy weight, predisposing them to a variety of health problems, including arthritis. If you are unsure, ask your veterinarian and check how much you should be feeding your cat. A general rule is 250-270 kcal/day for indoor cats.
Another important element to combating arthritis in cats is to keep them moving. Exercise and movement lubricates the joints and stimulates synovial fluid production, which is necessary to keep joints gliding smoothly. Exercise also burns calories.
There are several ways of getting a sedentary cat moving. One is by tossing treats so they can ‘hunt them’. Take a part of their daily allotment of treats and throw them for your cat to chase. Your cat will think this is a game and pounce on the food. You can also split the food up into different food bowls around the house and put it on elevated surfaces, so that your cat has to move around to get food. Cats also enjoy jumping into cat trees and playing with feather fishing poles.
If your cat is particularly heavy, or you are having a hard time getting your cat to exercise, speak with your veterinarian about physiotherapy and swimming.
Supplements for joint health
The third component of feline joint health is a high-quality joint supplement. When considering a joint supplement, look for glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM and green-lipped mussels on the label.
If your cat is already suffering from arthritis pain, first work with your veterinarian to design a weight loss program (if appropriate) and to help manage your cat’s pain. There are several medications that are licensed for arthritic pain in cats. Never give a cat any human anti-inflammatories or pain medications as these can cause life-threatening side effects. Additional therapies to consider include acupuncture and cold laser therapy. Both of these alternative therapies are affordable and non-invasive, and a potential addition to any feline arthritis management plan.
Slingerland LI, Hazewinkel HA, Meij BP, Picavet P, Voorhout G. Cross-sectional study of the prevalence and clinical features of osteoarthritis in 100 cats. Vet J. 2011 Mar;187(3):304-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.12.014. Epub 2010 Jan 18.
Author info: Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado part time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital and writes for multiple online and print publications.