Does My Cat Have Arthritis and What Can I Do About It?
Arthritis is an almost universal phenomenon in aging cats. Unfortunately, far more often than not, feline arthritis goes undiagnosed and untreated. Arthritic cats can seem to be perfectly fine and yet suffer from joint pain and impaired mobility, both of which negatively impact their quality of life. Let’s look at how we can tell when a cat may have arthritis; and what we can do to help with it, using both lifestyle modifications and medicines.
What Are the Signs of Feline Arthritis?
We often miss signs of arthritis in our kitties at home. Cats hide arthritis very well. They tend to restrict their own activity when joint pain is present. Instead of missing a jump, they will often simply not even try to jump. Instead of limping, they’ll just stay still. These are “absence symptoms,” and are much tougher to notice than “presence symptoms.” Even when we do notice our kitties being less active, we often attribute that to “old age,” when in fact there may be a treatable cause such as arthritis or other chronic illness.
“Absence symptoms” are symptoms that are often not obvious. These behaviors are decreased or not present, rather than new, abnormal behaviors. Some absence symptoms of feline arthritis are: Some absence symptoms of feline arthritis are:
- NOT jumping as high as before
- NOT attempting to jump at all
- NOT running or playing as much
- NOT grooming as well (or at all in advanced cases), or
- NOT jumping up or down without using intermediate objects as “stairs.”
“Presence symptoms” are symptoms that involve showing a behavior that was not previously present. Arthritic cats may show presence symptoms, which are often very subtle and easy to miss if we aren’t aware of exactly what to look for.
- False Starts: A common “presence symptom” of feline arthritis is “feinting” before jumping up. A healthy cat will aim for a spot and jump straight to it. An arthritic cat, especially with hip arthritis, may bob up and down a couple of times, making several “false starts” before taking the jump. It is a very subtle behavior change; you must be looking for it to see it.
- The Front Leg Pullup: This is often seen when arthritis is affecting the hips, so that the kitty can accomplish some upward jumping, but perhaps not as far up as he wants to go. He will then muscle himself the rest of the way up using his shoulders and front legs.
- Walking Down: Another common sign is “walking down” vertical surfaces as a prelude to jumping down. You may see this if your cat is jumping down from a counter or a desk, where a vertical surface is available. Rather than jumping straight from the elevated surface to the floor, a cat with feline arthritis may place his front paws on the vertical surface first, taking a couple of small steps down before taking the actual jump. “Walking down” is often associated with elbow arthritis.
- The Staircase Bunny Hop: When going up or down stairs, arthritic cats will often take the stairs one at a time, bringing both back legs together up or down to the next step.
- The Hunchback: Arthritic cats will often keep their hips tucked under and their heads lowered, creating a hunchbacked posture. This develops very slowly, and may only be obvious if the current posture is compared to older photos of your cat.
- Asking to be Lifted: Many arthritic cats will begin to ask to be lifted up onto a bed or sofa to be with you, rather than making the jump.
- Increasingly Sedentary Behavior: Normal cats spend a large portion of every day sleeping, but arthritic cats may remain unmoving even in the face of activity triggers, such as you returning home from work.
- Urinating or Defecating Outside the Litterbox: It can be uncomfortable for an arthritic cat to get into the litterbox, or to maneuver herself inside the box. Many cats with this particular issue will urinate or defecate right next to the box. This may be a signal that your kitty is trying to do it right but just can’t!
- Increased Grumpiness: This can result from any chronic illness, but is certainly a common symptom of arthritis in cats.
- Petting Avoidance: Avoidance behaviors can range from just wincing or pulling away when touched, all the way through attacking someone who attempts to pet a sore spot. Avoidance can also be seen if the petter is attempting to extend or flex an arthritic joint, particularly the neck.
All of these signs can be caused by other problems too. It is important to see your feline veterinarian to get a full examination and an accurate diagnosis.
Symptoms Arthritic Cats Generally DO NOT Have (Why We Miss the Diagnosis)
We often miss arthritis in our cats because we expect them to act as an arthritic human or arthritic dog would. When cat behavior doesn’t meet these expectations, we often conclude, incorrectly but completely subconsciously, that “my cat can’t possibly be arthritic, or he would show these obvious signs.” Once we understand cat behavior better, we can interpret both signs and lack of signs more accurately. Two good examples of this are vocalizing and lameness.
- Vocalization: Humans and dogs both vocalize when experiencing acute bursts of joint pain, which usually happens when overextending an arthritic joint. A cat simply avoids that overextension, thereby avoiding the acute burst of pain; and even when pain is present, cats almost never vocalize because of it.
- Lameness: Dogs often continue to attempt all their old activities, and then may exhibit obvious lameness as a result. Cats simply stop attempting those activities; instead of showing lameness, they just move as little as possible.
There are a number of complementary therapies that can help with feline arthritis.
An Online Tool to Help You Assess Your Own Cat
A veterinary pharmaceutical company, Zoetis Animal Health, has created an excellent online tool you can use (for free!) to help assess your own cat for possible signs of arthritis. You can access that tool here. You can even print out the results to take to your feline veterinarian!
How Your Cat Vet Will Diagnose Feline Arthritis
- Examination: When examining your cat, your feline veterinarian will palpate various joints, and assess suspect joints for range of motion (percentage of full flexion and extension). Evidence of pain when a joint is palpated or moved may be a sign of arthritis, as may decreased range of motion.
