Treating joint problems in cats

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Your cat’s joints go through a lifetime of jumping, leaping, and occasionally falling, so it’s perhaps not surprising that cats are prone to joint issues. Some studies suggest that 60% of cats will have Arthritis over the age of six, and others claim that nine out of 10 cats will have signs of Arthritis at 12 years of age or older. Dr Joanna Woodnutt looks at how you can help your cat with joint issues, and what the treatment for Arthritis in cats might involve…

Joint problems in cats

By far and away the most common joint issue in cats is Arthritis (Osteoarthritis). However, there are other joint issues in cats that can start earlier, and lead to early-onset Arthritis in your feline friend. One example would be Hip Dysplasia, which tends to affect large-breed cats. This is a condition where the hip joint doesn’t form properly, and it can lead to similar signs to Arthritis in cats as young as 18 months old! For some of these cats, surgery can help.

Broken bones (fractures) that affect the joints can also be a concern. Even if these are fixed surgically, it’s likely the inflammation caused will start early Arthritis in the joint. Similarly, dislocations and ligament damage can cause joint instability and increase your cat’s risk of Arthritis.

How to tell if your cat has Arthritis

Despite the fact Arthritis in cats is so common, it’s not often diagnosed at the vets. A combination of subtle signs, cats being brave, and a misperception that it’s normal for cats to slow down as they get older, mean that Arthritic cats aren’t always getting the care they need. If your cat is Arthritic, you’re more likely to notice signs at home like:

  • Reluctance to jump onto high places
  • Inability to jump – missing it, not quite making it, or scrabbling with the back legs
  • Changes in behaviour – usually becoming more grumpy
  • A slight limp or stiffness, especially when first getting up after a rest
  • Sleeping more
  • Scruffier coat, due to not grooming as much, or missed places

If you notice any of these signs of Arthritis in your cat, it’s time to book an appointment with your vet. They’ll be able to confirm the diagnosis and give you some options to make your cat’s life comfortable again.

Treating Arthritis in cats

The important thing to understand about Arthritis is that it’s a degenerative disease. We cannot reverse the changes that have occurred in the joints, but we can relieve the symptoms and slow down the rate at which it worsens.

Managing feline Arthritis is best done with a combination of approaches –
called ‘multi-modal’ management. Targeting the pain and inflammation through several approaches can massively improve your cat’s quality of life. Let’s take a look at the types of Arthritis treatment you might want to consider for your cat’s joint problems…

Pain medications

It’s likely that your cat will have to go onto some sort of pain relief. For some cats with mild Arthritis, this might be temporary whilst the other treatments kick in. For others, it might be long-term. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are the staple of Arthritis treatment in cats. They are generally easy to give, and modern versions have few side effects. They’re also very effective, improving cat’s activity and agility.

Other pain relief may be needed for cats that cannot have NSAIDs or for those with severe Arthritis that need more pain relief than NSAIDs can provide. These may involve monthly injections or daily oral medication.

Pain medications may also be recommended as a diagnostic test. Where signs are subtle, it sometimes helps to give cats pain relief and assess the changes in their behaviour. Stopping the pain relief again often results in a sudden deterioration which helps to confirm that they’re arthritic, and that they need medications to stay comfortable!

Joint supplements

Supplements including Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Omega-3 and other ingredients may contribute to healthier joints. Most cats can safely take daily supplements, and side effects are rare. In advanced cases of joint disease, they may not be enough on their own – but they can help to reduce the amount or dose of other medications your cat needs to take.

Home modifications

When it comes to Arthritis management in cats, there are some changes you can make around the house to help them cope. Adding ramps or small steps to help them get to favoured spots such as windowsills and sofas can reduce their need to jump and therefore reduce the risk of injury. If you’re used to feeding your cat on the worksurface, like we do in my house, you might want to move the food to the floor. Don’t forget to shut the dog out, though, so the cat can eat in peace!

They may also benefit from a raised food and water bowl, so that they don’t have to bend to their food. A larger litter tray, with lower sides and an entrance might also be useful for preventing accidents in cats that aren’t as agile as they used to be.

Complementary therapy

Laser therapy, acupuncture, and physiotherapy are all an option for helping to treat the signs of Arthritis in cats. Hydrotherapy is an option too, but most cats won’t tolerate it!

If your cat has been affected at a young age after an injury or Hip Dysplasia, he might be a candidate for stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma therapy, both of which are cutting-edge treatments offered by specialist orthopaedic vets.

Conclusion

There are lots of options for treating Arthritis in cats, from pain relief to complementary therapies. Talk to your vet about the best option for your cat, depending on their pain levels and temperament. You’ll also need to regularly re-assess how painful your cat is to make sure they’re comfortable – a score chart can help you to keep track of your cat’s progress so that you can let your vet know if more pain relief is needed.


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