Arthritis is a painful condition that causes inflammation and damage inside the joints, which can lead to significant pain and disability. Most dog owners keep a close eye on their aging pets, watching for decreased mobility or signs of pain, but cat owners are less likely to recognize these signs. This may seem to indicate that cats develop arthritis less often than dogs because they are naturally more athletic and agile, but the statistics prove otherwise. 

Around 60% of cats older than 6 and 90% older than 12 have X-ray evidence of arthritis, and 40% of cats show noticeable arthritis pain signs. The Burlington Veterinary Center team knows that arthritis is painful, but detecting that pain in cats can be tricky. Here is a pet owner’s guide to understanding and recognizing feline arthritis.

What causes arthritis in cats?

The cause of “wear and tear” arthritis (i.e., osteoarthritis [OA]) in pets and people is still a mystery, but is generally associated with aging, or is the result of an acute or chronic joint injury. Cartilage in the joints breaks down over time, which leads to a cascade of self-perpetuating inflammatory events that further damage the bones, ligaments, tendons, and other joint structures. This leads to pain, disuse, more inflammation, and more damage that continues to worsen in a never-ending cycle.

Arthritis signs in cats

Pain in cats is difficult to identify because they are less expressive than dogs and more likely to withdraw and hide rather than cry out and seek attention. You may not notice early OA for years, but will eventually see some gradual changes in your pet. Obvious late-stage signs include limping, joint swelling, muscle wasting, weakness, and decreased mobility. Possible early, more subtle signs include:

  • Hesitancy or reduced ability to jump up or down
  • Taking stairs one at a time
  • Accidents outside the litter box
  • Aggression or other behavior changes
  • Less desire to play
  • Unkempt or greasy fur from decreased grooming

Diagnosing arthritis in cats

Our veterinary team can diagnose OA in cats with a history of compatible clinical signs with a thorough physical examination, movement observation in the exam room, and confirmatory X-rays. Often, OA is diagnosed incidentally on X-rays taken for another reason. Recognizing OA signs and advocating for your cat are important steps in the diagnostic process, because the cat we see in the exam room is often exceptionally different from the one you know at home.

Feline arthritis treatments

Stopping the OA pain and inflammation cycle is key to restoring and maintaining your aging four-legged friend’s mobility and quality of life. Cats need different treatments from dogs or people, whose treatment mainstays include anti-inflammatory drugs that cats cannot safely metabolize. Instead, cats often benefit from the following:

  • Pain medications — Gabapentin or opioid medications are effective in decreasing pain, but may cause sedation.
  • Solensia — This new, once-monthly injectable monoclonal antibody treatment was specifically designed for feline OA pain and may be a good option for cats who refuse oral medications. 
  • Adequan — This injectable supplement is prescribed off-label for cats and is administered at various dosing intervals to support joint fluid and cartilage health.
  • Joint health supplements — Glucosamine, chondroitin, and fatty acids are effective in mild OA cases.
  • Laser therapy — Laser therapy uses non-invasive light energy to decrease pain, inflammation, and tissue damage.
  • Acupuncture — This alternative therapy is often well-tolerated by cats and is proven to reduce OA and other chronic pain types.
  • Surgery — Surgery to fuse or replace a joint is a last resort option for some cats.

Feline arthritis prevention

Since we don’t know exactly why arthritis develops, or why some cats suffer more than others, prevention can be challenging. One factor known to influence OA onset and progression is obesity, because the extra fat promotes inflammation and places extra physical stress on the joints. Healthy weight maintenance and encouraging daily activity to keep muscles strong are reasonable steps to prevent or delay arthritis in your cat.

OA pain can limit your feline pal’s mobility and prevent them from performing activities they enjoy. The Burlington Veterinary Center team can diagnose and treat feline arthritis on routine annual examinations, or from your cat’s arthritis signs. Our cat-friendly and Fear Free examination techniques help cats feel comfortable and safe in a welcoming environment.  Contact us to schedule your cat’s next wellness visit, or if you have questions about joint disease management.