Many owners attribute their cat’s waning energy to normal aging changes, but the cause could be something more serious, such as joint pain and inflammation. As a Cat-Friendly Certified practice, our Valley Center Veterinary Clinic team understands your feline friend’s unique biology and treatment needs, and we explain what you need to know about feline arthritis. 

Feline arthritis basics

Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common arthritis type in cats, is a chronic, progressive disease that causes degeneration of the joint tissues, including the cartilage, joint capsule, and surrounding bone. Arthritis in cats is not as well understood as arthritis in dogs and often goes undiagnosed and untreated. However, feline arthritis is extremely prevalent, and some studies have demonstrated that more than 90% of cats older than 12 years of age are affected, with the hip, knee, ankle, and elbow most commonly affected, although any joint can become arthritic.

Feline arthritis causes

Feline OA is most often caused by mechanical wear and tear to the joint, but certain factors can increase your cat’s risk, including:

  • Genetics — Certain breeds are at increased risk for orthopedic developmental issues that predispose them to OA. Examples include:
    • Maine Coons, Persians, and Siamese are prone to hip dysplasia.
    • Abyssinians and Devon Rex cats are predisposed to patella luxation.
    • Scottish Folds have inherent cartilage abnormalities that can cause severe OA that affects multiple joints.
  • Age — Senior cats are more likely to develop OA, but younger felines can also be affected.
  • Injury — Cats who sustain an injury, such as a fracture, dislocation, or soft tissue injury in or around a joint, are at increased OA risk.
  • Infection — Joint infection and some systemic infections can result in OA.
  • Excess weight — Overweight and obese cats put excess strain on their joints, predisposing them to OA. In addition, adipose (i.e., fat) tissue produces chronic, low-grade, body-wide inflammation that exacerbates joint inflammation.

Feline arthritis signs

Cats often don’t exhibit pain or illness signs until their condition has advanced, making detection difficult for owners. In addition, when cats do exhibit signs, they aren’t signs pet owners recognize as arthritis indicators. Signs that may indicate your cat is experiencing joint pain include:

  • Reduced activity — Arthritic cats typically spend less time playing and more time sleeping. You may notice they are no longer interested in interacting when you pull out their favorite wand toy and may ignore the laser pointer’s elusive red dot. 
  • Reduced mobility — After their afternoon nap, your cat may appear stiff. They also may be hesitant to jump on or off elevated surfaces and find that navigating stairs is difficult. They may avoid high vantage points, and choose resting locations they can more easily access.
  • Hygiene changes — Painful joints can make grooming difficult, and your cat may not be able to reach certain body areas, resulting in a matted, scruffy coat. In addition, they may have difficulty getting in and out of the litter box and do their business in other home areas. 
  • Mood changes — Arthritic cats may hide more to avoid interactions with people and other pets, be irritable when handled, and exhibit uncharacteristic aggression.

Feline arthritis diagnosis

Cats typically don’t move around normally at a veterinary practice because of the unfamiliar smells and sounds, and most stay hunkered down in their carrier. This can make evaluating their gait difficult for our team, but some diagnostic tools can help, including:

  • History — We ask detailed questions about your cat’s behavior and any changes you have noticed in their activity, mobility, appetite, and hygiene.
  • Video — If you think your cat’s gait is abnormal, we appreciate a video that allows us to evaluate their movement.
  • Palpation — In some cases, palpating your cat’s joints helps us appreciate decreased range of motion, swelling, or discomfort.
  • Blood work — Blood work, such as a complete blood count (CBC) and biochemistry profile, helps our team rule out other conditions that could be responsible for your cat’s behavior changes, and ensures medications that we may prescribe won’t harm your feline friend.
  • X-rays — X-rays help us assess your cat’s joints and determine the extent of OA damage.

Feline arthritis management

Feline arthritis management typically involves a multi-modal approach. Our team will devise an appropriate treatment strategy based on your cat’s specific condition, but potential management strategies include:

  • Weight management — If your cat is overweight, our team will devise a safe weight loss strategy to help relieve stress on their painful joints.
  • Medications — We may prescribe medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) or a monoclonal antibody treatment, to help relieve your feline friend’s OA pain.
  • Cold laser therapy — Cold laser therapy is a non-invasive treatment that helps reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
  • Exercise — Cats with arthritis benefit from daily gentle exercise sessions.
  • Joint supplements — We may recommend joint supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin.
  • Home management — Changes to your home can help your arthritic cat. Recommendations include:
    • Provide a litter box with low sides for easier access.
    • Keep all resources, such as food and water bowls, litter boxes, and scratching posts, in easily accessible areas.
    • Raise your cat’s food and water bowls, so they don’t have to hunch in a painful position to eat and drink.
    • Place steps or ramps near elevated places, so your cat can reach their preferred resting area.
    • Provide soft, supportive bedding to help your cat rest comfortably.

If your cat is moving slower than usual, contact our Valley Center Veterinary Clinic team, so we can determine if arthritis is to blame and devise a management strategy that will relieve their pain.