It’s World Arthritis day, and one species where arthritis goes undiagnosed is cats. As anyone who has a cat knows, cats are masters of hiding pain and discomfort from their human companions, and that can make joint disorders be very hard to diagnose until they have progressed significantly.
Osteorthritis, also known as arthritis, is the most commonly-diagnosed degenerative joint disease in cats. It occurs when cartilage, the smooth tissue that protects the ends of bones from rubbing directly against each other within a movable joint, either wear way or are torn away. When this happens, the ends of the bones come into direct contact.
Did you just wince reading that? It sounds painful, and it can be. Bone grinding against bone results in inflammation and pain in a cat with arthritis.
Arthritis has several causes:
- Injury to a joint
- Gradual wear and tear on a joint over time
- As a secondary impact of another disease that compromises the internal structure of a joint.
Although all of a cat’s bones can be susceptible to arthritis, the most obvious ones are the moving joints: Shoulders, elbows, knees, and wrists are all frequently suffer from arthritis as your cat ages, though the elbows and shoulders may be the most noticeable.
Older cats are most susceptible to arthritis. In one study of x-rays for 100 senior cats aged 10 or older most had signs of arthritis. 90% of cats over age 12 showed evidence of arthritis. Another study showed that cats begin to show joint degeneration earlier than anyone would have expected, with 30% of all cats eight years or older already having some signs of arthritis.
Signs of Arthritis in Your Cat
Early signs of arthritis in your cat are likely to be so subtle you might not notice at first. Your cat may move stiffly, especially when getting up from a nap. She might also not move around as much, choosing not to make the high, graceful jumps of her youth. It’s easy to miss this last one if you have spent years trying to get your cat not to jump up on the counter and are relieved that she’s not doing it any more.
Other signs of arthritis may be mistaken for other problems. Your cat’s matted coat may not seem like a sign of arthritis, but if her spine is arthritic and it hurts to bend around for thorough grooming, she could become unkempt because of joint disease. Your cat’s claws becoming overgrown may not seem like a sign of arthritis, either, but they can be caused by less stretching of painful joints to sharpen them on your cat tree.
As arthritis progresses, you might even see your cat limp or walk oddly.
Helping Your Arthritic Cat
Making some simple adjustments around the house can make your arthritic cat more comfortable.
Make sure your cat has soft, warm, accessible places to sleep. If your kitty used to sleep only on top of the cat tree, you might not think about placing beds in draft-free locations so that she doesn’t need to struggle to climb to a comfortable resting location.
Add cat steps to locations that your cat likes to join you so that she doesn’t have to jump up onto the sofa or bed to join you at night or up to the windowsill to watch bird TV.
Make sure litterboxes have low enough sides to be easy to enter and exit. An older cat may physically struggle to get in and out of the high-sided litterbox he once leaped into with ease.
Ensure food and water are easy to access and don’t require climbing a flight of stairs or leaping up onto a countertop.
What about Pain Relievers?
When you realize that your cat is in pain, of course you want to do something to alleviate it, but don’t give your kitty aspirin! Cats don’t have the enzyme necessary to metabolize salicyclic acid in the aspirin, so the common human medication is dangerous for them.
There are no anti-inflammatory drugs (NSIAD) for treatments of chronic musculo-skeletal disorders for cats, including arthritis. Researchers at NC State are currently enrolling cats in a clinical trial of a potential pain reliever for arthritic cats. If you are in that part of the United States and are interested your arthritic cat participating in the study, you can read more at their web site.
Talk to your veterinarian about getting your cat to a healthy weight so that extra weight isn’t causing extra stress on her painful joints. Your vet may also suggest complementary therapies like supplements or acupuncture to help give your cat relief from arthritis pain.
References and Further Reading
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Is Your Cat Slowing Down?
International Cat Care, Arthritis and Degenerative Joint Disease in Cats
NC State Veterinary Hospital, Feline Arthritis and NSAID Study
Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, Feline Osteoarthritis