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Understanding arthritis and ways to care for an arthritic cat

Although cats have very athletic body structure, they are at a high risk of orthopaedic disorder in the form of 'Arthritis' (joint inflammation). Arthritic problems may appear in any breed of cats; but generally cats who lead physically active lives are more prone to arthritis.

Your senior cat may suffer the pain of arthritis without indicating it to you overtly. The earliest signs that your cat is feeling arthritic pain are often behavioural. This includes lack of grooming, avoiding climbing and jumping and becoming reclusive. Cats in pain may also be more irritable.

What is arthritis?

Although injury or infection can cause arthritis, most cases are simply due to aging. As cats age, the normally smooth cartilage surfaces of the bones erode and wear thin. As this erosion takes place, the body repairs it, but the new surface becomes increasingly irregular, or may be incomplete. These surface changes in the joint cause pain and additional inflammation when the bones meet each other.

The large joints, such as the shoulder, elbow, hip, and ankle are the most frequently affected, however, all joints can be involved. Obese cats tend to be especially prone to arthritis, as excess weight places a greater strain on joints.

Most senior cats will experience some degree of arthritis and exhibit symptoms including stiffness, pain, and loss of muscle. Arthritis is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms usually worsen with age.

Signs your cat may have arthritis

Depending upon the amount of pain your cat is experiencing, there may be changes in appetite and behavior. The joints are generally not swollen, and the pain is the dull aching type, so cats will lick or bite at the painful area. Some will seek out warmth or soft places to sleep.


Arthritis is a very painful condition. So, keep a check on your cat’s general health and beware of the following indicative symptoms:

  • Sudden change in behavior (aggressiveness and avoidance)

  • Decreased energy level or lethargy

  • Swollen or highly painful joints

  • Difficulty in various forms of movement (jumping)

  • Stiffness, limping, or favoring a limb, particularly after sleep or resting

  • Altered gait (the way in which your cat walks)

  • Muscle atrophy (reduction in the size of the muscle) in the affected limb

  • Difficulty getting up after lying down

Arthritis and its accompanying symptoms are not life threatening, but they often worsen throughout your cat's life. Many cats simply live within the limitations caused by arthritis. For many, treatment can improve the quality of life.

Helping your cat deal with arthritis

The pain and inflammation of arthritis can be reduced through use of anti-inflammatory medicines and nutraceuticals containing glucosamine, chondrotin and MSM. The most important thing is to manage the pain and discomfort of this degenerative condition.

You should make it easier for you cat to maneuver around the home. Make sure food bowls are easily accessible. Choose litter boxes that are large and easy to access.  Use a pet ramp or stair steps to help her access a favorite sleeping area.

If your cat is overweight, try feeding a reduced calorie diet to help your cat loose weight and reduce strain on joints. There are also prescription diets available to help improve the joints and mobility. Do not give your cat over-the-counter medications such as aspirin or acetaminophen.

Managing an Existing Problem

Exercise and diet remain of crucial importance, but usually medical intervention provides a significant increase in activity and quality of life.

Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs have for many years been the mainstay of treatment, several very safe and very effective preparations are now available through your vet. These are tablets and liquids which can be used long term with only rare occurrence of the potential side effects most notably irritation to the bowel.

Chondro-Protective Agents are aimed at maintaining a healthy joint by providing chemicals essential to the maintenance of joint cartilage and have become more widespread in their use. The effectiveness of these drugs is less predictable, but there are no known side effects and the Neutroceuticals like Glucosamine are classed as food supplements rather than medicines.

Corticosteroids are only rarely used in cases such as severe acute disease, unresponsive chronic disease and immune mediated disease like rheumatoid arthritis. They can be very effective but in prolonged or repeated use have significant side effects, including immune suppression and serious hormonal conditions.

Surgery is available for many conditions including hip and elbow replacements, fusion of joints, and adjusting the angle of joints by cutting and re-setting the bones.

Hydrotherapy, Physiotherapy and Massage are now widely available, and qualified practitioners of each can and should be sought.

Alternative Therapies such as acupuncture, which is available through a limited number of veterinary practitioners, and homeopathy, which is more widely practiced, are also possible and can have positive effects.