Osteoarthritis: the hidden suffering of older cats

Osteoarthritis is a common health problem in older cats. It is estimated that around 60% of cats over 6 years of age suffer from osteoarthritis. However, most of them don’t get a proper diagnosis and treatment. Why? Because cats are very good at hiding their pain. 

So how do you know if something is wrong? You need to know your cat and be a good observer 🙂

While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

sleeping tri-color cat

What is osteoarthritis in cats

Osteoarthritis in cats is a painful degenerative joint disease that is mostly associated with aging. However, it can sometimes occur after an injury, infection, or disease. 

In a  study done by Utrecht University, 100 cats over 6 years old were evaluated for osteoarthritis. The results were astonishing. Of those 100 cats, 61 had osteoarthritis in at least one joint and 48 in more than one joint. This shows that the prevalence of osteoarthritis in older cats is strikingly high. 

osteoarthritis in cats - 60 % of cats over 6 years old suffer from a osteoarthritis in one joint and 48% cats over 6 years old showed signs of osteoarthritis in 2 or more joints
* See References

Another study showed that 90% of cats over 12 years old suffered from some kind of degenerative joint disease. Let me repeat that: 90%! That’s an astonishing number. 

So why is it not commonly diagnosed in older cats? Were the studies wrong? No, it’s because the diagnosis is tricky.

Since most cats don’t exhibit lameness, recognizing signs of chronic pain is a major challenge for pet owners and veterinarians. 

Although osteoarthritis in cats is mostly associated with aging, obesity is also a risk factor. Since obesity is a known risk factor for several other diseases as well, talk to your veterinarian about proper weight management if your cat is obese.

osteoarthritis in cats - over 90% of cats over 12 years old suffer from a degenerative joint disease
* See References

Most common signs of osteoarthritis in cats

The problem with osteoarthritis in cats is that the signs are usually attributed to old age and not pain. 

Very few cats show lameness as a sign of arthritis. 

Most cats adapt to their pain by changing their behavior and lifestyle. Here are some of the most common changes:

→ Trouble jumping up or down

Your cat’s natural agility might start to diminish as they get older and arthritis can make it much harder for them to move around. 

If your cat is having difficulty getting up or down, especially after resting in one position for a while, she might be in pain.

Similarly, she might be having trouble jumping onto furniture or reaching high places, getting into and out of the litter box, or going up and down the stairs. 

Some cats even associate the pain with their litter box and start doing their “business” elsewhere.

Sometimes it takes the owner a while to notice that the cat is no longer sleeping on her favorite cupboard or is avoiding going up the stairs into the upper bedroom.

→ Having trouble grooming herself

Cats are very clean animals and usually spend a lot of time grooming. However, grooming can become difficult with stiff, painful joints or severe back pain. 

If you notice that your cat is not grooming herself as much as she used to, take her to a vet. 

Your vet will help you determine if it’s just old age or if it’s a health problem. 

Even if it’s only age-related, help her 🙂 She still wants to be clean, she just can’t do it herself anymore. 

Helping your cat with grooming is a nice way of caring for your senior cat. And a nice relaxing experience for both of you 🙂

→ Changes in behavior

The most common signs of osteoarthritis in cats are changes in their behavior and lifestyle. It might be vocalization, a change in their toilet routine, or different sleeping habits.

Some cats are meowing more when they are in pain, while some get unusually quiet.

Cats bend their back while they urinate or defecate – this can put pressure on painful areas, causing them to meow loudly or try to “hold it in” as much as they can. They try to avoid going to their litter box until they have to and may seem nervous and agitated.

If a cat suddenly doesn’t want to use a litter box, it’s a huge red flag. For cats, it’s one of the most important signs that something is not right. Please make an appointment at your vet, she needs to be checked out. 

