Arthritis pain is often viewed as something that has to be lived with, especially in aging people and pets. However, since arthritis pain decreases quality of life, learning to identify and manage this condition in your pet can greatly improve their health, happiness, and comfort. Read on to discover if your cat is suffering from arthritis, and what you can do to help them stay comfortable and mobile throughout their golden years.

What causes arthritis in cats?

Arthritis in cats develops as joint cartilage degenerates and the protective cushion that prevents bones from rubbing against each other wears away. Without adequate cartilage, inflammation, discomfort, and bony changes in and around the joint can result. Cartilage degeneration can occur for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Everyday wear-and-tear — The mechanical action of everyday walking, running, and jumping can cause cartilage damage over time.
  • Genetics — Certain breeds have genetic tendencies that lead to poor orthopedic health. Maine coons, Persians, Siamese, Abyssinians, Devon rexes, and Scottish folds are most predisposed to developing hip, knee, and joint cartilage abnormalities.
  • Injury or trauma — A fractured bone or dislocated joint can create joint abnormalities that lead to arthritis.
  • Obesity — Excessive weight puts significant pressure on joints, which can contribute to the mechanical wear and tear on joint cartilage.

Although some potential causes for arthritis development exist, most cats do not appear to have an obvious predisposing cause.

What does arthritis look like in cats?

Arthritis in dogs is often much more obvious to pet owners, because an arthritic dog typically limps. However, this classic arthritis sign is rarely apparent in cats. Instead, you may notice your cat displaying the following arthritis signs:

  • Reduced activity
  • Reluctance to jump or stretch
  • Jumping to lower surfaces
  • Refusal to use stairs
  • Stiffness, especially after sleeping
  • Difficulty getting in and out of the litter box
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Avoiding interaction with other pets or people
  • Irritable behavior
  • Hiding
  • Difficulty bending down to eat or drink
  • Reduced grooming
  • Matted or unkempt coat
  • Overgrooming painful areas, particularly over joints

Decreased mobility and behavior changes are the key indicators that your cat has arthritis. However, cats rarely show early disease signs, so close monitoring and regular veterinary exams will help spot issues.

How will I know if my cat has arthritis?

Identifying arthritis signs in your cat can lead to a diagnosis, but many conditions cause altered mobility and irritable behavior in cats. To rule out other potential causes, and to accurately diagnose arthritis, diagnostic testing is required. Tests may include:

  • A complete blood count (CBC)
  • A blood chemistry panel
  • A urinalysis
  • X-rays

Although blood work and a urinalysis are not needed for an arthritis diagnosis, these tests are helpful in evaluating your cat’s organ function before administering medication.

The most useful arthritis diagnostic tools are a detailed history of your cat’s behavior at home, and a comprehensive physical exam. We can often determine the problem from your description of your pet’s actions alone, but when we notice joint swelling or discomfort on our physical exam, we know to prescribe anti-inflammatory medication. Then, if your cat improves, we know their mobility issues are related to pain and inflammation that is likely arthritis.

How can I treat my cat’s arthritis?

Arthritis is a degenerative condition, so management is key to slow the disease’s progression and promote a good quality of life. To keep your cat comfortable and mobile, the following therapies may be useful:

  • Oral medications — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are typically the first line of defense in treating arthritis pain and inflammation. Depending on your cat’s response, they may need additional analgesic medications that will block the body’s pain receptors.
  • Injections — Several injectable drugs, which are mostly administered once a month, can help manage arthritis in cats. These medications can preserve and repair joint cartilage, stimulate joint fluid production, or bind a substance that elevates in response to pain.
  • Supplements — Joint supplements can reduce inflammation and support joint cartilage and fluid at any arthritis stage, although they are most effective when begun early in the disease process.
  • Diet — More than half the U.S. feline population is overweight, so an appropriate diet is critical for reducing pressure on aching joints. Prescription diets can also improve mobility by providing a balanced blend of joint-health ingredients.
  • Laser therapy — A non-invasive, pain-free, and drug-free treatment modality, laser therapy uses specific lightwaves to stimulate certain cell functions. Reduced inflammation and pain, faster healing, and improved nerve function are a few of laser therapy’s benefits for your cat. 
  • Exercise — Regular, low-impact exercise is important not only for keeping your cat lean, but also for maintaining muscle mass and stimulating joint fluid production.

As your cat’s condition changes over time, modifying their treatment plan will help keep them active and pain-free. 

Sudden behavior changes in your cat can indicate pain, so if your feline friend is failing to jump, has stopped using the litter box correctly, or is meowing excessively, they could be experiencing discomfort from arthritis and require emergency veterinary care. Contact our Animal Care and Emergency Services team for help if your cat is acting unusually.