When a person gets old, they can develop arthritis. But since cats don’t get anywhere near as old as we do, can they get arthritis too? And if they do, what’s it like for them?
What is arthritis in cats? Cats experience the same kind of arthritis as we do. Arthritis is where the cartilage between the two bones of a joint wears away. Cats experience both osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis) and rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks joint tissue). Symptoms include pain, defensiveness/aggression, reduced movement and stiffer movement, reduced interaction with people, litter tray problems and grooming problems. Arthritis cannot be cured, but the pain it causes can be managed with painkillers. Weight loss can also reduce the severity of arthritis in overweight cats. Talk to a vet about your cat’s health.
The guide below first looks at what arthritis is, and what causes it. It then covers each of the symptoms in turn, describing what you can expect to see if your cat has arthritis. We’ll also detail what you can do to help your cat during this time.
What Causes Arthritis in Cats?
Arthritis is a condition that affects the joints. A joint is the point where two bones meet. Because bones are solid there is cartilage in each joint that cushions the bones against each other. Cartilage is like a cross between bone and muscle: it’s more structurally solid than muscle, but it’s more flexible than bone. The tissue in the tip of your nose is made of the stuff, so pinching and wiggling your nose gives you a good idea as to what cartilage is like.
Cartilage has lots of jobs. It absorbs the shocks of walking and jumping; its smoothness and suppleness keeps movement of the joint fluid; it stops the bones from damaging each other. Arthritis occurs when this cartilage is worn away or becomes too stiff to perform its job properly. Unlike bone and muscle, cartilage doesn’t regenerate, so its loss is permanent. There are several reasons why cartilage might wear away or lose its effectiveness.
There are two kinds of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. These two conditions have the same outcome but different causes.
Osteoarthritis is where the cartilage in your cat’s joint is worn away over time. The condition ranges in severity from slight to severe, and depends on how much of the cartilage is left. When it begins, the joint has almost all of its cartilage left, so it isn’t serious. But it can get worse to such an extent that there is no cartilage whatsoever left in the joint in question, leaving the two bones to rub against each other directly. This is exceedingly painful and quickly causes knock-on problems like inflammation and damage to the bones themselves.
OA (as osteoarthritis is known for short) can have different causes, referred to as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’. Primary OA is where there is no separate underlying cause. It simply occurs after years and years of aging, where the cartilage is worn down through use. Every time your cat walks, jumps or climbs, the cartilage in its joints undergo pressure and wear. This can add up over the years until there’s not much cartilage left.
Secondary OA is where the arthritis is ‘secondary’ to another issue; in other words, it stems from a separate problem. The best example is where your cat has a joint abnormality or injury that applies uneven pressure and wear to the cartilage. Take a fracture for example: the bones can heal in such a way that they aren’t set correctly in the joint. The end of that bone applies lots of pressure to one particular point in the cartilage, which wears away quicker than normal.
Because osteoarthritis takes time to develop, its key cause is old age, and while younger cats can experience arthritis, it’s much more common in older cats. And because injury or deformation of joints is another key cause, osteoarthritis can be caused by hip dysplasia and patellar luxation.
Rheumatoid arthritis is the other kind, and it affects cats just like it affects people. RA is an autoimmune disease. That means it’s caused by your cat’s body attacking itself. The immune system, which is normally for defending the body, attacks the cells in your cat’s joints by mistake. This makes your cat’s joints swollen, stiff and painful. This swelling causes joint damage over time. The symptoms of RA are therefore very similar to those of OA.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear what makes the immune system attack its own joint cells. So while we know that RA is an autoimmune condition, we don’t know what triggers the body to attack itself in the first place.
Certain cats are genetically more susceptible to arthritis than others.
Scottish Folds are a good example. The Scottish Fold gets its name from its folded-over ears. While they look cute, the reason this breed has these floppy ears is that the cartilage in its ears isn’t as strong as it should be. Unfortunately, the genetic change that causes this means that all of a Scottish Fold’s cartilage is weak, not just that in the breed’s ears. This therefore makes osteoarthritis more likely. The Maine Coon is similarly susceptible to OA, but in this case, because of hip dysplasia which is common in the breed. Other breeds, like the Siamese, seem more susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis. While the reason isn’t clear, it’s likely because cat breeds don’t have a lot of genetic diversity. A lack of genetic diversity leads to all sorts of genetic problems, of which RA is just one.
Domestic shorthair and longhair cats aren’t particularly genetically susceptible to arthritis like certain breeds are, however.
How Common Is Arthritis in Cats?
Arthritis is very common in older cats. All cats over the age of ten or so have some degree of joint wear and tear, i.e. osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is much less common, although it’s more common in younger cats than primary osteoarthritis.
What Are The Symptoms of Arthritis in Cats?
