When dogs have arthritis, they’ll usually let you know about it. They’ll limp. They’ll plant themselves at the bottom of the stairs, begging to be carried. Or they’ll wait to be hoisted into the back of the station wagon, rather than jumping in.
Cats, on the other hand, tend to suffer in silence. They instinctively hide the signs of pain because in the wild, any weakness could make them easy targets for predators. This ability to mask pain is why, for many years, it was generally believed that cats weren’t affected by arthritis.
But when researchers reviewed X-rays of 100 cats over 12 years of age, they found that more than 90 percent of cats showed evidence of arthritis. However, arthritis was only noted in 4 percent of the medical records for these felines. That means arthritis in cats is not only more common than we may think, but probably under-diagnosed as well.
What Is Arthritis?
It’s a painful, progressive disease that can affect one or more joints, such as the hips, knees, shoulders, elbows and even the spine. In a normal healthy joint, a layer of smooth cartilage covers the surface of the bones, enabling them to glide smoothly over each other during movement. If this cartilage is damaged, the underlying bone, which contains nerves, can be exposed, causing pain. This leads to inflammation of the entire joint, including the surrounding ligaments and muscles.
How Can I Tell if My Cat Has Arthritis?
While dogs generally show visible signs of pain, arthritis in cats may be demonstrated by what you don’t see, such as leaping and jumping. For example, your cat may choose to sleep on the floor, rather than up in your bed, or they may “pour” themselves off the couch rather than jumping down.
Your cat may groom less, resulting in clumps of matted hair. Or they may groom more, especially in areas over the painful joints. Some cats may resent being petted and growl or become aggressive when picked up. Others often choose to seclude themselves from family members.
Some cats may have accidents outside the litter box because it’s too painful to raise their legs over the high sides of the box or they have to climb up or down stairs to reach it.
How Is the Condition Diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam and may recommend X-rays. Blood tests or other diagnostics may be recommended to rule out any other health conditions that may cause similar signs.
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How Is Arthritis Treated?
Once the joint cartilage is damaged, it usually can’t be repaired. While there’s no cure for arthritis, there are things that can be done to help slow the progression of the disease:
- Surgery: Your veterinarian may recommend surgery to stabilize any joint that has been altered by genetics, ligament injury or other causes.
- Pain medication: Some drugs can help cats feel more comfortable.
- Weight control: If your cat is overweight, shedding a few pounds can help reduce stress on achy joints.
- Therapeutic diets: Nutritional therapy for arthritis often includes omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and other ingredients believed to promote joint health.
- Supplements: Many of the nutritional ingredients listed above are available as oral supplements.
- Exercise/physical therapy: Your veterinarian can recommend low-impact exercises that can help keep your cat’s muscles toned and better able to support the joints.
- Other therapies: Acupuncture, stem cell therapy and other treatments may be helpful for your cat.
- Creature comforts: At home, make sure your cat’s litter boxes have low sides and place one on every floor of the house to avoid trips up and down the stairs. Provide ramps or steps up to your cat’s favorite places. If your cat is having trouble grooming, give him or her a hand with regular brushing.
Not sure if your cat has arthritis? Time to see your veterinarian. He or she can determine if your cat’s inactivity is caused by arthritis or another medical problem. Of course, there’s still a chance that your cat’s just taking the cat-napping job a little too seriously.
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.