As our feline companions age, changes occur in their bodies that are similar to those that occur in aging people.  Cats don’t complain about their chronic aches and pains as do their human counterparts, but they do feel them.  Morning stiffness, a mild limp, or an inability to jump up to places easily reached in the past are all signs that degenerative joint disease, better known as osteoarthritis, exists.

Arthritis is suspected when joints are stiff and painful, but it can only be definitively diagnosed through x-rays and observation of bony changes.  Arthritis develops when the cartilage covering of bone ends gets soft and breaks down.  Cartilage normally forms a cushion that reduces friction between bones that come in contact in a joint.  When friction increases, swelling and inflammation occur.  Osteophytes are bony spikes that form as a result of inflammation, and they in turn cause more friction and discomfort.  Osteophytes can also reduce the range of motion of a joint.

Aging and years of wear and tear on joints is the most frequent cause of arthritis.  Obesity puts stress on the joints too.  Other causes are poor conformation of joints such as in hip dysplasia, and after fractures or bone trauma if bones become slightly malaligned and rub.  Development of significant arthritis takes time, but once osteoarthritis has started, it cannot be cured.  Treatment involves managing the pain and swelling, and making it easier for the animal to perform its daily activities.

The stoic nature of most cats makes early recognition of arthritis difficult.  During routine physical examinations of cats 10 years and up, I ask owners about their cat’s abilities to get around and jump up on things.  I feel each major joint and manipulate the limbs to check for problems.  Often I discover swellings and discomforts that owners have not noticed.

Problems with the spinal cord or nerves can present with signs similar to those of arthritis.  Hindend weakness, holding the tail down, and crouched posture can be signs of either arthritis or nerve inflammation.  The key to making a correct diagnosis is taking x-rays.  Nerves and other soft tissue structures do not specifically show up on x-rays.  Arthritis can occur between vertebrae and cause problems.  This condition is called spondylosis.  The intervertebral disk spaces become pinched and put pressure on nerves.  The end of the spinal canal can also become narrowed and put pressure on nerves.  This condition is called cauda equina syndrome.  A special x-ray called a myelogram is needed to demonstrate pressure on nerves.  A MRI is also useful for making a diagnosis.

When a diagnosis of arthritis is confirmed, a veterinarian can use injectable and/or oral cortisone to help with pain and inflammation.  Cortisone sounds scary to some owners because they have heard of the side effects that it can cause in dogs and man.  Fortunately most cats are able to tolerate long term dosing of cortisone safely and without side effects.

Meloxicam, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent, can be used in some cats to help with arthritis.  Side effects of this drug are irritation to the lining of the stomach and adverse reactions with the kidneys.  I recommend that kidney function be assessed prior to starting this treatment in older cats.  It is better to give this drug with food and sometimes with antacid treatment.

Butorphanol is a pain reliever that can provide temporary relief in cases of arthritis.  It is not practical as a long term solution since the relief it provides usually lasts only a few hours.  Tramadol is another pain reliever that helps some cats with arthritis.

Nutritional supplements and alternative therapies are available for cats with arthritis.  Some products I like are CosequinÒ or DasuquinÒ,  and Glycoflex for CatsÒ which contains glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate.  These ingredients work to improve damaged cartilage and joint fluid.  They do not directly provide relief from pain or inflammation, instead they promote the rebuilding of cartilage and the cushioning effects of joint fluid.  This process takes weeks, so if an animal is given this type of supplement, it will take 4-8 weeks before improvements can be noted.

AdequanÒ is an injectable glycosaminoglycan and works in a fashion similar to oral CosequinÒ.  Some veterinarians use both products, thinking that the injectable works more rapidly.

There are also diets that are very useful in cats with arthritis such as the new Prescription Diet j/d.  It contains a special balance of fatty acids and other ingredients that help arthritic cats get around better.

Veterinary acupuncturists exist, and responses to treatment vary with the animal and sites of problems.  If you are interested in this mode of therapy, get references and ask for the credentials of the veterinarian.

You can make your home more accessible for an arthritic cat.  Providing a step can help a cat get up onto a bed or sofa.  Make sure that the litterbox is in a location where going up or down stairs is not necessary.  Look for a litterbox with shorter sides if a cat is having a hard time getting in and out.  Keep the cat’s nails cut short.  Often arthritic cats will not wear down their nails enough, so they can grow around into their footpads.  Give arthritic cats soft beds.  Some cats like laying on heating pads on low covered by towels.

If you notice that your cat is not getting around as well as it had in the past, I would recommend pursuing a diagnosis.  Cats will endure pain without complaint until it is quite severe.  Early intervention with supplements is one way to slow the progression of arthritis in some animals.  Using drugs for relief of pain and inflammation help to keep cats more comfortable.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic