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Arthritis in cats

Arthritis is a common condition with almost 90% of cats older than 12 having radiographic (xray) signs of osteoarthritis (OA). It is not just older cats that have arthritis - cats as young as 2 years of age can be affected.

Osteoarthritis occurs when there is degeneration and loss of cartilage and changes in the bone around joints. This results in a joint that cannot move easily, inflammation, pain and swelling. Commonly affected joints include the elbows, hocks, hips and stifles and multiple joints can be affected in one cat.

Elderly Cat

It is not just elderly cats that suffer from osteoarthritis

Radiographs (x-rays)

Radiographs (x-rays) can help diagnose osteoarthritis but treatment trials with pain relief can just as helpful.

Osteoarthritis can be very subtle and many people may think their cat is sleeping more and less active simply due to age.

Signs include: 

  • Stiffness when rising and walking
  • Reduced activity 
  • Reduced grooming, particularly over hindquarters 
  •  Aggression 
  •  Reluctance to jump 
  • Reluctance to posture normally for urination or defaecation
  • Constipation
  • Altered toileting habits e.g.  not using the litter tray
  • Lethargy 
  • Reduced range of motion (ROM) and pain at extremes of ROM 

A questionnaire has been developed to help screen cats for OA Arthritis questionnaire | Cat Specialist Services

Diagnosis of OA involves identifying appropriate clinical signs, an orthopedic examination, radiographic (x-ray) changes and sometimes trialling pain relief.

It can be helpful to film your cat at home performing activities they find difficult such as jumping or climbing stairs and bring this to your veterinary visit.

An orthopedic examination identifies changes in individual joints, pain and reduced range of motion.  Radiographic changes may include mineralisation of the structures inside the joint and irregular new bone growth.

Long-term management of OA involves combining  pain relief, reducing obesity, nutritional supplements (e.g. glycosaminoglycans, chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids), acupuncture and environmental management.  Using a combination of these helps achieve the best management.

Untreated pain in cats becomes harder to manage over time (central sensitization) and significantly impacts quality of life. Various pain relief management options are available and should be tailored to individual patients based on health status and response to medications.

Older cats with OA may also have kidney problems or other diseases impacting medication choice. Routine blood and urine testing is recommended prior to starting some medications (e.g. non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)) to investigate for liver or kidney problems.  Many cats with kidney disease still benefit from these drugs but they must be used cautiously to ensure safe administration.

Various food supplements advertise anti-inflammatory and cartilage regeneration action, however there is currently no definitive measurable evidence in cats that these work or are beneficial over a long- term period.  They are unlikely to be harmful however and can be useful in some cats if easy to administer.

Plenty of soft bedding is important for good rest....

Plenty of soft bedding is important for good rest....

Using blocks to help gain access to cat flaps
Using blocks to help gain access to cat flaps and using non-slip mats will make a big difference for cats with OA.
When choosing a ramp or stairs , make sure they are as stable as possible and non-slip.
When choosing a ramp or stairs , make sure they are as stable as possible and non-slip.

Weight loss in obese cats can bring a lot of relief and will also reduce the risk of developing diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes).  Weight loss in obese cats can be attempted by using lower calorie diets and encouraging gentle exercise through play or food puzzles. Speak to your veterinarian about possible dietary options.

Cats are creatures of habit and like routine. Ensuring easy access to their food, water, bed and litter tray is so important in the management of OA. 

Environmental management for OA includes the use of

  • low-sided litter trays
  • ramps
  • warm, comfortable bedding with plenty of padding
  • addressing ease of entry/exits for cat flaps.

A litter tray with a low entry can help prevent urination in the “wrong place.” For some cats a large, shallow, plastic storage containers designed for underbed storage can be better than a standard litter tray. One of the plastic sides can even be trimmed for easier access. Alternatively, large baking trays can also be used.

Consider using cat litter that is very soft under elderly feet and a non-slip mat on the floor.

These simple modifications can make a huge difference in helping cats with OA perform their normal activities and improve their quality of life.

standard litter tray
Non-Slip matt under tray

Non slip mats under litter trays can be helpful

crystal cat litter

Using fine cat litter maybe better tolerated under foot, rather than large sharp materials such as some crystal cat litter.


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