The key symptoms of arthritis can be divided into two categories: signs that your cat experiences a limited range of movement, and signs that she’s in pain. Let’s take a look at what this means in practise.
Changes to Movement
Your cat won’t move around as easily as she used to. Arthritis in cats is similar to arthritis in humans in that it makes moving difficult and painful, so your cat will move less, and move more stiffly, than she used to. You will notice that your cat doesn’t do things she used to do, such as:
- Jumping to access spaces
- Climbing to access spaces
- Running quickly
- Chasing or playing
If your cat does still try to move, play and chase, then you will notice that her movements are stiffer than they used to be. She will hold its legs straighter rather than use flowing movements as cats normally do. You may notice that your cat moves particularly stiffly after she has been resting for a long time.
Reduced Interaction with People
Your cat may spend less time with you than she used to. Being in pain means that your cat will be easily irritated, will find less fun in things that she used to enjoy, and will want to sleep and distract herself. Again, this correlates to how arthritis and pain in general affect people. Also, since your cat will not be able to move freely, she will spend less time playing or chasing which may have been ways that she interacted with you previously.
Another reason your cat may interact with you less is her evolutionary heritage. When a wild cat is sick or injured, it will hide itself away so that predators can’t find it (because predators prefer hunting for vulnerable prey as it’s easier to catch). This is also the reason why cats run away when they are very ill, although arthritis won’t trigger this in your cat.
Because being in pain makes your cat miserable, she is more likely to lash out. This can happen if you try to spend time with your cat when she wants to be alone, e.g. if you wake her up from a nap. Your cat may hiss, growl, scowl at you, or even try to scratch and bite you.
It can be tempting to view this behavior as aggression, but in reality, it’s defensiveness. Your cat feels vulnerable because she’s in pain all the time—and the pain of arthritis is just as bad for cats as it is for people. Unless your cat trusts you utterly, she is vulnerable, because you could accidentally pet, prod or poke her in a way that hurts her. Your cat may either react pre-emptively to stop you from hurting her, or lash out if you do.
Litter Tray Problems
Arthritis stops your cat from using her litter box properly. One reason for this is that your cat doesn’t enjoy getting up and walking around because it’s painful, leading to more ‘accidents’, which in reality, are just your cat choosing somewhere else to go to the toilet. Another reason is that your cat’s litter tray may have tall sides that your cat struggles to climb over.
You may therefore either see your cat trying and failing to climb into its litter tray, or going to the toilet in unusual places around the house. These behavioral changes can have triggers other than arthritis, so they aren’t a strict sign of the condition, but taken with all of the other symptoms they paint a clear picture of joint pain.
Your cat will also struggle to groom herself as she used to, particularly in difficult-to-reach spots. She will still keep her face and head clean at first, because these are still reachable through her paws. But spots like the middle of her back and her tail will go ungroomed. That’s because she can’t bend her body like she used to so that she can lick them.
As such, you will notice that your cat’s coat isn’t as lustrous as it used to be. If your cat has longer fur, this effect will be particularly noticeable.
Other Signs of Pain/Illness
There are several other signs of arthritis that you may notice, although these symptoms aren’t unique to the condition. They include:
- Limping. Cats limp when they can’t put weight on one or more of their legs. Doing so stops the pain from being as bad, as there’s less pressure on the affected joint. Limping can also occur after a generic soft tissue injury.
- Lethargy. Lethargy is a decreased interest in doing things. It can become so severe that the cat hardly gets up any more.
- Decreased appetite/anorexia. Sick and injured cats don’t eat as much as normal.
- Grimacing eyes. This is where the eyes are partially shut. A healthy cat’s eyes are wide and bright.
- ‘Alert’ whiskers. A cat that’s in pain or on alert will puff out their whiskers so that they cover a greater area. This helps the cat detect threats through touch. Your cat feels vulnerable, so feels the need to do this.
Even if these signs aren’t associated with arthritis, you should explore what they mean and figure out what’s wrong with your cat.
Can You Cure Arthritis in Cats?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis in cats. But there are several things you can do to improve your cat’s quality of life. This should reduce some of the symptoms described above, as many of these are related to the pain of arthritis, which can be managed.
1) Talk To a Vet
Your first instinct whenever there’s something wrong with your cat should be to take it to the vet. The vet can:
- Perform tests that you can’t perform at home to identify the health issue
- Prescribe the correct medication for your cat’s condition
- Give you advice on how to make your cat more comfortable with its condition
The first thing the vet will do is give your cat a general examination. They will feel various parts of your cat’s body to check whether there’s anything wrong. If they suspect that your cat is experiencing arthritis, then there are several tests that confirm that theory. The first is the radiograph, which is where an X-ray or something like it is taken so that the vet can see your cat’s joints.
