Does Your Cat Have Arthritis? Are You Sure About That?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Arthritis in Cats

If you have an older, overweight, or large-breed kitty, you won’t want to miss this post. In fact, if you have a cat of any age, weight, and size, you should take the time to become familiarized with a topic that’s too often ignored in cats: osteoarthritis.

Consider that perhaps the most unthinkably feline malady –– osteoarthritis (aka “arthritis”) –– may be slowing your cat down –– or worse. In some cases, it may even be the one thing that leads your kitty down a row of collapsing healthcare dominoes, speeding her demise faster than almost any other process she may be suffering.

Trouble is, most cat owners haven’t been properly educated on the role of arthritis in their cats’ lives. Because it doesn’t tend to present in an obvious manner, as with dogs (“He just won’t get up, Doc.”), and is only very rarely directly responsible for their euthanasia, veterinarians don’t tend to discuss it with as much vigor as they do for dogs and cat owners tend to dismiss the telltale signs as simple aging.

“I mean, I’ve had dozens(!) of cats in my life and none of my numerous vets (not a good sign) have ever told me that any of my cats had arthritis.”

It's a common client refrain in my office. And some of that is my fault. After all, plenty of my clients have been following me for well over a decade. Nonetheless, what we’ve learned during the recent decade about the incidence and impact of severity in cats has made veterinarians sit up and take notice.

Yes, arthritis is much more common than conventional feline wisdom would have you believe –– especially in the aged and the overweight. So now that our cats are living longer and feline obesity is on the rise, it makes sense that we’d be talking more about this disease.

The Basics

Osteoarthritis is a disease that affects the joints, usually after a lifetime’s worth of wear and tear. With all the jumping and scampering our healthy housecats do, it’s no wonder vets see a lot of arthritis blooming as they reach their sunset years. But because cats are marvels at hiding their pain, and because limping and struggling to rise are not common (as we see in people and dogs, for example), arthritis may easily go undetected for years in cats.

Diagnosis

An X-ray is the surest way to see the telltale signs of arthritis. The most common joints affected? The spine, hips, knees and elbows. These are the joints we’ll typically include in our radiographs.

How do veterinarians decide it’s time to talk about arthritis?

We ask: How is he moving? Is he jumping much less? Does he miss the counter when he tries to jump up? Does he walk much slower? And we observe: Is his spine hunched or stiff? Has he lost muscle along his spine and over his limbs? Is the fur on his back greasy because he can’t reach to groom it? Does he resent manipulation of key joints?

Sure, it might be just “old age.” But it could be arthritis too.

So what can you do?

First, recognize when your kitty slows down. Between ages ten and fifteen is the most common time for this. Consider an X-ray right about now. If your cat is fat, even six or seven is not an unusual time to develop some arthritis. And some cats, like dogs, are genetically predisposed to arthritis.

How can you prevent it?

If your cat is overweight, even at age two, you’re courting arthritis with the joint stress that extra weight exerts. Consider that with each additional ounce your cat weighs, any future arthritis will be compounded that much more. In fact, weight control is the most important factor in limiting arthritis in cats—apart from individual genetics, of course, over which we have no control.

So now that we know she has arthritis, what do we do?

Arthritis treatment in cats is a complicated, controversial topic. That’s because cats are not like people or dogs in their ability to tolerate the standard medical treatment for arthritis: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

For all the good they do in dogs and humans, these medications are more likely to do harm in too many of our feline cases. Although we have a much wider variety of drugs at our disposal than ever before, cats still suffer a limited menu of options.

In fact, there are only two arthritis medications approved by the FDA for use in cats: Metacam (an NSAID for which long-term use is considered controversial) and Onsior, another NSAID approved for only three days’ use.

And remember (as if you need to be told), cats shouldn’t get Tylenol, Aleve or Advil-like drugs. They’re toxic. Even Metacam and Onsior can have nasty side effects—especially when used on a regular basis to treat chronic conditions like arthritis.

Other drugs, like amitryptilline, corticosteroids, gabapentin, injectable glycosaminoglycans and opiates, though not specifically approved for use in cats with arthritis, have been used with some success and may be just the thing, depending on your cat’s unique needs and individual response to these meds.

Additionally, plenty of veterinarians will recommend the nutritional supplement glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, readily available in a cat-dosed format at most veterinary hospitals and pet supply stores.

Then there are the “alternative” medicine treatments, so named typically because the lack of evidence in support of their efficacy keeps them out of the mainstream. But that doesn’t mean they’re duds. Consider acupuncture, for example. Some cats do appear to respond positively to this modality.

Meds, supplements, and alternative therapies may work, but when it comes to getting the biggest bang for your buck, few offer long-term success like weight loss for the heavy.

But rest assured, new therapies are on the horizon. One of the newest measures? Hip replacements for cats. New feline pain medications are also in the pipeline—so stay tuned. 

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