Did you know that arthritis affects approximately 90% of all adult cats?
Most people don’t realize that cats are at higher risk for developing arthritis as they get older compared to dogs. What’s worse is that the symptoms of arthritis in cats often go unrecognized by both owners and veterinarians alike.
Let’s explore how to recognize the symptoms and how you can intervene to help your kitty.
How to Recognize Arthritis in Your Cat:
Unlike dogs that tend to limp when they have arthritis, cats are far less likely to limp or show other obvious signs of pain. The most common changes associated with arthritis in cats are related to behavioral and life style changes.
1. JUMPING LESS:
Cats are both predators and prey species. This means they like to hunt, but at the same time, they feel vulnerable to being attacked by predators. For this reason, cats like to be in high places. This allows them to scan the environment at a good vantage point for attacking prey, but allows the safety of avoiding predators. When a cat stops jumping up to high places or you notice they are more hesitant to jump, or going to places that are less high than previously, you should suspect they may have arthritis.
2. LESS SOCIAL:
Pain can manifest in any number of ways. Because cats are prey species, they are less likely to show outward signs of pain. Instead, they are more likely to hide or be less social. If your cat used to cuddle with you on the couch, but now prefers to be away from you and other pets, you should suspect arthritis. If your cat used to play and now prefers to be left alone, you should suspect arthritis.
3. GROOMING LESS:
Cats are notoriously very clean animals. A normal part of their daily routine is to self-groom. When a cat avoids grooming himself, this is usually a sign of illness. If you notice your kitty has mats on their fur, their coat is greasier or otherwise unkempt, you should suspect arthritis.
4. SOILING OUTSIDE LITTER BOX:
As we already mentioned, cats like to be clean. If you notice urine or stool accidents outside the litterbox, this can be a symptom of pain related to getting in or out of the litterbox. Stepping over the lip of a litter box involves movement of specific joints, especially the elbows and hips. If there is arthritis in the joints, these movements can be painful. They will accommodate by soiling outside the litterbox to avoid the pain of stepping into/out of the litterbox.
5. CHANGES IN EATING HABITS:
Depending on the degree of discomfort, cats can eat more or less than usual. Typically, in earlier stages of arthritis, cats will move less and tend to eat more. You may notice your cat is looking a little chubbier than usual at this stage of early arthritis. As arthritis progresses and becomes more debilitating, your kitty’s appetite is likely to diminish. If your cat’s eating habits are changing, consider arthritis as a potential cause.
What to Do:
1. GET X-RAYS:
The only definitive way to diagnose arthritis in your cat is to get radiographs of the affected joints. If your kitty is showing any of the changes mentioned above, and especially if your cat is over 5 years old, you should schedule a visit with your veterinarian and consider getting x-rays. The most common joints to develop arthritis in cats are the elbows and hips, followed by the knees and the spine.
2. CHANGE THEIR DIET:
If your cat has gained weight or is showing symptoms of arthritis, you should consult your veterinarian and consider a diet change. As cats get overweight, their risk of developing arthritis and other diseases (such as diabetes) increases. Changing their diet to a less carbohydrate rich diet that has more fiber and protein is likely to help. In addition, you can ask your veterinarian about prescription diets that help support joint health.
3. MODIFY THE LIVING SPACE:
Since cats love to be in high places, you should modify the home environment to allow them to get up to higher places without the need for jumping. There are multiple devices that can help your kitty get to their favorite spots such as ramps, stairs and modified cat trees. You can also install layered wall perches that allow them to reach window ledges or other higher locations in a less strenuous manner. In addition, consider getting additional litterboxes (the rule of thumb is two litterboxes per cat) and boxes with a lower lip for easier entrance and exit.
4. ADD SUPPLEMENTS AND/OR MEDICATIONS:
Most people believe that glucosamine and chondroitin are the best joint supplements. While these supplements may help in a laboratory setting, there is very little evidence that glucosamine/chondroitin helps individuals with naturally occurring arthritis. Better choices for joint support include green lipped mussel (GLM) extract and omega 3 fatty acids. There are very few studies that have evaluated the safety and efficacy of joint supplements in cats. GLM is one of the few supplements that has demonstrated safety and efficacy for the treatment of arthritis in cats. In addition to supplements, you should speak to your veterinarian about approved oral and injectable medications that can help reduce pain in cats suffering from arthritis.
5. ACUPUNCTURE AND REHABILITATION:
There are several treatments that can help reduce the symptoms of arthritis without the need for medications. This includes the centuries old practice of acupuncture, which can be performed in the comfort of your home by a certified veterinary acupuncturist. Acupuncture is one of the safest forms of medicine and is often very well tolerated by cats. In addition, there are many rehabilitation strategies and modalities that can help ease the pain and slow the development of arthritis, such as pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, low-level laser therapy, massage, manual therapies, custom exercises and even swimming!
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Leilani Alvarez, DVM, DACVSMR
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation
Director, Integrative and Rehabilitative Medicine
Schwartzman Animal Medical Center, New York, NY