Osteoarthritis in Cats - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
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Especially when compared to dogs, arthritis is not a condition we often associate with cats. Older dogs in particular are more prone to limping, something which is relatively rare in cats. However, degeneration of joints and its associated effects on the well-being of the animal does affect cats. At AnimalWised, we look at the causes, symptoms and treatment of osteoarthritis in cats. With the knowledge that this disease is incurable, we understand how we can manage their symptoms and do everything we can as caregivers to improve the feline's quality of life.
What is osteoarthritis in cats?
As cats advance in age, their organism will be affected. While this will vary according to different factors, the simple fact when it comes to a cat's joints is that they deteriorate over time. Jumping from height, enacting feline hunting behavior and the simple toll of walking over many years wears down the joints so they function less well. Specifically, the cartilage between the bones wears down to cause mobility issues, discomfort and pain.
This process leads to osteoarthritis, i.e. the inflammatory joint disease caused by cartilage and bone rubbing together. Being a degenerative disease, it is most commonly diagnosed in older cats. It can occur in younger cats, but usually only when they already have health problems which affect their joints. The term ‘arthritis’ is a general term for joint inflammation, of which there are many types.
Types of osteoarthritis in cats
In terms of feline osteoarthritis, we can categorize it into two specific types:
- Primary osteoarthritis: it is the most common in older cats. Its cause is unclear, but the joint has not suffered any prior trauma. It can be due to both immune and infectious joint disease.
- Secondary osteoarthritis: unlike primary osteoarthritis, it is due to trauma, chronic joint overload or deformation.
Causes of osteoarthritis in cats
There are several factors and causes that can trigger or aggravate osteoarthritis in cats. Some of them can occur in isolation, others may compound existing joint problems which lead to osteoarthritis. They include:
- Injuries: trauma caused by falls, traffic collisions, fights, etc. can cause fractures, dislocations or any other damage that modifies the load that supports the joint.
- Age: over the years wear and tear on the joints occurs.
- Genetics: some feline breeds have a greater predisposition to suffer from this disease. Examples include the Scottish Fold, Abyssinian or Maine Coon cat breeds.
- Acromegaly: is a rare hormonal condition that can lead to osteoarthritis.
- Obesity: increases the load that the joints have to bear, aggravating osteoarthritis. Cold temperatures are also a factor that worsens the discomfort.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis in cats
As discussed in the introduction, we do not often associated cats with osteoarthritis. One reason for this false perception is that cats are very good at hiding their pain and discomfort. They may be suffering from degenerative joint disease, but we won't notice until it has progressed significantly. Additionally, since the disease is progressive, the cat is given time to find ways to adapt their movements and behavior. The result is that osteoarthritis is underdiagnosed in cats, something which reasserts the need for regular veterinary checkups.
The main clinical sign of osteoarthritis in cats is chronic pain. The pain will be specific to the area of the joint which is affected, usually the elbow and hips. It is difficult to detect signs of pain in cats as they will not often vocalize it unless it is very acute. Usually, they will show pain by adopting small changes in their life such as not climbing to high places, avoiding long jumps, spending more time resting or even neglecting to groom difficult to reach areas. Limping and lameness are not common symptoms of osteoarthritis in cats.
Some changes we may notice are attributed to the age of the cat, which we ignore under the assumption they are normal. Consequently, they are often left untreated. The following are the most common signs of osteoarthritis in cats:
- Rejection of physical contact and interactions (sometimes aggressively so)
- Loss of appetite
- Stiffness in the joints
- Lameness (rarely)
- Decrease in activity levels
- Loss of body mass
- Elimination of urine and feces outside the litter box
The reason a cat may urinate or defecate outside of their litter box is often due to trouble entering. Since it hurts to access the litterbox or they don't have the energy to go to it, they may eliminate inappropriately in the home.
Diagnosis of osteoarthritis in cats
The symptoms of osteoarthritis in cats we mentioned above are also compatible with certain other diseases. If we detect any of these changes, we should go to a veterinarian. It is the vet who can examine the cat, take the anamnesis (medical history) and run any necessary diagnostic tests. When examined physically, it is common for the animal to show discomfort or resistance with palpation of the affected joints.
It is ideal if we can record the movements and behaviors of the cat at home so the veterinarian can provide a better assessment of their mobility. This is especially important if the cat is too afraid to move in the veterinary clinic. The physical examination may be sufficient to diagnose osteoarthritis, but the vet may require an ultrasound or x-rays to confirm the diagnosis. These can show the damage which affects the joint in more detail.
As osteoarthritis is a disease common in older cats, it is also recommended they do tests to rule out the presence of other diseases. These can also provide information on the general condition of the animal, which is also important when prescribing medication.
Treatment of osteoarthritis in cats
Osteoarthritis is a disease that has no cure. The goal of treatment is to relieve the pain the cat experiences and try to delay the progress of degeneration as much as possible. The treatment is multimodal, i.e. it combines different drugs and measures. NSAIDs such as carprofen for cats can be used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. These drugs can only be taken under prescription by a qualified veterinarian to avoid contraindications and side effects.
It is very important to adapt the home to the new needs of a cat with osteoarthritis. For example, we need to make sure we provide a litterbox they can access easily. We need to arrange furniture so they can still access their favorite high places. We also have to control their diet to keep the cat at their ideal weight or to help them lose the extra kilos. In this way we avoid overloading already damaged joints.
Supplements can be administered, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. These protect cartilage or use essential fatty acids to reduce inflammation. There are some therapies which can be offered by your veterinarian which can help ease their pain and improve their quality of life. These may include some form of physiotherapy as well as massages to help relax the feline.
Home remedies for osteoarthritis in cats
Just as there are no veterinary cures for the condition, there are no home remedies that cure osteoarthritis in cats. If you are told there is a natural remedy which will treat osteoarthritis once and for all, it is not true. However, there are certain things we can do at home to improve their quality of life which we may refer to as home remedies. They include:
- Offering soft and comfortable beds, arranged in warm places without drafts.
- Ensuring they can easily access all their resources, such as beds, feeders or the litter box. If necessary, put steps or any other object that will help the cat to go up and down.
- Removing doors from litter boxes or even a cat flap to ensure easier access.
- Changing to a fine litter as it is better for their paws.
- Taking care of maintaining their hygiene with frequent brushing, localized cleaning, nail trimming, etc.
Take a look at our related article to understand some of the other treatments used for different types of arthritis in cats.
How long does a cat with osteoarthritis live?
Osteoarthritis does not affect the life expectancy of cats, since it is not a fatal disease. This means that cats can live for years with osteoarthritis. As time elapses, the joint damage will be greater, which will also increase the pain. That is why our attention must be focused on ensuring the cat is in as little pain as possible. In some cases, it may be too difficult to manage the cat's pain and euthanasia may be the best course of action to prevent suffering.
This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
If you want to read similar articles to Osteoarthritis in Cats - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment, we recommend you visit our Degenerative diseases category.
1. Clarke, S. P., & Bennett, D. (2006). Feline osteoarthritis: a prospective study of 28 cases. J Small Anim Pract., 47(8), 439-435.
- Villagrasa, M. 2016. Osteoarthritis in Cats. Ateuves, 34, 38-39.