Another test is synovial fluid analysis. Synovial fluid is the fluid found in your cat’s joints that keeps them slick, which improves ease of movement. It’s like the oil in the cogs of a machine. By collecting and analyzing the synovial fluid in your cat’s affected joints, the vet can tell a lot about what’s happening.
To perform this check, the vet will have to remove the synovial fluid from one of your cat’s joints under general anesthesia. The process of using a syringe to gather some of this fluid is called ‘arthrocentesis’. The vet will put the fluid onto a microscope slide and assess its viscosity (how runny it is), its color and its clarity. Normal joint fluid is viscous, colorless and clear, like egg white. Reduced viscosity, i.e. runnier fluid, indicates inflammation while discoloration indicates bleeding.
2) Anti-Inflammatory Drugs for Cats with Arthritis
Upon diagnosis of arthritis, the vet will make several recommendations. Key is to reduce the pain that your cat experiences. The best way to do this is with NSAIDs, which are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Arthritis is made much worse because of the inflammation which accompanies it, which puts added pressure on the joints, which makes the arthritis worse—a vicious cycle. There are several different NSAIDs available, and your vet may think that a certain one is more suitable for your cat than another. The first one licensed for use in cats was meloxicam, also known as Metacam.
While NSAIDs won’t restore the cartilage in your cat’s joints, they will vastly improve her quality of life, and mean that you can interact with your pet more without her getting defensive. The vet will prescribe your cat pain pills that you put in her food, which have the same effect as pain pills do for us.
Do be aware that NSAIDs can cause side effects. If you notice symptoms such as loss of appetite, nausea/vomiting, increased lethargy, decreased or increased thirst/urination, diarrhea or yellowing of the skin and gums, talk to your vet.
3) Alternative Pain Relief for Cats with Arthritis
If NSAIDs are unsuitable or unavailable, your cat may respond well to other pain relief medications. These include buprenorphone, amantadine, tramadol and gabapentin.
While you may have access to pain medication already, it’s important to only use that which your vet prescribes. That’s because the amount of medication in just one ‘human’ pill is far too much for your cat. Even if you break the pills into pieces, it would be easy to accidentally give your cat too much. This could lead to issues ranging from poor kidney and liver health to overdose. This applies to all of the common medications that people use to manage pain, such as aspirin, ubuprofen and acetaminophen.
4) Making a Cat with Arthritis Comfortable
Aside from medical treatment, there are things you can do at home that will increase your cat’s quality of life. The idea is to make your cat more comfortable, and to stop forcing it to jump or climb to get to the places it needs to go. Here are some ideas you can try that will make a big difference:
- Put everything your cat needs access to on the floor. That includes your cat’s bed, food and water bowls,
- Buy a litter tray that doesn’t have steep sides. Otherwise your cat would struggle to climb into it.
- Buy a new, soft cat bed. Place it somewhere warm, e.g. next to a fireplace, radiator or space heater; make sure there aren’t any drafts from open windows or doors nearby.
- Groom your cat more frequently since your cat can’t do this for itself. This will stop its coat getting raggedy, and also help you spend more time together.
- Ensure that the cat flap is easy to get through. You could leave it open, for example, so that your cat doesn’t have to push her way through. Or get a new one that’s not so high up.
- Pay closer attention to your cat’s claws. While trimming an adult cat’s claws shouldn’t be necessary if you provide a scratching post, an older cat with arthritis may not scratch at their post any more.
You should also pet your cat more frequently if she’s comfortable with you doing so. Cats enjoy physical contact with their people just like we enjoy physical contact with them!
5) Weight Loss for Arthritis in Cats
Weight loss can make arthritis less painful for your cat. So, if your cat is overweight or obese, then helping her lose weight would be a very good idea.
The reasoning is this: excess weight around the body puts more pressure on your cat’s joints, in particular those in her feet and legs. You can take away that excess weight by putting your cat on a healthy diet. When she has lost weight, the reduced pressure will ease your cat’s pain. There are a few ways to help your cat lose weight:
- Talk to your vet. The vet can recommend complete wet or dry foods that help cats lose weight.
- Switch from free feeding to scheduled feeding. Free feeding is where your cat has access to food all the time. Some cats can regulate their food intake while some can’t. Scheduled feeding, e.g. three meals a day, helps you control how much your cat eats.
- Switch from dry food to wet food. The water content of wet food means that it’s less calorie-dense. This means it takes longer for your cat to eat, and to get the same amount of nutrients, meaning it has a harder time eating as much as it needs to maintain its weight.
Weight loss may be good for your cat anyway. Talk to your vet about whether your cat is an appropriate weight, and what you can do to help it lose excess weight. Bear in mind that a cat’s ideal weight varies based on its sex, breed and age.