Vet Blog

Ouch, That Hurts: How to Spot Arthritis in Your Cat

January 25, 2023

Cats are notorious for hiding pain and illness signs, and you may not realize your feline friend is silently suffering until their arthritis is advanced.

Knowing what signs to look for can help you spot arthritis at an earlier stage when you can get your cat the help they need to remain comfortable and mobile.

What Signs Do Arthritic Cats Show?

Arthritis is a progressive condition that gets worse over time. Joint cartilage breaks down and fails to provide adequate cushioning between the bones in the joint. Then, the ends of these bones rub together, causing pain, inflammation, and decreased mobility. Sometimes, bone spurs can form, which causes more pain and decreased joint movement.

Because arthritis can be so painful, pet owners likely think spotting disease in their cats would be easy. However, since cats are so skilled at hiding even significant pain, identifying arthritis until the disease has greatly advanced can be tough. If your cat has developed arthritis, they may show the following signs:

  • Reluctance or refusal to jump up or down
  • Difficulty going up and down stairs
  • A stiff gait, especially after resting
  • Difficulty climbing in and out of the litter box
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Reduced interaction
  • Sleeping more
  • Less time spent grooming
  • Overgrown nails
  • Overgrooming of painful joints
  • Irritability when petted or handled
  • Hiding more
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss

These signs can appear slowly over time, and many signs are chalked up to normal aging changes. But, if your cat is showing behavior and activity changes, schedule an appointment, so our veterinarian can accurately diagnose the problem.

What Causes Arthritis in Cats?

While the exact arthritis cause in cats is unknown, some factors appear to predispose cats to this degenerative joint disease. Factors that may increase a cat's arthritis risk include:

  • Obesity - Fat is an inflammatory substance, and creates extra pressure on joints-a dual insult to joint cartilage.
  • Conformation - Abnormal joint formation causes the bones in the affected joints to shift oddly, destroying the cartilage and causing pain.
  • Genetics - Certain breeds are prone to various joint problems that make them a higher arthritis risk. Maine coon, Persian, Siamese, Abyssinian, Devon Rex, and Scottish fold cats are most at risk for arthritis and other joint issues.
  • Trauma - Fractures and other injuries can cause abnormal joint movement that eventually leads to arthritis.

How is Arthritis in Cats Diagnosed?

Diagnosing arthritis is more difficult in cats than dogs because of their small size, natural agility, and dislike of being handled for physical exams. The signs commonly seen in arthritic dogs (e.g., decreased range of motion, grinding in a joint) are rarely noticed in arthritic cats. Additionally, changes are often not seen on X-rays, so painful joints may not match up with imaging results. Typically, tissue thickening in and around the affected joint is the only sign noticed during a physical exam.

The most definitive way to diagnose arthritis is by listening to the history of your cat's behavior and attitude at home. The subtle changes you note will lead our veterinarian to the correct diagnosis.

Most commonly, normal joint wear-and-tear leads to arthritis in cats, which is why the disease is diagnosed more in older felines.

How is Arthritis in Cats Managed?

While many more treatment options are available for dogs than cats, you can still improve your cat's comfort and mobility. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, and other pain-relieving medications can help reduce inflammation and discomfort, although dosing that avoids unwanted side effects can be a challenge.

Non-pharmaceutical methods of managing your cat's arthritis include:

  • Weight loss - More than half the feline population is overweight or obese, so your cat's weight loss is critical for relieving pressure on overburdened joints. Increase the amount of low-impact exercise your cat gets each day, and avoid play that includes jumping sharp turns, and sudden stops.
  • Diet change - Your cat may benefit from a prescription diet that helps with weight loss while improving joint health. Supplements can also help strengthen your cat's bones, joints, and cartilage.
  • Environmental accommodations - Making changes inside your home can help your cat navigate a previously challenging layout. Switch to low-sided litter boxes, and place all your cat's resources on the main floor. Raise their food and water bowls to keep them from bending down on painful elbows, and provide orthopedic bedding to cushion aching joints. Place ramps to help your cat reach their favorite elevated resting areas, rather than climbing or jumping.
  • Alternative therapies - Laser therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic care are a few alternative treatments that can round out a well-balanced arthritis management plan. These therapies generally have no side effects and are well-tolerated by most cats.

Although arthritis is an incurable disease, your cat can still live a long, happy life with joint problems. If you notice changes in your feline friend's behavior or attitude, schedule an appointment with our Stone Ridge Veterinary Medical Center & Pet Resort's team so we can help.