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Arthritis in Cats

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is the painful inflammation of one or more joints.  It is also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD) and osteoarthritis (OA).  Arthritis causes stiffness, lameness and, in severe cases, can be completely debilitating, causing permeant loss of normal joint function and deformities.

What are the symptoms of arthritis in cats?

As arthritis is a progressive disease you may not notice the initial mild symptoms.  Arthritis causes pain and your cat’s symptoms depend on how she reacts to that pain. Cats can be very good at hiding symptoms of pain.  As feline arthritis is most common in middle-aged and older cats you may find yourself putting symptoms, such as sleeping more, down to old age. Signs that may indicate arthritis are:-

  • Occasional lameness, but may be very difficult to spot
  • Sleeping more
  • Decreased appetite resulting in weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty finding a comfortable place and position to sleep
  • Irritable
  • Urinating or defecating out of the litter box (as too painful to jump in)
  • Excessively grooming (painful) joints
  • May stop grooming, resulting in unkempt coat
  • Hesitance to jump down from, or up to, high surfaces
  • May become more, or less, sociable with the family

What are the causes of arthritis in cats?

The most common cause of arthritis in cats is degenerative joint disease (DJD), also known as osteoarthritis (OA).  DJD is progressive and irreversible and can be the primary cause of arthritis but is more commonly secondary to an earlier injury or condition.  Injury to a joint will cause a number of chemicals to be released, known as inflammatory mediators. These chemicals breakdown the connective cartilage quicker than it can be rebuilt.  As the joint degenerates, small bony growths develop causing the cat increasingly more pain. Such a reaction can be caused by abnormal forces placed on a normal joint (ie, fractures, sprains, direct trauma, obesity) or normal forces placed on abnormal joints (ie congenital and genetic abnormalities). Other causes are joint infections and immune-mediated arthritis.  Immune-mediated arthritis results in the cat’s own immune system making antibodies which attack the joint surface and destroy articular cartilage causing joint deformities.

What are the risk factors of a cat developing arthritis?

Arthritis in cats is mainly caused by wear and tear so, in the majority of cases, it is older cats who are found to be suffering with the condition, although it can be found in cats as young a 2. Clinical studies have shown that more than 30% of cats suffer with arthritis with that increasing to 80% of cats over the age of 10. Obese cats are more likely to be affected by arthritis than lean cats. Cats who have suffered injury to their joints are prone to developing arthritis as they get older. A congenital or genetic abnormality can make a cat more likely to suffer from arthritis. Genetic conditions such as hip dysplasia and patella luxation, commonly suffered from by Maine Coons and Abyssinians respectively, often lead on to arthritis. Scottish Folds are particularly prone to OA affecting multiple joints and Burmese cats are thought to suffer with elbow arthritis more than other breeds.


Your vet will take details of your cat’s symptoms and undertake a physical examination which will involve flexing and extending your cat’s joints to help assess the extent of the areas affected.  Blood and urine samples are also likely to be taken for analysis, in order to rule out any other medical conditions.  X-rays may be suggested as they can often show changes in the cartilage, bone and soft tissue that is associated with arthritis.  If an infection of the joint is suspected, your vet may choose to take a fluid sample from inside the joint.

What treatment is there for arthritis?

In almost all cases, arthritis is progressive and irreversible.  The main aim of treatment will be to reduce pain, increase mobility and slow the progression of the disease as much as possible

Your vet will medicate your pet based on the underlying cause of the arthritis. This is likely to include non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which can be very effective in reducing inflammation and controlling pain.   In addition to anti-inflammatories and pain killers, drugs and food supplements can be given. Nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin will promote healthy cartilage repair and reduce further damage, whereas dietary supplements of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, vitamins E and C can help reduce inflammation.

If your cat is overweight, expect to be advised on an appropriate weight control diet. Weight loss will help alleviate the pressure on joints and reduce fat cells which secrete hormones that contribute to the development of pain. Encourage your cat to exercise by playing with her.  Use a variety of toys and play different games to keep her interested. Other less traditional treatments such as hydrotherapy, laser therapy, massage and acupuncture are also used to stimulate blood flow to the muscles and improve arthritic symptoms.

Surgical options may be considered as a last resort in cases where joint damage is so severe that other options do not relieve or resolve the problem.  Surgery is unlikely to be recommended for overweight or very old cats.

At home you can help alleviate symptoms by providing your cat with a well-padded bed away from cold or damp areas. Specially designed beds for arthritic cats are available which are made from orthopaedic foam and can even be heated to provide greater comfort and relief to arthritic joints. Provide a litter tray with a low side for easy access and steps and/or ramps for access to higher places she is used to having access to.

How can arthritis be prevented?

Keeping your cat at a healthy weight can greatly help by not putting unnecessary pressure on joints.  If your pet is showing early signs of arthritis, early treatment is the best way of slowing or even preventing further damage.  With careful treatment and management of the condition your cat can maintain a good quality of life.