According to a study, as much as 90% of cats over the age of 12 suffer from arthritis. Yet only 13% of cats with arthritis are getting diagnosed. This indicates we need to raise awareness about feline osteoarthritis. To do so, we need to get familiar with the topic.
What is Osteoarthritis (OA) in Cats?
Osteoarthritis (OA) in cats is a painful, chronic, and progressive joint disease due to cartilage degeneration and loss. Cartilage acts like a cushion – softens the blow and rubbing between two bone surfaces.
When damaged, the bones rub against each other resulting in inflammation. This gave the disease its name – “osteo” is the Greek word for bone, “arthro” for joint, and “-itis” is the suffix indicating inflammation.
Osteoarthritis is also known as arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD).
What are the Causes of Arthritis in Cats?
The causes of feline arthritis can be categorized into three groups – natural wear and tear, genetics, and traumatic injuries.
Natural Wear and Tear
As cats grow old, it is normal for the joints to become damaged – prolonged and continuous rubbing eventually takes its toll. However, growing old is not the only cause of arthritis – the following causes, genetics, and injuries factor in, as well.
Due to underlying joint conditions, certain cat breeds are predisposed to arthritis. For example, Maine Coone cats, Persians, and Siamese cats often have hip dysplasia. Patella luxation is frequently reported in Abyssinian and Devon Rex cats, and Scottish Fold cats have abnormally developed cartilage that results in arthritis in multiple joints.
Fractures, dislocations, and other musculoskeletal injuries increase the risk of arthritis. Cats, especially outdoor cats, are prone to road traffic accidents. Injured joints are more likely to become arthritic joints over time.
What Are the Symptoms of Cat Arthritis?
Here is a list of the signs and symptoms of arthritis in cats:
• Decreased mobility
• Difficulty jumping up or down
• Difficulty climbing up or down stairs
• Difficulty getting up or standing
• Decreased grooming
• Changes in urination habits
• Changes in defecation habits
• Decreased appetite
• Hunched sleeping position
• Sensitivity to touch and petting
• Excessive vocalization (meowing)
Depending on the arthritis severity, some cats can show behavioral changes, like:
• Increased irritability
How is Feline Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?
The diagnosis is based on an orthopedic examination. The vet will inspect the joints and check for swelling, pain, changes in the range of motion, and crepitus. To confirm the diagnosis, they order x-rays. If the x-rays show signs of degenerative joint disease, arthritis is confirmed.
What is the Treatment for Feline Arthritis?
Sadly, arthritis in cats cannot be treated. However, it can be managed. Managing an arthritic cat requires a multimodal approach – combining different techniques and methods. For better understanding, we will review them.
Pain management is the first and most important step in managing feline arthritis. However, pain management in cats can be tricky.
First, the pain meds safe for long-term use in cats are limited. Cats are hard to medicate – they dislike oral meds and cannot be tricked into swallowing as dogs can. Here are some pain medication options:
- NSAIDs: The pain medication of choice are non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). In cats, only two NSAIDs are safe for prolonged use – robenacoxib and meloxicam. However, they still require cautious use – the cat needs to be monitored, and blood parameters frequently checked to avoid side effects.
- Opioids: Opioids are reserved for cats with more severe joint pain. Opioids maintain the cat’s quality of life and are effective for chronic pain. Common opioids are morphine, fentanyl, buprenorphine, and hydromorphone.
- Solensia: This year, the FDA approved the first monoclonal antibody (mAb) drug for controlling arthritis-related pain in cats – Solensia, a monthly injectable drug with Frunevetmab as an active ingredient. Frunevetmab is a cat-specific monoclonal antibody. In simpler words, it is a type of protein that can attach to another protein called nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is responsible for managing pain. When Frunevetmab and NGF bind, they disable the pain signal from reaching the brain.
While discussing pain meds for cats, we need to say that you should never use over-the-counter pain medications in cats. Many everyday painkillers for humans are toxic to cats.
Nutraceutical is the fancy medical term for a dietary supplement. When dealing with arthritis, popular supplements are glucosamine, chondroitin, Green-Lipped Mussels (GLM), Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), CBD oil, etc.
However, the efficacy of these nutraceuticals in managing feline arthritis has yet to be definitively proven (there are more studies supporting their benefits for arthritic dogs but not cats).