- Mobility Assessment: Your cat vet may want to observe your cat’s ability to walk on both horizontal and sloping surfaces, and to jump up or down. At the hospital, some cats may refuse to walk at all, preferring to freeze in place; or if a cat is a little stressed and the disorder is not very advanced, all symptoms may disappear entirely at the vet, only to reappear at home after the adrenaline wears off. Because this is so common, your doctor may ask you to provide some videos of your cat attempting these activities at home.
- Radiographs: Radiographs can be very helpful in the diagnosis of advanced arthritis, but are not always helpful or necessary. Arthritis can be present and significant for a long period of time before any radiographic abnormalities are visible.
- Response to Treatment: Assessing response to treatment is an important aid in diagnosis. Your cat vet may prescribe any of a variety of therapies and request you to report back on any changes you see.
In most cases, the diagnosis will be made based on joint pain, decreased range of motion, the cat’s age, any descriptions you can provide of the subtle signs listed above, and any demonstration of impaired mobility in the exam room. Other disorders that may cause similar signs will need to be ruled out.
Treating and Managing Feline Arthritis
A variety of medications and supplements are available for the treatment of arthritis.
- Adequan: Our favorite drug for feline arthritis is Adequan, which can be given easily by injection at home (and if you’ve never done it, you should know that giving injections is by far the easiest way to get medicine into most cats)
- Solensia: This is a brand new offering, given as an injection by your vet once a month. Solensia shows great promise, but because it is so new, both efficacy and safety are still somewhat uncertain. Your cat vet will advise you on the specific medication she feels is most appropriate to your cat’s overall situation
- Supplements: There are a variety of supplements that claim to be effective in the treatment of arthritis. Our experience is that supplements are never as effective as medication, and are often completely ineffective. Careful cat parents should also know that the supplement industry is entirely unregulated: the claims they make do not require any scientific support, and the ingredients can be (and often are) entirely different from the label list. This can be a safety concern, especially if a cat is on other medications as older cats so often are.
There are a number of complementary therapies that can help with feline arthritis. A few of the most common are:
- The Assisi Loop. This is an FDA-approved PEMF (Pulsed Electromagnetic Field) device, which exerts a strong anti-inflammatory effect. This is great for cats, because it can be done easily at home, and is entirely hands-off; both make any feline treatment easier. Another advantage to PEMF therapy for cats: most chronic feline disorders have a large inflammatory component, so PEMF therapy can treat multiple problems at one time.
- Cold Laser Treatment. Cold laser therapy is often very effective as a treatment for arthritis. Treatments are most effective if given every few days over an extended period. Cold laser therapy service is usually provided in the hospital, and in some areas mobile cold laser services may be available. There are even new laser options you can “rent” from some veterinary hospitals to provide therapy at home.
- Acupuncture. A therapy with a track record of thousands of years, acupuncture can be amazingly helpful for some cats with arthritis. Surprisingly, most cats tolerate the needles very well. Variations such as acupressure are also available in some areas.
- Physical Therapy. Physical therapy veterinary practices are becoming quite common in more populated areas. PT specialists may use a variety of therapeutic modalities, often teaching you helpful exercises to do with your kitty at home.
Lifestyle modifications can also help your arthritic cat. Here are a few easy ones:
- Place food and water bowls in easily accessible spots that do not require climbing or jumping to use.
- Provide steps and/or ramps to access favorite higher places, such as your bed or sofa. These are commercially available, or can be made at home. Commercially manufactured ramps and sets of steps are available on Amazon and elsewhere. Steps are easy to provide without spending anything. You can use trunks, boxes, or any solid objects you can pile up to make steps. Steps and ramps are best if they are well secured and covered with fabric or a substance that allows for grip.
- Make Litter Boxes Accessible And Comfortable. Changing the type and location of your litter boxes can be very helpful for cats with feline arthritis.
- A litter box on every floor. Not having to face stairs more often than necessary can make box access much easier for the older cat.
- A litter box with a lower entrance threshold. The arthritic cat can have trouble getting into a box if the entrance threshold is not low enough to step over easily.
- A larger litter box. The arthritic cat may be uncomfortable in the box if the box is so small or placed in such a way that he can’t turn around without bending his (arthritic) tail.
- A litter box with higher walls. Some arthritic cats can no longer squat without discomfort, and may therefore remain standing while urinating or defecating, resulting in the elimination going over the side of the box.
- Larger, higher wall, and lower entrance: A litter box with all three of these characteristics can be hard to find commercially. Fortunately, it is both easy and inexpensive to fashion one from a large plastic storage bin. We have found that the Sterilite 56 and 66 qt clear storage bins are ideal for this, although many types of bins will work. Use a pair of sturdy shears to cut a door into one side, with the opening as low as you want. A large utility tray can be placed beneath the box to catch spilled or tracked litter.
- Consider confining your kitty to a single floor. Severe feline arthritis can make steps not only difficult and painful for your arthritic cat, but also dangerous. A pressure-mount baby gate can help keep your kitty safe. If you do confine your kitty to one floor, you may want to move your own activities a bit so that you and your kitty can spend more time together.
Feline arthritis is epidemic in cats, often undiagnosed, and very treatable. Identification and management can radically improve your beloved kitty’s quality of life. Your cat vet can help you determine if your older or less active cat has arthritis. Call today for an appointment!