Some cats get frustrated when they are in pain and can become aggressive. If your normally gentle and loving cat is suddenly showing signs of aggression or irritability when handled, it might be an indication that she’s in pain. 

printable cat planner pink

→ Weakness or low activity level

Living with an older feline companion can be a bittersweet experience, as your cat may not be as active and lively as she used to be. It is natural for cats to become more mellow and less playful as they get older.

However, if you notice that your cat has become unusually inactive, sleeps more than usual, or seems to be having trouble getting comfortable, it might be a sign of arthritis.

→  Sensitivity to touch in certain areas

Stiff and painful joints can be very sensitive to the touch. If your cat is meowing, running away, or trying to bite or scratch you when you touch her in certain areas, it’s probably painful.

Some cats get aggressive when in pain, while some tend to hide. Furthermore, arthritis can also affect the spine, so even stroking your cat’s back can cause her discomfort.

→  Lumps or swellings on her joints

Arthritis can cause inflammation and swelling. This can lead to lumps forming around them. 

If your cat has any lumps or swellings on or around her joints, it’s important to take her to the vet for a check-up as soon as possible.

→  Limping or favoring one leg over the other

If you assume that limping is one of the most common signs of osteoarthritis in cats, you would be wrong. Only a small percentage of cats with painful joints limp. 

However, for those who do, it’s an important arthritis symptom. 

Cats with arthritis experience pain when they put pressure on their joints. Some of them try to relieve the pressure by transferring the weight from one foot to another. They start to limp or favor one leg over the other.

If you observe your cat limping or favoring one leg, it’s important to speak to your veterinarian right away to get it checked out.

Some cats don’t limp, but they change their posture often or sit in unnatural positions to avoid putting pressure on painful joints.

It’s important to keep in mind that cats are very good at hiding pain and it may not always be easy to tell if your cat is suffering from arthritis. But if you pay close attention to the subtle signs, you might be able to detect any changes in her behavior or physical condition.

If you notice any of these warning signs, make sure to take your cat to the vet for a checkup as soon as possible.

cat planner

How is osteoarthritis in cats diagnosed?

Diagnosis of osteoarthritis in cats is difficult.

Cats get easily stressed out and refuse to cooperate in any way. This makes proper clinical and orthopedic examination in the consulting room problematic. It’s extremely hard to evaluate things like body posture or signs of lameness in an unwilling cat 😩

While clinical and orthopedical examinations may indicate osteoarthritis, your vet will need further diagnostic methods as well as your help to be sure. 

The usual method to confirm the diagnosis and estimate the severity of the condition is X-rays. However, radiography can detect only the changes in the bone structure of the joints or soft tissue mineralizations. But these are not always present. If the cat is suffering from cartilage damage, it will not be visible in radiography 🤷‍♀️

To properly diagnose osteoarthritis your vet will rely on the results of the orthopedical examination, x-rays, and the signs the cat is displaying.  

Can osteoarthritis be cured in cats?

Sadly, arthritis is a progressive disease that cannot be cured. However, it can be slowed down.  

The therapy is mainly supportive. 

Managing your cat’s environment, as well as pain management and nutritional supplements can help your cat enjoy a good quality of life.

The exact treatment plan depends on the severity of the condition.

Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can go a long way in improving your cat’s quality of life and helping her stay active and pain-free for many years to come.

As you can see, arthritis is widespread in our domestic cats. Some cats don’t show any symptoms while others change their behavior slightly. This makes it difficult to recognize, not just for owners but also for vets. But there are a few signs that indicate that your cat may be suffering from arthritis.

If you’re concerned about your cat’s well-being or think she may be in pain, please consult with your veterinarian. They’ll be able to give you more specific advice tailored to your individual pet’s needs. 

If your cat changes her behavior and lifestyle, it might be a sign that she’s in pain. Please contact your veterinarian and make an appointment. 

Thanks for reading this post – I hope it was helpful! 😊

Happy cat parenting! ❣️

PS: If you are as crazy about animals as I am and want to get more pet health tips, subscribe to my newsletter! Today you will get a free cat care planner as a bonus 🤗

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