Many owners attribute their cat’s decreased desire to play or jump up on the countertops as a normal aging consequence, but most older cats actually have joint disease that makes these movements uncomfortable. Cats with arthritis typically do not show obvious pain signs, such as limping, but you can learn to recognize subtle changes at home. 

The Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team wants pet owners to understand and recognize that joint disease can significantly impact their cat’s quality of life. Here is an overview of feline arthritis causes, signs, and long-term management strategies to keep your cat mobile and pain-free well into their senior years.

How common is arthritis in cats?

Arthritis in cats has historically been underrecognized, but recent studies show that 60% of cats older than 6 years have early arthritis signs, and up to 90% older than 10 years will develop joint disease. While injury, infection, or autoimmune disease can play a role in joint inflammation and arthritis development, this disease is most often associated with aging. 

What are the most common arthritis signs in cats?

Arthritis begins with the breakdown of the cartilage lining the joints, causing inflammation inside the joint, which in turn causes further joint damage, followed by more inflammation. This cycle means that arthritis is a progressive disease that will continue to worsen without treatment. Arthritis signs can be attributed to inflammation, joint destruction, joint laxity or stiffness, and joint pain, which are usually subtle in cats, but may include:

  • Lack of interest in play 
  • Difficulty getting in and out of the litter box
  • Accidents outside the litter box
  • Taking stairs only one at a time
  • Hesitancy or refusal to jump on furniture or perches
  • Difficulty grooming—unkempt or matted hair coat

How does my veterinarian know if my cat has arthritis?

Your veterinarian can usually diagnose your cat’s arthritis based on clinical signs and physical examination, but may require X-rays or joint fluid analysis to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible joint pain causes, such as infections or tumors. Sometimes arthritis, especially early signs in the spine, is diagnosed accidentally when your cat is X-rayed for another problem. The best way to diagnose arthritis early is to ensure they receive annual or biannual wellness examinations, when your veterinarian may detect the following:

  • Joint swelling
  • Decreased joint range of motion
  • Joint pain
  • Joint crepitus (i.e., clicking, snapping, grinding, or popping)
  • Gait abnormalities
  • Decreased muscle mass around affected joints

Can my cat’s arthritis be cured?

Arthritis is a progressive disease, and no treatment can reverse the existing joint damage, but we can manage your cat’s pain, slow disease progression, and improve muscle strength and mobility. Multimodal therapy, which involves using many treatments together for a synergistic outcome, is the best option. Other options include:

  • Oral medications — Pain medications, commonly gabapentin or buprenorphine, can be given orally as needed, but anti-inflammatory medications are not safe for long-term use in cats.
  • Injectable medications — A joint health medication, called Adequan, given every few weeks by injection, can protect the remaining joint cartilage. Another medication called Solensia, given monthly, helps control arthritis pain by intercepting a substance in the pain pathway. 
  • Supplements — Glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation and protect cartilage.
  • Prescription food — A prescription joint diet that contains the above supplements will usually help with weight control.
  • Acupuncture — This alternative therapy is proven to reduce pain.
  • Rehabilitation — Therapeutic exercise and other modalities performed by a rehab veterinarian may help some cats, depending on their temperament.
  • Laser therapy — Cold laser therapy is widely available and proven to reduce inflammation and pain.

Can I help manage my cat’s pain at home?

Encouraging daily movement and exercise at home to keep your arthritic cat at a lean, healthy weight is the best way to help. Obesity not only places extra physical strain on joints, but can also cause widespread, systemic inflammation and worsen disease. You should also provide your cat with a low-sided litter box, ensure all necessities can be easily reached, and assist them with grooming, as needed.

Cats are naturally agile and athletic, but they suffer from arthritis and are inhibited from activities they enjoy more often than most people realize. Annual wellness visits and checkups are essential to enable your primary veterinarian to detect subtle joint changes and determine the best treatment plan, but should your cat become acutely painful or sustain a joint injury, contact the Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team for immediate care.