Osteoarthritis is a painful joint condition that’s common in cats—especially as they get older—and the signs can be easy to miss. While there isn’t a cure, there are a lot of treatment options available to ease pain and slow disease progression. 

By Sarah Mouton Dowdy
October 02, 2020
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Cats are living longer lives, and much like humans, their advanced years often come with chronic diseases like feline osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, the signs of arthritis in cats are often dismissed as the animal naturally slowing down in its old age. But according to the Cornell Feline Health Center, cat owners shouldn’t assume that changes they see in their older cats are the unavoidable consequences of aging and therefore untreatable.

Instead, if you notice changes in your older cat’s behavior and physical condition, it’s the perfect time to reach out to your veterinarian. In fact, pet owners play a particularly important role in helping veterinarians diagnose feline osteoarthritis because you have access to something your veterinarian doesn’t: knowledge of how your cat behaves and moves in her own habitat over time. Cats are notorious for hiding their pain and being uncooperative during veterinary exams (with good reason), so your careful observations are key.

While there is no cure for feline osteoarthritis, there are many things you can do to slow disease progression and improve your cat’s quality of life.

What Is Feline Osteoarthritis?

Feline osteoarthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, is caused by the wearing away of joint cartilage (the connective tissue that protects the ends of bones). Without this cushion, adjacent bones are able to rub against each other, resulting in debilitating pain. 

The disease most commonly affects the hip, knee, ankle, and elbow joints in cats. And while the root cause of osteoarthritis in cats isn’t always known, the American College of Veterinary Surgeons says that injuries, abnormally shaped joints, and normal, everyday wear-and-tear can be to blame. Sadly, the condition is incredibly common. In a 2011 study, 61% of cats ages six years and older had X-ray evidence of osteoarthritis in at least one joint, and 48% were affected in more than one joint. The study also found that disease prevalence increases with age. In other words, the older your cat gets, the more likely it is that she will have at least one arthritic joint. However, even young cats can be affected.

Signs of Osteoarthritis in Cats

Cats don’t show pain like we expect them to. “It’s part of their nature to be subtle,” says Joyce Login, DVM, CPH, Veterinary Medical Lead, Chronic Pain Portfolio at Zoetis. “If they were to show pain in the wild, they’d be somebody’s lunch, so they’re very good at hiding it.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to spot. While your cat isn’t likely to limp or cry out in pain, Login says you can watch for these behavioral signs of osteoarthritis in cats:

  • Difficulty jumping up on furniture (chair, table, bed, sofa, etc.) 
  • Difficulty jumping down from furniture 
  • Difficulty going up and down the stairs 
  • Difficulty chasing moving objects (e.g. slower than usual; needs breaks)
  • Difficulty running (e.g. slower speed than usual; needs breaks)
  • Inappropriate elimination (i.e. stops using the litter box)
  • Decreased energy
  • Increased irritability

These changes in behavior can be easy to dismiss as normal aging or even to miss altogether. Because cats hide their pain—especially in the veterinary clinic—your observations from home are a crucial part of diagnosing arthritis in cats. If that feels like a lot of pressure, Login has some tools to make your job easier.

Feline Osteoarthritis Checklist

This free checklist for pet owners to fill out online can serve as an osteoarthritis screening tool. The questionnaire includes the list of signs above but provides more details, including some helpful animations that illustrate exactly what to watch for in your cat’s behavior. For example, it shows how your cat will use a “bunny hop” to compensate for osteoarthritis pain while going up the stairs. 

Login says you can start filling out the checklist for your cat at any time—even when your cat is young and has no signs of disease. It can help to start early so you can more easily spot any gradual changes over time. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, meaning the earlier you catch it, the better. 

Since you can print out the results and share them with your veterinarian, it might work well to get in the habit of completing the questionnaire before each wellness exam for your cat. However, if you notice anything out of the ordinary and your cat is months away from her next veterinary visit, there’s never a bad time to fill out the checklist and contact your veterinarian if you have concerns. 

Your Phone

When it comes to helping your veterinarian diagnose osteoarthritis in your cat, your phone—specifically the camera function—is one of the best tools you have at your disposal. Login says that taking a video of your cat going up the stairs, running, playing, etc., can help you show your veterinarian exactly what your concerns are without relying on your memory or descriptive abilities. “And if it’s osteoarthritis,” she explains, “your veterinarian will be able to help identify that from the video.” 

In addition to a physical exam and your evidence from home, your veterinarian may order X-rays to definitively diagnose your cat with arthritis.

How to Treat Osteoarthritis in Cats

There is no cure for feline osteoarthritis, but that doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless situation. Login says the goals of treatment are to improve your cat’s comfort and to slow disease progression. This typically involves a three-part plan:

1. Pain Control

Pain control is the foundation,” Login explains. That’s because if your cat hurts, she’s probably not going to want to exercise. And if your cat won’t exercise, it becomes more difficult to control her weight. Unfortunately, Login says there aren’t any medications specifically approved for cats with osteoarthritis at this time. However, your veterinarian can provide guidance on how to use certain medications safely with your cat. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most common. You aren’t limited to pharmaceuticals when it comes to pain control, however. Talk to your veterinarian about your options, which could include acupuncture, laser therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy, and stem cell therapy. Your cat could also be a candidate for supplements like omega-3-fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin.

2. Weight Control

Excess weight puts more pressure on your cat’s painful joints, so reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of slowing disease progression. Your veterinarian can help you develop a plan that includes a target weight, what kind of food to provide, how much to provide, and when to provide it. Some prescription diets for cats are designed to both manage weight and provide joint support.

3. Exercise

Regular exercise is key to keeping joints healthy. If you’re not sure how to safely keep your cat moving (or how to motivate her to move), ask your veterinarian for tips.

Login adds that it’s important to always check with your veterinarian before starting your cat on any sort of treatment.

Home Adjustments for Cats with Arthritis

There are also several simple adjustments you can make to your cat’s home environment to increase her comfort if she has osteoarthritis pain. Login suggests providing:

  • Warm, supportive bedding (Login notes that you can buy heating pads designed specifically for animals but warns that human heating pads should never be used on animals. Their skin can burn much more easily.)
  • Easy access to litter boxes and food and water bowls (e.g. don’t place them at the top of the stairs or in the basement)
  • Ramps or stairs to help your cat access the bed or other furniture and surfaces she enjoys
  • Raised food and water bowls so your cat doesn’t have to bend down
  • Litter boxes with at least one lowered side so your cat doesn’t have to lift her legs as high to get in (This is especially important if your cat has stopped using the litter box. She probably found getting in it too painful.)

Learn Your Cat’s Pain Language

You are the expert on your cat’s behavior, so if you see something out of the ordinary—even if it’s seemingly small and insignificant—don’t dismiss it. “Animals do feel pain,” Login says. “They’re telling us they hurt. We just have to learn their language.”