Omega-3 fatty acids are at the center of attention when it comes to specialized diets for arthritic patients. Studies show that supplementation with fish oil (a rich source of omega fatty acids) relieves arthritis symptoms and improves mobility. This is because omegas have potent anti-inflammatory features.
Plus, an omega-rich diet can help with weight loss, which is also essential for cats with arthritis.
In cats, obesity is not a proven risk factor for arthritis. However, studies show that 14% of arthritic cats are obese. Therefore, weight loss in obese cats and lean body maintenance in normal cats are vital parts of the arthritis management plan.
The two pillars of body weight control in cats are a low-calorie diet and physical activity. Regular weight monitoring will help keep the goals straight.
We all know that cats are creatures of habit, and not being able to complete their routines can have a negative impact. This is where environmental aids kick in. Environmental management will make the life of the arthritic cat much easier.
The environmental modification includes:
- Elevated Food & Water Bowls: A cat with arthritis should eat and drink from elevated bowls. This is because squatting over low food & water bowls add pressure to the already achy joints.
- Orthopedic Cat Bed: Orthopedic beds are conducive as they provide the cat with a soft and comfortable sleeping spot that supports the joints and promotes relaxation.
- Senior Cat Litter Box: Another modification would be to use a special senior litter box with lowered, easy-access entrances. Also, if there are multiple floors, it is important to have a litter box on each floor.
- Ramps & Steps: Installing ramps or steps is highly recommended. Cats like sitting in high places, and it is important to enabling them to reach such elevated surfaces.
- Lifting Cat Harness: It is also helpful to put a cat lifting harness in certain situations. That way, you can quickly pick up the cat if there are stairs ahead of you or if it needs to get up on the sofa.
Considering the non-collaborative nature of cats, physical therapy can be a challenge. However, with time and patience, success is possible. Here are some of the recommended options for arthritic cats.
- Hydrotherapy: As a low-impact exercise, hydrotherapy is perfect for cats with arthritis. It helps with weight control, increases agility, builds strength, and improves circulation.
- Massage: Massage is defined as the manual manipulation of tissues that can have positive mechanical, physiologic, and psychologic effects. It uses stroking, friction, compression (kneading and wringing), percussion, and effleurage techniques. Massage can be beneficial for arthritic cats, and pet owners can do it at home.
- Range of Motion Exercises: There are passive range of motion (PROM) exercises and active range of motion exercises. They help increase joint mobility, build strength, and improve weight bearing.
- PEMF Therapy: Veterinary applications of PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic) therapy are new but, so far, are showing promising results. In an article for DVM360, Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a veterinary pain management expert, says that PEMF therapy provides pain relief. PEMF therapy is painless, non-invasive, and can be done at home. Since being in a familiar environment relaxes cats, this is an essential factor.
Sometimes, cats have a co-existing orthopedic condition that predisposes them to arthritis or worsens arthritis. Such conditions are traumatic injuries, hip and elbow dysplasia, or cranial cruciate ligament. Surgery can prevent arthritis, slow its progression, or reduce the symptoms in these cases.
In the end stages of arthritis, when the cat does not respond to other less invasive options, the vet may suggest joint surgery (such as fusion or excision) or joint replacement.
In Conclusion: The Challenges of Feline Arthritis
Affecting over 90% of senior cats and being diagnosed in only 13% of cases, arthritis is a widespread yet underdiagnosed joint disease in cats. The huge discrepancy in these statistics is due to several reasons.
First, cats have unique lifestyles – unlike dogs, they are not taken for walks, and subtle mobility issues are hard to see. Second, they are classified as quirky, and when acting out of the ordinary, pet owners assume that is normal. Third, cats are masters of concealing pain – it is their instinct to hide potential weaknesses.
Luckily, with proper education, pet owners can learn about the prevalence of feline arthritis and learn to recognize the signs of arthritis. A KG MarketSense 2018 Global Veterinarian Market Research showed that when familiarized with feline arthritis, 53% found the info relevant to their pets, and 39% decided to schedule a veterinary appointment.
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- FDA News Release. FDA Approves Novel Treatment to Control Pain in Cats with Osteoarthritis, First Monoclonal Antibody Drug for Use in Any Animal Species. 2022 January
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- Wagner A. Cast a wider net with tools to ease feline pain. DVM360. 2019 August