Arthritis in Cats
Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease, is the most common form of arthritis in cats. Still, it is less common in cats than it is in dogs and produces milder symptoms. In a cat with degenerative joint disease, the cartilage covering the articulating surface of a joint wears out and the underlying bone develops a roughened surface that damages the joint. Osteoarthritis occurs in joints that have been severely stressed, dislocated, or fractured. Proper early care of joint injuries may reduce the severity of any subsequent lameness.
Although osteoarthritis may begin during the first half of life, symptoms generally do not appear until much later. The signs are mainly stiffness and lameness. Lameness is usually worse when the cat wakes up but gets better as the day wears on. Cats may show swelling around affected joints and muscle atrophy on legs with arthritic conditions. There may be a reluctance to jump and leap. They often exhibit irritability and behavioral changes associated with increasing disability. Cold and damp surroundings increase pain and stiffness.
The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made by joint X-rays that show bone spurs at points where the ligaments and the joint capsule attach to the bone. There may be varying degrees of joint space narrowing and increased density of bone around the joint.
Osteoarthritis is incurable, but treatment can substantially improve the cat's life. Keeping cats at a trim weight will take stress off their joints. It also helps to provide warm places for cats to sleep and rest. An arthritic cat may need steps to get to favorite places, such as the bed, the couch, and the windowsill. Massage, TTouch, and physical therapy may be beneficial. Acupuncture can be helpful for many cats, and if the cat is willing to swim, hydrotherapy can be a great boon.
Many cats will benefit from chondroprotective supplements such as glucosamine-chondroitin products to repair joint cartilage and prevent further damage. In severe cases, analgesics and corticosteroids may be used to relieve pain and improve function.
Moderate exercise is beneficial because it maintains muscle mass and preserves joint flexibility. Excessive exercise, however, is counterproductive. Arthritic cats should never be encouraged to stand up on their back legs. There are veterinary physical therapists who can help design an exercise (and weight-loss) program.
Overweight cats should be encouraged to lose weight. Being overweight seriously complicates the treatment of osteoarthritis.
There are many new medications that can be used to treat pain and inflammation in cats. They should only be used under the guidance of your veterinarian. Unfortunately, many of the medications developed to treat arthritis in dogs are not safe for cats and can be toxic. The same is true of medicines developed for humans. Tylenol (acetaminophen), in particular, must never be used. Fortunately, pain or severe lameness in cats is infrequent and seldom produces significant disability.