Cats are unique – they are unlike dogs and often distinct even from each other. A major difference is that cats are really good at hiding their pain. They act differently than a person or dog would and it makes it difficult to accurately assess their comfort. A common cause of pain in cats as they get older is arthritis, but because of the difficulty in determining their pain, it is a drastically under diagnosed problem.
Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis, is a degenerative condition of the joints. It is chronic, progressive, and can develop from a trauma, a congenital abnormality, or just every-day wear and tear. Arthritis can affect any joint space, including the cartilage, joint capsule and associated bones but it typically affects the hips, knees, ankles and elbows. It also tends to affect the joint spaces between the vertebrae.
There are signs at home that can indicate there may be a problem. Cats may no longer jump or seek out higher locations. They may avoid the litter box, especially if it’s in a “far away” location such as down in the basement – or if the sides of the box are relatively high and it would require them to take big steps to get in or out. They may also have a personality change – they could be more withdrawn, less social or start growling, biting, or scratching more.
A diagnosis can often be made on physical exam, but imaging such as x-rays is also very helpful. They can pick up more cases and assess the severity of arthritis. Approximately 90% of cats with arthritis will have radiographic evidence, however only 50% will have clinical signs.
There are options to help alleviate discomfort, slow the progression and improve overall quality of life. A big help is weight management as overweight cats are more prone to arthritis due to the added pressure on their joints and less active lifestyle. There are also supplements (typically omega 3 fatty acids and glucosamine/chondroitin) and medications that can help. Modifying their home by using ramps/steps, moving their litter box and providing one with lower sides or an opening to walk in, and offering soft bedding in multiple locations may also help. In dogs, physical therapy (including LASER and acupuncture) and surgical techniques are relatively common, but in cats these areas are just beginning to be explored.
Our pets cannot typically directly tell us that they are not well, so it is up to us to look for cues, but also to have them evaluated at least annually. If arthritis is suspected, it should be addressed as soon as possible – the earlier the above treatments are implemented, the more rewarding the results are. Also, talk with your veterinarian about the treatment options. Every kitty is unique and their treatment plan should be tailored to them as well.