Image of depressed cat with arthritis

Key takeaway

Feline osteoarthritis, or cat arthritis, is a degenerative joint disease that alters joint tissues and causes loss of cartilage, changes to the surrounding bone, and thickens joint capsules. The loss of protective tissues causes bones to rub against one another, resulting in inflammation and pain. The fact that osteoarthritis is degenerative means the body won't regenerate the tissues and bone. It's a condition that gets worse over time, but it's one that can be treated to keep your cat active and feeling minimal discomfort.

Arthritis symptoms in cats can vary and are dependent on the affected joint along with the amount of degeneration. The symptoms include changes in behavior and difficulties with making normal movements. A cat limping around is the most definitive sign of arthritis, but it's always a good idea to have a veterinarian examine your cat.

Veterinary science has yet to determine the exact cause of feline arthritis, but arthritis develops for the same reasons in cats as it does in most mammals. Age, weight, and genetics all play a role in the degeneration of the tissues and bones located in the joints. Cats have a tendency to hide their pain as a result of their survival instincts. This makes it harder to detect arthritis symptoms in cats and make a definitive diagnosis. 

Treatment of cat arthritis comes in different forms and can be dependent on the individual presentation of a cat. That is, the treatment for cat arthritis depends on the physical condition of the cat. An overweight cat will get put on a diet, whereas a cat of normal weight may be given laser therapy or physical rehabilitation.

In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the symptoms, causes, and treatment of cat arthritis so you can help keep your cat comfortable and healthy in the long term.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis involves the breaking down of the cartilage and bones of the joints. It's a painful condition that can mildly or severely affect a cat's quality of life. The process of osteoarthritis begins when the cartilage and protective tissues surrounding a joint start to break down due to age, weight, and wear and tear over time. As the tissues disappear with nothing to replace them, the bones start to rub against each other and cause further breakdown of the joint. Bone spurs may form and cause more pain during movement. The condition can get progressively worse over time, resulting in chronic pain and a loss of quality of life.

Cat Arthritis Symptoms

Arthritis symptoms in cats are different from the symptoms other animals exhibit and to make the condition even more difficult to identify, cats tend to hide their physical pain and kinetic issues, convincing pet parents that there's nothing wrong.

The fact that a cat is more likely to spend most of the time sleeping and lying down can also make detecting arthritis symptoms more difficult. Another complicating issue is the fact that the same joints on both sides of a cat's body are typically affected by arthritis, causing the cat to look like it's moving normally. 

Graphic listing symptoms of cat arthritis

Some other cat arthritis symptoms include:

  • Lower activity or energy levels
  • Unwillingness to engage in play
  • Limping
  • Abnormal grooming habits
  • Favoring one leg over the other
  • Stiffness when getting up from lying down and moving
  • Reluctant or unable to jump or climb
  • Changes in behavior (usually aggression or irritation)
Graphic listing causes of cat arthritis

Causes of Cat Arthritis

Cats develop arthritis from several different causes. The most common causes include:

  • Injury
  • Conformation or how a cat is physically put together
  • Genetics
  • Develops along with another orthopedic disease
  • Overweight
  • Aging
  • Wear and tear

The exact cause of arthritis in cats is still not well understood, but the generally accepted causes are the ones listed above. Skeletal joints are in constant use and they're prone to wearing out. Certain conditions, such as excess weight, unusual conformation, and injury can accelerate the development of arthritis because more pressure is put on the joints and tissues.

Some breeds of cats have a higher risk of arthritis from joint conditions associated with the breed, and even within certain bloodlines. Breeds that have a higher risk of arthritis include:

  • Maine Coon
  • Persians
  • Siamese
  • Abyssinian
  • Devon Rex
  • Scottish Folds

Diagnosing Cat Arthritis

Up until recently, arthritis in cats was commonly overlooked due to cats' natural instincts to hide their pain and act normally. A cat is more likely to move with fluidity because of its natural agility and flexibility and has an easier time tolerating joint and bone problems. They're also more likely to be annoyed by the vet touching them during an exam and may pull their body or limbs away as a negative response. 

X-rays are the next diagnostic step, but that can also be inconclusive. Joints can show arthritic changes on an x-ray, yet the cat demonstrates no pain response. The opposite is also true in that a cat has no noticeable arthritis on an x-ray, yet has a pain response when examined.

A definitive diagnosis of arthritis in cats is difficult to obtain, but you can help the veterinarian by telling them about the signs you're seeing in your cat. The veterinarian can make an evidence-based diagnosis based on what they're observing during the exam and with your input on symptoms you’re seeing at home. If your vet confirms arthritic symptoms, they'll move forward with creating a treatment plan for your cat's arthritis.

Cat Arthritis Treatments

Cat arthritis treatments are effective in helping you maintain your cat's quality of life, keeping them comfortable, and slowing the progression of the disease. Treatment for feline arthritis depends partly on the cat's physical condition and how much pain it may be experiencing. Pain relievers, dietary supplements, and modifications to their living environment can all contribute to your cat's comfort levels. In the event arthritis has advanced to a point where the bones are wearing down, joint replacement surgery may be an option.

Most pain relievers, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are of limited use in the treatment of arthritis in cats. The risk of toxicity is too high, and there are other meds available to help reduce inflammation and pain. Dietary supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be of benefit and are tolerated well by cats.

 Graphic listing cat arthritis treatment options

Cats that are overweight are typically placed on a prescribed diet as part of a typical cat arthritis treatment regimen. Excess weight puts more strain on the joints, and while it's not conclusive that it's a cause of arthritis, it's better to reduce the pressure than not.

Modifying the home to make it easier for your cat to get to their favorite spots can also improve their quality of life. The less a cat has to leap, the better it is for them. Ramps and stairs are commercially available and are easy to put into place. Cats learn quickly how to use them and the strain on their joints is much lower.

Therapy in the form of lasers and ultrasound is a recent development in the treatment of cat arthritis, as is physical rehabilitation. Joint replacement may be an option, although it's not a common treatment.

Cat Arthritis: Frequently Asked Questions

What are the signs of arthritis in cats?

The major signs of arthritis in cats include stiffness, limping, irritation, inability to groom properly, and a reluctance to jump to higher places. It's difficult to definitively make a diagnosis of arthritis in a cat, and you should get a consultation with a vet for confirmation.

Is feline arthritis common?

Feline arthritis is very common. In fact, it's estimated that 90% of cats experience osteoarthritis in at least one joint over the course of their life. You can expect your cat to undergo arthritic changes as they age.2

At what age do cats get arthritis?

Arthritis symptoms become noticeable between the ages of 10 to 12 years of age. The extent of the arthritic changes depends on various factors and can be mild or severe by the time you notice changes in your cat.

Image of cat stretching out on couch

Final Notes

Cat arthritis is a difficult condition to diagnose, but not impossible, and getting care ASAP is vital. For more information on common cat conditions (and what to do about them), visit our blog archive.

References

  1. “Small Animal Topics.” ACVS, https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/osteoarthritis-in-cats

  2. Medicine, Center for Veterinary. “Osteoarthritis in Cats: More Common than You Think.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/osteoarthritis-cats-more-common-you-think

  3. Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University, 27606, USA.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12418522/