Arthritis and Degenerative Joint Disease in Cats

Arthritis and Degenerative Joint Disease in Cats

old cat 3It is well recognized that as people age, they are likely to suffer from joint pain caused by osteoarthritis. It is also well known that older dogs commonly suffer from arthritis, and both vets and owners are familiar with the medication we can use to relieve their pain. Sadly, until recently, arthritis in cats has not been commonly diagnosed or treated, and although recognition of this common disease has improved, it still remains very underdiagnosed.

Arthritis is very common in cats. One recent study that looked at radiographs of older cats, found that 90% of cats over 12 years of age had evidence of degenerative joint disease! Arthritis most commonly affects the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees and ankles in our feline friends.


Osteoarthritis (OA) is a type of arthritis in which the normal cartilage that cushions the joint degenerates and is worn away. This results in inflammation, discomfort, ongoing damage and secondary changes in and around the joint. OA can be primary (without an obvious underlying cause and may arise due to mechanical “wear and tear” within the joints), or secondary to a joint injury or abnormality.

Certain factors may increase the risk of arthritis in cats:

  • GENETICS – Certain breeds have an increased risk due to various underlying joint problems:
  •      SCOTTISH FOLDS are particularly prone to severe arthritis affecting multiple
  •      joints due to a cartilage abnormality.
  • INJURY or TRAUMA such as fractures and dislocations which can lead to abnormal joint conformation and secondary osteoarthritis.
  • OBESITY – whilst there is no evidence that obesity causes arthritis, it is highly likely to make an existing condition worse.
  • ACROMEGALY is an unusual condition of older cats where a tumour of the pituitary gland secretes too much growth hormone. Affected cats usually develop Diabetes Mellitus but some also develop secondary arthritis in their joints.



Cats are MASTERS OF DISGUISE. As a prey species as well as a predator, it is vital that they are able to mask signs of pain or weakness to avoid predation, and as such it can often be tricky to pick up on the subtle clues that something is not right. Cats will often restrict their own activity to minimize the use of the painful joints and so tend not to show the same signs of arthritis as in other species such as overt limping.


  • Reluctance, hesitance or refusal to jump up or down
  • Jumping up to lower surfaces than previouslyold cat 2
  • Jumping up or down less frequently
  • Difficulty going up or down stairs
  • Stiffness in the legs, especially after sleeping or resting for a while – occasionally there may be obvious lameness
  • Difficulty using the litter tray or “missing” the litter tray
  • Difficulty going through the cat flap


  • Increased time spent resting or sleeping
  • Not hunting or exploring the outdoor environment as frequently
  • Sleeping in different, more easy to access sites
  • Reduced interaction and playing less with people or other pets


  • Reduced frequency of time spent groomingcat grooming 4
  • Matted and scruffy coat
  • Sometimes overgrooming of painful joints
  • Overgrown claws due to lack of activity and reduced sharpening of claws


  • More irritable or grumpy when handled or stroked
  • More irritable or grumpy on contact with other pets
  • Spending more time alone
  • Avoiding interaction with people and/or pets



There are several areas to consider when managing arthritis in cats.


  • Use of soft, comfy beds placed in easily accessible, quiet and draft-free locations – “IGLOO” style beds are ideal.
  • Providing steps or ramps to allow cats to access their favourite higher resting sites such cat in cosy bed 2as the sofa or windowsill etc.
  • Make sure cat flaps are very easy to open – if necessary tie it open so your cat doesn’t need to push through.
  • Always have a litter tray in the house and ensure it has at least one low side for easy access.
  • Ensure food and water are easily accessible, either at floor level or with steps or a ramp up to higher levels.
  • Make sure your cat doesn’t have to go up or down stairs to access food, water or litter trays – have vital resources available on all floors your cat has access to.
  • Spend time grooming and cleaning your cat as this may be difficult for them, and overgrown claws will need regular trimming, as your cat will not be able to wear them down so easily by scratching.


Arthritis will be exacerbated by obesity or being overweight, and so this should be avoided by careful weight management of older cats. If your cat is overweight, they will benefit from a carefully controlled weight loss plan under veterinary supervision. Our Registered Veterinary Nurses can help you with this, and may recommend a special prescription diet to assist with achieving weight loss safely and effectively.

There are also several dietary supplements and special diets available for cats with arthritis. They usually contain combinations of EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids), to reduce inflammation, and glycosaminoglycans (such as glucosamine and chondroitin) – the “building blocks” of cartilage. These diets and supplements are generally very safe to use under veterinary direction, but their effectiveness of managing arthritis in cats remains uncertain. Any effect they do have is likely to be relatively mild and so may help in early cases of arthritis or as part of a management plan alongside other prescription medications as well. An additional problem is that the manufacture of dietary supplements (also known as “nutraceuticals”) is poorly regulated, so the quality of different products can vary enormously. It is therefore sensible to follow your vet’s recommendations when choosing such products.


Medications can be very effective at controlling the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, but as with any drugs, they can have side-effects, so should only by used under direct supervision by your vet.

The most commonly used class of drugs for management of arthritic pain, are NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs). A number of different NSAIDs are licensed for cats in different countries, but the safety of these drugs varies, so care is especially needed when choosing one for long-term use. To minimize the risk of side-effects, the lowest EFFECTIVE dose should be used for the individual cat. MELOXICAM was the first NSAID to be licensed for long-term use in cats, and still remains the most commonly used NSAID for cats here in the UK (only one licensed NSAID for chronic pain in cats), as there is now extensive information to support its effectiveness at managing arthritis in cats, with significant side-effects being rare when used appropriately.

In some cats, NSAIDs are not appropriate or not sufficient, so alternative or supplemental pain-killers may need to be prescribed by your veterinary surgeon.


Acupuncture has been used in other species to help treat the chronic pain of arthritis, however its efficacy remains debatable and unproven, but anecdotal reports suggest it could be a useful adjunctive therapy for some cats. Acupuncture should always be performed by a specially trained vet and not used as a substitute for medication in severe cases.

Therapeutic laser therapy is a relatively new treatment available within our practice, with clinical studies showing it can help alleviate pain and inflammation and stimulate cell regeneration and tissue repair. Laser therapy is frequently used as a treatment aid for dogs with arthritis, but has also been effectively used in cats as they tend to tolerate the treatment well. Treatments are quick and easy to perform by either a vet or one of our nurses, with no sedation or clipping of hair required and no known side-effects. Many insurance policies will also cover therapeutic laser therapy as a complimentary treatment for your pet’s condition.


If you think your cat may well be showing some subtle signs of arthritis, then please contact us to arrange an appointment with one of our vets. All too often we hear owners stating that their cat is “just getting old”, but old age is not an illness, and if your cat is in pain then we need to do something about it! It’s amazing the difference we often see in older cats once they are started on an appropriate treatment for arthritis, and sometimes the clinical signs in cats are so subtle that trialling pain relief and noticing a change in behaviour can be the only clue that anything was wrong in the first place! Why not download a mobility check-list for your cat and see if they may be showing any potential signs of arthritis?

Comments are closed.

Stanhope Road Hospital

30 Stanhope Road South,
Co. Durham
Contact us here...

Cats & Exotics Practice

58 Duke Street,
Co. Durham
Contact us here...


4 The Square,
Contact us here...

Opening Times

Please click here to view the opening times for each branch.