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6 Surprising Signs of Arthritis in Cats

They’re not what you’d think, according to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Margaret Gruen.

by Daniela Lopez
March 31, 2022
A woman petting her cat on the couch
Heng Yu / Stocksy

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Cats are living longer than ever. As they age, the risk of developing a chronic disease increases. While osteoarthritis is commonly diagnosed in dogs, it had been seen as a disease unlikely to affect cats until recently. It turns out that feline arthritis, also referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is a lot more common in cats than you’d think. Veterinary researchers estimate 45% of all cats and 90% of cats over age 10 are affected by arthritis in some way. 

Luckily, there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to help determine if your cat has arthritis. If your cat is diagnosed, there are treatments available to ensure your cat can live happily and comfortably (even if a little psychotic).

What is Arthritis in Cats?

Arthritis is a progressive bone disease in cats where the normal cartilage cushion between joints deteriorates, causing inflammation, stiffness, and pain from the bones grinding against each other. Arthritis can affect any joint but cats suffering from this condition will most commonly experience stiffness in their elbows, hips, shoulders, wrists, and knees.

Diagnosing Arthritis in Cats

It’s strange to think that, previously, it was believed that cats were unlikely to develop osteoarthritis. But even now, with plenty of research showing how prevalent this chronic disease is, cats are regularly under-diagnosed — especially when compared to the rate of diagnosis in dogs. So, why aren’t more cats being diagnosed and treated for arthritis? Well, unlike many dogs, cats conceal joint problems more easily due to their small size and physical agility.

“It really comes down to understanding what pain looks like in cats,” says Dr. Margaret Gruen, a veterinary behaviorist and Professor of Behavioral Medicine at North Carolina State University. “People tend to assume that their cat will vocalize or show their pain in the same way a dog might, but chronic pain in cats doesn’t show itself that way. Instead, behaviors that pet parents might attribute to ‘getting old’ or ‘slowing down’ can often be signs of joint pain or disease.”

Ask a Vet

Sudden scratching? Finicky food eater? Loose poop? Whatever pet health question is on your mind, our veterinary pros are here to help.

Unless you know what to look for, it can be easy to miss the signs of arthritis. In fact, diagnosing arthritis in cats is difficult even for experienced veterinarians. Vets will rely on a pet parent’s observations about their cat’s activity level because changes are often subtle. This simple checklist was developed to help you watch for early signs of arthritis in cats.

Cat Arthritis Checklist

  • Does your cat jump up normally?

  • Does your cat jump down normally?

  • Does your cat climb up stairs normally?

  • Does your cat climb down steps normally?

  • Does your cat run normally?

  • Does your cat chase moving objects?

Signs that you’d think would be obvious (and are commonly seen in dogs) — like lameness, decreased range of motion, and a crunching feeling in the joint — are actually uncommon in cats. This makes it challenging to notice the symptoms. Instead of a limp, cats will continue to do the same activities they always have, though poorly or more slowly. You might notice that it takes your cat several tries to jump up onto the bed or maybe they hesitate before climbing stairs each night.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis in cats include:

Treatment for Arthritis

You can make simple changes at home to improve your cat’s quality of life. For starters, keep your cat at a healthy weight and increase exercise through play. Use a litter box with lower sides to ease the pain of entering and exiting, elevate food and water bowls, and provide your cat with a comfy bed. Many cats also benefit from alternative treatment options like acupuncture, massage, and laser therapy.

But because arthritis in cats was so commonly under-diagnosed, medical treatment options have been limited. Cats are often treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as Meloxicam, but only for short-term use. In 2022, the FDA approved the first-ever medication to manage pain associated with osteoarthritis in cats called Solensia (frunevetmab injection). This treatment is a cat-specific monoclonal antibody pain reliever that is injected by a veterinarian each month. “While feline osteoarthritis isn’t curable, the pain from osteoarthritis can be effectively managed,” says Gruen. That’s good news for cats everywhere suffering from arthritis.

It All Starts at Home

As your cat ages, keep those six questions in mind and revisit them once a year. By knowing the signs, you’ll be able to provide your veterinarian with important information to better diagnose this chronic disease. “Pet parents are so important for cats — veterinarians don’t see them in settings where these changes are obvious,” Dr. Gruen says. “So pet parents have to understand what may be causing these behaviors, then see their veterinarian. It’s remarkable how much cats still want to do when pain is relieved. When you see them get a treatment that works, it’s amazing.”

Adapted with permission from NC State University. Source: [NC State]

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daniela lopez

Daniela Lopez

Daniela Lopez is a digital media specialist and long-time contributor to The Bark.