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Signs of Arthritis in Cats

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Arthritis is a degenerative joint disease that makes it painful for cats to engage in everyday activities and negatively impacts their quality of life. For instance, arthritis can make it difficult for your cat to jump up to a favorite spot on the couch, climb the stairs to get to a litter box, or even enjoy a good petting in your lap without discomfort.

What Causes Arthritis in Cats?

Like humans, cats have cartilage between the bones in their joints, which helps cushion the impact as they move around. This cartilage can deteriorate as cats get older, causing inflammation and pain.

In addition to aging, there are other influences on arthritis in cats:

  • Cats who have had an infection or injury, such as a fracture or dislocation, may be more likely to develop arthritis where the damage occurred.
  • Cats with congenital abnormalities, like hip dysplasia, may develop arthritis in the affected area.
  • Overweight and obese cats are prone to arthritis due to the added pressure those extra pounds can put on their joints.

Arthritis and joint pain aren’t the only issues linked to obesity, which is a growing problem for cats and dogs. It can also result in heart disease, kidney and liver issues, joint pain, and illnesses like diabetes. It is vital to help your cat maintain a healthy weight through appropriate diet and exercise.

Cat Arthritis Symptoms

Arthritis in cats can be tough to spot because symptoms are subtle, especially at first when there isn’t too much pain. Our notoriously independent felines also tend to hide or mask their symptoms, which is why it’s good to keep a close eye on their health (see 5 Signs Your Cat is Sick).

If your cat has arthritis, you may start to notice signs of reduced mobility, decreases in everyday activity, and changes in behavior, such as:

  • Hesitancy to jump up to favorite spots like a chair or window ledge
  • Limping is rare, but it is common for the pet to be stiff when getting up from lying down
  • Taking longer or being unable to go up or down the stairs
  • Napping or resting more frequently than usual
  • Poor grooming habits, which can lead to dull or matted hair coat
  • Longer claws due to a lack of activity that would typically wear them down
  • Behavior changes, particularly being more irritable than usual
  • Litter box issues, including not using the litter box, which can occur if a cat can’t get over the edge of the box

These signs of arthritis can be harder to detect in senior cats, who may be sleeping more or playing less, just as a natural part of getting older. They can also indicate health issues other than arthritis, which is why it’s essential to take your cat to the veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis.

Don’t have a veterinarian? Use our Vet Clinic Finder to find one in your area!

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Diagnosing Cat Arthritis

Your veterinarian will examine your cat thoroughly and look for signs of pain, including swelling or sensitivity in the joint areas. Arthritis can occur in the knees or “elbows” of a cat, as well as the hip joints, jawbone, and upper or lower back. The lower back is a common spot for arthritis in cats, often because of painful, boney spurs along the underside of the spine.

In addition to the physical exam, your veterinarian may order blood tests to rule out other health issues or illnesses. For instance, diabetes can also change the way a cat walks. X-rays may also be needed to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the problem. If you have pet insurance for your cat, the exam, diagnostic blood tests, and X-rays may be covered.

How to Treat Arthritis in Cats

Wanting what’s best for their feline friend, most concerned cat parents ask the question, “How can I help my cat with arthritis?” Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that can cure arthritis in cats. However, there are ways to help manage arthritis relief for cats and improve their quality of life.

Prescription Medications

Feline arthritis pain management can often include medications. Your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help manage the pain and inflammation related to arthritis. The most common drugs used for arthritis are anti-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as meloxicam. It’s essential that you clearly understand and follow your veterinarian’s dosage instructions carefully. Also, watch for side effects, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or appetite loss. Contact your veterinarian if you have any concerns.

Never give your cat any medications without first consulting your veterinarian. Cats are very sensitive to them, and many over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and sleep aids are highly toxic to cats and may be fatal. Even medications prescribed for dogs in the family, such as carprofen (Rimadyl), deracoxib (Deramaxx), firocoxib (Previcox), and others, can be toxic to cats, even in small amounts. 

Weight Loss and Management

A key part of arthritis care for cats is managing their weight. Extra weight puts more pressure on a cat’s joints, which can worsen the pain of arthritis. If your arthritic cat is obese or overweight, your veterinarian will likely recommend a weight loss program, which could include a special diet and an exercise regimen. Depending on the severity of arthritis, your cat may not be able to do too much in the way of exercise, but your veterinarian can give you a safe plan for weight reduction.

If your cat is at a healthy weight, it’s important to maintain it. For instance, avoid the temptation to offer extra treats and always measure out food portions precisely.

orange tabby with big green eyes

Environmental Support

Treating cat arthritis doesn’t always have to revolve around medications and procedures. You can be creative with ways to help manage the pain experienced by your arthritic cat, including making changes around the home.

  • Create ramps to your cat’s favorite places, like up on the couch or bed
  • Raise food and water bowls using a small shelf or by placing them on a sturdy box
  • Make sure your cat can get to the litter box without going up or down stairs
  • Remove the front side of your cat’s litter box so it’s easier to get in and out
  • Offer your cat a larger litter box where there is more room to maneuver
  • Set up soft places with pillows and blankets for your cat to rest those achy bones

It can also help to brush your cat regularly since arthritis can get in the way of proper grooming.

Nutraceutical Supplements

Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin may help protect the cartilage and support joint health. Please talk with your veterinarian about any supplements you might be considering for your cat.

Alternative Treatments

Many veterinarians are using alternative therapies for cat arthritis treatments, such as:

  • Physical therapy
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Laser therapy
  • Massage

These treatments are becoming more popular with cat parents and may be covered by an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan. In any case, you can discuss them with your veterinarian, who can help you decide if they might be helpful for your cat.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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