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Arthritis In Cats


Arthritis (osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease) is a painful condition that primarily affects older cats. Unfortunately, much more research is needed in order to enhance our knowledge about the causes and management of this disease in cats and to approach the level of understanding that we have about arthritis in dogs. The prevalence of arthritis in cats is unknown, but it is thought to affect a significant portion of senior cats (older than 12 years of age), with research to date showing that the elbows have the highest frequency of obvious disease.

Clinical signs of arthritis in cats are often subtle. Only a small portion of arthritic cats will exhibit lameness or limping. Instead, the signs more commonly seen are behavioral changes, such as reduced activity and a decreased ability to perform some of the tasks that were once able to be performed, or that cats should perform (jumping, playing, etc). Owners may not even initially recognize these signs since many cats are generally less active indoors. Additionally, owners may not interpret the reduced activity as problematic, but instead attribute it to advancing age. Arthritic cats also may groom less completely if their mobility or flexibility is reduced, and they may find other normal functions difficult as well, such as getting in and out of the litter box, going up and down stairs, and defecating.

The diagnosis of arthritis can be difficult in cats, and for this reason, the condition is likely under diagnosed. Radiographs are not always helpful; in cats, there is often a discrepancy between what is seen radiographically and what is seen clinically. Therefore, owner observations of notable changes in their cat's behavior patterns and activity levels are important factors in helping to diagnose arthritis.  Additionally, when veterinarians are obtaining history information on senior cats to determine if arthritis might be present, questions should focus on changes in behavior and activity, rather than asking only about limping or lameness.

As with people, there is no cure for arthritis in cats. Treatment is aimed towards managing the discomfort associated with the condition. Many cat owners do not even recognize that their cat may be experiencing arthritic discomfort until treatments are started. It is only then that owners may commonly remark that their cat has resumed doing some of the things that the owner had not seen the cat do for months or more, never realizing that those behaviors were being avoided due to pain.  Cats can be masters at hiding illness and pain!

The following include some of the treatment approaches for feline arthritis:

  • If overweight, diet restriction. Less weight on arthritic joints may alleviate some discomfort.
  • Home environment changes
    • May enrich the lives of elderly cats
    • May allow cats to get up onto a bed, or other elevated surface. Cats generally like to be up higher where they can safely observe their territory
    • May allow cats easier window access to watch birds, squirrels, or other outdoor activity, providing mental stimulation
  • May detract from the emotional component of chronic pain
    • Pet steps to help cat elevate to surfaces such as the bed, chairs, windowsills
    • Litter box, food and water available in several areas of the home, including each level in multi-level homes
    • Low-sided litter boxes
    • Warmth (heated beds, etc.)
  • Exercise/rehabilitation/physical therapy (in cooperative cats!)
  • Acupuncture/massage
    • Acupuncture is now available at Cat Hospital of Chicago
  • Cold laser therapy (use of light energy at a wavelength known to decrease pain and inflammation over the affected areas)
  • Nutraceuticals (glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate)
  • Analgesics (pain medication)
    • AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) and AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) published pain management guidelines for dogs and cats in 2007.
    • See our handout on Pain Recognition and Management in Cats.
  • Dietary modification
    • Prescription therapeutic diets with added fatty acids to enhance joint health
  • Stem Cell Therapy
    • A novel treatment for arthritis is stem cell therapy. Stem cells are the cells in the body that still retain the potential to develop into many different types of tissues and functions, such as occurs in a developing fetus. In stem cell therapy, stem cells present in fatty tissue are collected via a sterile biopsy technique and then extracted in a laboratory. They are then re-injected into the body in the area that needs to heal or repair itself, such as a damaged tendon or arthritic joint. Obviously, this can be a moderately costly procedure but it is safe, requires only mild sedation, and can dramatically improve comfort and reduce reliance on pain-relieving medications. Full cure of arthritis is unlikely but improvement in symptoms is expected. In uncomfortable but otherwise healthy patients who may live several more years with damaged joints, this may be an option to consider.

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