Cat personalities are all over the map – it’s part of the reason these beautiful creatures are so near and dear to our hearts. Wonderful companions, with their purrs, snuggles, and antics, cats can also be somewhat stoic and mysterious. This can make it difficult for pet owners who are not aware of the signs to know when something is amiss with their feline friends – especially when it comes to arthritis and other joint pains.
Arthritis in Cats
As with humans, cats and dogs are prone to develop arthritis (also known by veterinary professionals as primary degenerative joint disease, or DJD) with age. The cartilage and underlying bone between joints degenerates, causing symptoms like stiffness, pain, swelling, and/or less mobility (usually more so in dogs than cats). Elbows, hips, the spine, and knees are the joints most commonly affected in cats. While extremely common in senior cats, arthritis often goes undetected until in its advanced stages. Studies show that around 90% of cats show evidence of arthritis when X-rayed.
Symptoms of Arthritis in Cats
Unlike dogs, it’s not always obvious when our feline friends are in pain – cats are very adept at hiding it. “Cattitude” is what makes our little friends so intriguing and loveable, but it can also mask the problems that they are dealing with. Also unlike dogs, arthritis in cats tends to be symmetrical, which masks lameness. Plus its gradual onset means that symptoms will appear gradually as well.
Here are a few arthritis signs to be on the lookout for:
- Hiding – While it’s natural for cats to hide on occasion, especially when in new environments, hiding more often can be a sign of joint pain.
- Eliminating outside of the litter box can be a sign of various issues, including something as simple as your cat deciding she doesn’t like the brand of litter you are using. Unfortunately, it can also mean that your feline friend is experiencing some pain or discomfort while climbing in and out of the box.
- Not keeping up with grooming – If you’re noticing that your cat is not looking as pristine as usual, or if she seems to be missing a spot or two with her regular grooming practice and has developed matting, she may be having some joint issues, specifically in the spine. Cats seem to take great pleasure in making sure they look as beautiful as possible and especially love to strut their stuff. Patches of fur that don’t meet your cat’s usual high standards can be important warning signs of health issues for owners.
- A change in activity level can also be very telling, and is common in the early stages of arthritis. No matter how much cats may love showing off their ability to cat nap and sleep for hours, there is also a certain level of physical activity that we are used to seeing. For example, there may be a favorite mouse toy that your cat can’t resist leaping for, or a time of day when your cat feels the need to race through the house. When there is a decrease in frequency of her favorite activities your cat may be giving you the signal that something is bothering her.
- Difficult or slower movement. Cats with joint pain will often travel the stairs much more slowly or cautiously, and with less agility than they used to. And even though you may be relieved that your cat is no longer jumping atop the kitchen counter or table, it may be a sign that it is too painful to now do so.
We need to keep an eye on behavior and notice when there is more going on than a cat simply showing off how bold and special she happens to be feeling that day. Sometimes cats want us to know what a big deal they are – bestowing us with their enthusiastic affection and putting on a show of magnificent jumps and toy chases for us. Other times, they just can’t be bothered with us and the most we’re going to get out of them is the lazy blinking of an eye. As owners though, we generally know what makes our buddies tick, and cats will throw us some signs that range from subtle to not so delicate to let us know when there may be an underlying issue.
If you have an older cat, you can help your vet better assess your cat’s joint health by showing videos or photographs of your cat grooming, going up or down stairs, jumping on and off furniture, using the litterbox, and even resting. Don’t be afraid to share very specific examples of how things have changed for your fur baby with the vet. Anecdotal evidence can be one of the best ways for your veterinarian to know how to best help your cat. A thorough history, combined with a physical exam, can be helpful to your vet in determining the best way to help.
When to Focus on Cat Joint Care
Many people believe that there’s no reason to be concerned about their cat’s joints until kitty has entered her final golden years. This is a common misconception, as joint degeneration does not happen overnight. Even our middle-aged feline companions can suffer from joint issues and require support in this area. Fact is, our furry friends can be so skilled at hiding their challenges, that by the time we’ve noticed the signs, we may have missed the opportunity to care for their joints in a preventative way.
So how do we know when cat joint care is needed?
Knowing that arthritis starts to develop in middle age, I believe supporting joint health in our feline friends is something we should pay attention to when they are relatively young, about 3 to 6 years old.
The Best Ways to Support Cat Joint Health
Manage kitty’s weight
Sometimes we’re the last to catch on when our kitty has developed a bit of a weight problem. We love to make our cats happy, and a direct route to cat happiness is often found straight through the stomach. Unfortunately, extra weight creates more stress on the joints, and this can lead to issues with joint health for cats. Obesity has been linked to progressive arthritis not only via added physical strain, but also through specific obesity-related inflammation. You’ll want to determine the ideal weight for your cat, and then make sure to feed him an appropriate calorie intake each day.
