Stiff, achy joints are a fairly common problem for all animals as they age. But what’s normal achiness and what’s a sign of a bigger problem? Arthritis in older cats is a common problem. What’s more difficult, a lot of time during the early stages of arthritis your cat won’t seem like they’re in pain. Here’s a bit of information on what cat arthritis is, the symptoms and what you can do to help your furry friend deal with their pain.
What is arthritis?
To put it simply, arthritis is an inflammation of the joints. Arthritis can strike cats at any age, but it’s very common in older cats. In younger cats arthritis is typically the result of an illness or injury, whereas in older cats it’s just something that can spring up out of nowhere. After years of regular use, the cartilidge in a cat’s joints, especially larger joints, wears away. While the body can repair this damage, the repairs are often imperfect, with bumps and ridges that rub against each other and cause inflammation.
Obese cats are at greater risk for arthritis, but cats of a healthy weight can also develop it.
What are symptoms of arthritis in a cat?
- Limping. Favoring certain legs or stiffness in one of the legs is an obvious first sign of arthritis. You might notice your kitty limps immediately after getting up from a nap, but as they walk around the limp becomes less noticable. People often brush off this symptom in the beginning thinking the cat just needs to stretch or had a leg fall asleep.
- Spinal issues. You might notice your cat isn’t bending as well as it used to, or might have a hunch in its neck or back that wasn’t there before. Arthritis in the spine can also cause general movement issues, like issues jumping or walking. While your cat might have previously jumped on the bed every morning to wake you up, he or she might suddenly stop and just meow next to your bed.
- Loss of energy. While this can just be attributed to general aging, arthritis can cause a cat to tire more easily and lose interest in toys or games it used to enjoy. You might notice your cat napping more or lose interest in playing.
- Crankiness. The pain and exhaustion arthritis causes can make a previously loving cat very grouchy and angry. Your cat might snap at you if you try and pick him or her up, or hiss at you as you walk by. Just like you and I would be cranky if we were in pain, it’s understandable your cat would be too!
- Biting, chewing or licking parts of the body. Cats have an urge to bite or lick areas that are painful, like scratches or sores. Joint pain is no different. If you notice your cat biting or licking their paw or leg frequently when there seems to be no other reason to, this is a sign that your cat might have joint pain.
- Muscle loss. The lack of activity might cause your cat to lose muscle mass. If your cat’s legs look thinner while the rest of their body doesn’t seem to be losing weight, that’s a sign they’re not as mobile as they once were and it might be a good idea to be checked out by a vet.
- Clumsiness. Stiff joints make it more difficult to move, making a previously very agile cat a lot more clumsy than they once were. For example, you might notice them struggling to keep their balance while grooming, or while playing they might fall over or trip more often.
If you notice these symptoms in your cat, a visit to the vet should be in order. When you see your vet, they will likely diagnose simply based on a visual exam. Unlike dogs, arthritis in cats is not visible on x-rays, so they are often not useful. Your vet will rely on a full symptom history from you as well as their experience to make a diagnosis, so make sure to take notes on what symptoms you notice in your cat.
How can I help my arthritic cat?
Unfortunately there is no cure for cat arthritis. What you and your vet can focus on instead is reducing inflammation and reducing pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a common treatment of arthritis in cats and need to be prescribed by your vet.
Never ever give your cat a medication intended for humans! While the medication might be similar, dosages can be very different. If you have human arthritis treatments on hand don’t give them to your pets unless your vet says it’s ok. This includes aspirin as well, which can be dangerous to cats when improperly dosed.
There are also over-the-counter treatments you can get your cat. A popular choice is Cosequin, a supplement that many arthritic cat owners find helps treat their cat’s inflammation. It comes in a capsule you break apart and sprinkle into your cat’s food. Always check with your vet before giving your cat a supplement, especially if they’re already on medication, but Cosequin is safe for most arthritic cats and is very affordable.
There are also plenty of alternative treatments that people find helpful for their cats. One option is accupuncture. There are accupuncurists who specialize in treating animals. Of course, some cats might not put up with this kind of treatment. Massage is another popular treatment. This is a great option because you can do it yourself, and most cats enjoy getting massaged. Just pay attention to your cat’s behavior while you’re massaging them, don’t overwork the muscles and if your cat tries to nip or scratch, avoid that area or stop the massage. The following video shows you a few massage techniques:
A heated blanket or heating pad wrapped in a towel is also a nice option if your cat seems to be feeling sore.
If your cat is having trouble jumping up onto a couch, bed or cat tree, a ramp or stairs are another option. Pet ramps take less strain off the back, hips and leg joins since the cat will land without as much pressure. There are plenty of ramps and stairs that you can get that will fit your cat’s needs. One I’ve used and personally have good experience with is the Solvit PupSTEP Plus Pet Stairs (to the right). The stairs have a lot of depth and aren’t too high, so your cat can comfortably navigate his or her way up the stairs without any issue. This still gives your cat plenty of mobility and allows them to perch higher up, which many cats find more safe than being on the ground.
You can also build stairs yourself if you have the skill and ability. Just make sure the stairs aren’t too high and aren’t too narrow – a clumsy cat in pain could easily fall off too-narrow stairs. Also, a soft cushion on each step, such as a strip of carpet, will add needed traction and take some pressure off painful joints. While cats are normally graceful, arthritic elderly cats typically are not, so you’ll want to take some precautions if you’d like to build them stairs or a ramp.