Chronic pain, such as that caused by osteoarthritis, can take a tremendous toll on your cat’s wellbeing and quality of life, but determining whether your feline friend has arthritis is difficult because they instinctively hide signs of pain and discomfort. Our Tamberly Animal Hospital team wants to help you recognize arthritis signs in your cat to ensure they get the treatment they need. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about feline arthritis.

Feline arthritis basics

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis seen in cats. The condition causes the protective cartilage that typically cushions bones inside the joint to break down, leading to inflammation and pain. If not managed, the condition can progress, causing structural changes in the joint and limiting mobility. OA is surprisingly common in cats, as evidenced by several studies. One study found that 61% of cats over age 6 suffer from OA, while another study showed that 90% of cats over age 12 have the condition. Many times the exact cause is unknown, but factors that can increase your feline friend’s risk include:

  • Age — While cats can develop OA at any age, their risk increases as they age.
  • Genetics — Certain breeds are at increased risk for orthopedic developmental problems that predispose them to OA. For example, Maine Coons, Persians, and Siamese cats are prone to hip dysplasia, which leads to hip joint instability and arthritis. Abyssinian and Devon Rex cats are predisposed to patella luxation (i.e., kneecap dislocation), which often results in OA. In addition, Scottish Folds are prone to a cartilage abnormality that can cause severe arthritis in several joints. 
  • Injury — Cats who have injuries, such as fractures, dislocations, or soft tissue damage involving a joint, are at increased OA risk.
  • Obesity — Overweight cats are at increased OA risk because excess adipose tissue (i.e., fat) strains joints and produces low-grade inflammation throughout the body, including inside joints.
  • Infection — If pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi enter the joint, this increases the risk for OA development.

Feline arthritis signs

As noted earlier, cats affected by OA often hide pain and discomfort and rarely exhibit overt signs, such as limping. However, certain behavioral changes can be red flags for you, signifying that your feline friend needs a veterinary evaluation. Signs that may indicate OA pain in your cat include:

  • A decrease in overall energy and activity levels
  • Interacting less with two-legged and four-legged family members
  • Less interest in play
  • Difficulty jumping on or off high surfaces
  • Difficulty navigating stairs
  • Resting in an awkward position
  • Moving with an awkward gait
  • Increased irritability or hiding behavior
  • Stiffness after resting
  • Urinating or defecating outside the litter box
  • Unkempt haircoat because of insufficient grooming
  • Flinching or vocalizing when being petted or picked up
  • Scratching or biting

Feline arthritis diagnosis

Detecting feline OA can be difficult since cats tend to hide pain, but diagnostics our team may use include:

  • History — Cats rarely act normally in a veterinary examination room, so we will ask detailed questions about your observations of your cat when they are in their home environment. If you are concerned about a particular activity, video your cat so our team can watch them in action. 
  • Physical examination — Our team will examine your feline friend from their whiskers to the tip of their tail, including palpating joints for swelling, stiffness, and crepitus (i.e., a grating sound or sensation between the bone and cartilage).
  • Blood work — Many conditions can cause behavioral changes in cats, and we may recommend blood work to rule out other diseases, as well as to ensure the medications we may prescribe for OA pain are safe for your cat.
  • X-rays — If we suspect your cat has OA, X-rays can help us evaluate what joints are involved and the severity of the disease.

Feline arthritis management

Arthritis is not a curable disease, but the condition can be managed, especially when detected early. A multimodal approach is typically most effective and may include:

  • Pain medication — Pain medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), are helpful for some arthritic cats to decrease pain and inflammation.
  • Monoclonal antibody treatment — A relatively new monoclonal antibody treatment is now available for cats to help alleviate their OA pain.
  • Weight control — Weight control is imperative for arthritic cats, and if your cat is overweight, our team will devise a safe weight loss strategy to help alleviate the strain on their painful joints.
  • Exercise — Daily exercise is helpful to keep your feline friend’s muscles toned and improve their joint mobility.
  • Joint supplements — Our team may recommend joint supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, chondroitin, and glucosamine, to help support your cat’s joint health.
  • Laser therapy — Laser therapy is a cutting-edge pain management tool that provides a non-invasive method to treat your cat’s OA.
  • At-home management — You can make changes to your home to help support your arthritic cat and improve their quality of life. Recommendations include:
    • Providing low-sided litter boxes to ensure your cat can get in and out easily.
    • Providing supportive, comfortable bedding so your whiskered friend can rest their achy joints.
    • Placing ramps or stairs near your cat’s favorite elevated resting places.
    • Ensuring your cat’s resources (e.g., food and water bowls, scratching posts, litter boxes) are easily accessible and preferably available on every level of your home.
    • Elevating your feline friend’s food and water bowls so they can eat and drink without crouching in a painful position.
  • Surgery — In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to relieve your cat’s OA pain.

If your cat’s behavior has changed, contact our Tamberly Animal Hospital team so we can determine if OA is a contributing factor and devise an appropriate treatment plan.