The kind of food you choose is also very important. Feeding your furry friend high-quality, meat or seafood based canned food and high quality treats will help to eliminate excessive carbohydrate intake and empty calories that can lead to weight gain.
While an important part of weight management, making sure your cat regularly gets enough exercise is also a way to have fun with your little buddy. Enjoy a new toy together, and encourage your cat to be physically active through play – you can’t beat having fun with your little companion (and it is good for you too)!
Cat joint supplements
I’m a firm believer in supplementing a healthy diet with nutritional supports that target areas of vulnerability – this goes for humans, cats, and dogs alike (horses too). Since arthritis is so prevalent in older cats, I recommend adding cat joint supplements to the program early on as a way to support kitty’s joint health. A good cat joint supplement will give cats the specific nutrients they need to support healthy joint function and structure for as long as possible, ones that may be lacking in the diet. Supplements are a safe and easy way to support joint health.
Glucoasamine, for example, is one of my top joint-supporting nutrients because it regulates the synthesis of collagen in joint tissue. Chondroitin and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) too, as these nutrients support joint tissue structure and function. Omega-3 fatty acids are also an important ingredient, as they support joint mobility and a normal inflammatory response in cats, and I like a supplement with manganese, a mineral which helps the body build cartilage. Lastly, antioxidants like vitamin C or E are crucial additions because they combat free radical stress (a major source of inflammation). In addition to managing her weight, providing your cat the targeted nutrition she needs for healthy joint structure and function can help keep her active and strong.
How to Improve Quality of Life in Cats with Arthritis
If you suspect your cat may already be suffering from joint pain, here are a few measures you can take in addition to the strategies above to make her more comfortable:
Make environmental adjustments:
- Raise food and water bowls so kitty doesn’t have to bend down as far and can eat with her elbows extended.
- Relocate or alter litter boxes so they are easier to get to and into. This may mean cutting down the sides so your cat can climb in with less effort. Provide additional little boxes as well – especially in two story homes.
- Provide ramps or steps to areas cats like to access, like window perches and places they sleep. I used to do this with my dog, Chewy, to help her get in and out of the car when jumping was no longer an option.
If your veterinarian determines that arthritis management is needed, he or she will likely suggest similar modifications as part of a multi-modal approach.
In severe cases of arthritis, your vet may prescribe pain medications, like NSAIDs, opioids, or corticosteroids. Do NOT try to treat your cat yourself with over-the-counter NSAIDS. Acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen, for example, are all toxic to cats and can have fatal effects – this is an important difference between dogs and cats with arthritis. In dogs, NSAIDs are the primary pharmacological treatment, but in cats they must be used with caution. To date, there is only one NSAID safe enough for long term use in cats.
What about CBD oil?
Although CBD oil (cannabidiol) has been gaining momentum as the hot, new, all-natural therapy for pain and anxiety (in humans and pets alike), you won’t find many vets who recommend it. This is because veterinarians, at this point, are prohibited from prescribing medical marijuana. While CBD oil comes from the hemp plant and does not have the same psychoactive (THC) properties as marijuana, it still puts vets in a bind legally.
As of yet, there are no definitive studies showing that CBD oil is an effective pain management therapy for cats. However, a recently published Cornell study sheds light on the possible benefit of CBD oil for dogs with arthritis. Specifically, it “suggests that 2 mg/kg of cannabidiol (CBD) oil twice daily can help increase comfort and activity in dogs with osteoarthritis.” The authors of that study explained “that there are plans for additional studies on the efficacy of CBD oil in acute pain management, behavior management, feline pain and concurrent usage with chemotherapy in oncology patients.” And there are more studies in progress at both Cornell and Colorado State University investigating the properties and potential benefits of CBD oil.
All this being said, many pet owners are giving CBD oil to their pets, typically without adverse side effects. Many have shared that they believe it helps their furry companions experience less pain. If you use CBD oil and believe in its benefits, you may want to consider giving it to your pet, at your own risk (and not to be confused with medical marijuana, as THC is toxic to pets). I have never, myself, used CBD oil with my pets. At the end of the day, you are the pet parent and you should go with what feels right for you and your fur family.
Overall, cat joint care comes in several forms, and if you stay attuned to your kitty’s needs, you’ll notice the signs of potential joint health issues. And before any such signs, you can support healthy joint structure and function in your cat with a healthy diet and weight management, as well as Joint Support Chews for Cats, which double as tasty treats for your little love.
This blog has been reviewed and approved by veterinarian Emily Wilkinson, DVM.
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