New research show cats get painful arthritis although the symptoms may be difficult to identify.
Dr. Ernie Ward
When I graduated from veterinary school twenty years ago, we were taught that felines had the most efficient musculoskeletal system of any land mammal on the planet. We learned that because cats were so well-designed and adapted, they incurred very few joint injuries or diseases. Osteoarthritis, the most common cause of joint pain in animals, was something rarely diagnosed in cats, if ever. Turns out we were wrong.
New research proves that housecats get osteoarthritis (OA) about as frequently as dogs. Over the past decade, an increasing number of studies have found that older cats, especially cats over age 12, have a high incidence of arthritis. A 2011 study found 61% of cats over 6 years old had OA in at least one joint while 48% had two or more affected joints. If a cat was over age 14, they had an 82% chance of having arthritis. Ouch! All of the study cats were diagnosed using x-rays. So much for a practically perfect skeletal system. What happened?
What happened was that cats got fat. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but not a lot. Ten years earlier the rate of arthritis in cats was found to be about less than 26%. The sudden jump in confirmed feline arthritis cases alongside the gradual increase in numbers of indoor and overweight cats strikes me as suspicious. Twenty years ago the majority of cats were arguably thinner and more fit. Fast forward to today and we share our homes and apartments with cats that have never seen a sweaty paw. Sure, we’re performing more x-rays on cats than ten years ago, but I’m still not convinced weight isn’t playing a role. I report; you decide.
You may have noticed I mentioned that the cats in the 2011 study were diagnosed using x-rays. That’s because so few cats show signs of arthritic pain until it’s bad. Really, really bad. In fact, the majority of cats in the university study were admitted to the teaching hospital for reasons unrelated to their musculoskeletal system. They weren’t limping, holding up a leg or yowling in pain. So how can you tell if your cat has arthritic pain? It’s tougher than you think.
First of all, whenever I see an overweight senior cat, over age 11 and north of 13 pounds for DSH and DLH cats, I start looking for OA. I recently saw a 12-year old female that had started urinating on rugs, chairs, and – the deal-breaker – the owner’s bed. The “behavioral” drugs failed to curtail the troublesome tinkling. This kitty was headed for the Rainbow Bridge if I couldn’t help. No pressure, doc.
Blood tests and urinalysis were normal. In fact, I wasn’t identifying anything extraordinary other than an older obese cat (16 pounds). As I mentioned, I’m always on the lookout for pain. I recommended radiographs to evaluate the abdomen and joints. As you may have surmised, I discovered some pretty painful hips and knees. No embarking to eternity today for this kitty. She’s doing just fine with her anti-inflammatory medication, weight loss diet and nutritional supplements.
If your kitty is slowing down, not as active or perhaps having a few more accidents in the house, don’t forget to consider arthritic pain as a potential cause. Arthritis has long been overlooked in cats and it’s time to shine the spotlight on this crippling condition.
Signs of Arthritic Pain in Cats
The signs of osteoarthritis in cats are subtle. In fact, they’re so hard to detect I advise my pet parents that if their cat just “ain’t doing right,” don’t forget arthritic pain. Here’s my short list of subtle symptoms associated with feline osteoarthritis:
- Not jumping up on furniture or counters they previously easily pounced upon
- Urinating or defecating outside a litterbox – especially in boxes with entries that require stepping over
- More frequent hiding or changes in sleeping
- Not frequenting upstairs as often as before
- Less play behavior or sleeping through the “midnight crazies”
- Not eating or drinking normally
- Slow when rising from sleeping; appears “stiff”
- Weight loss despite no changes in food or feeding
- Reluctance to eat hard kibble (although typically associated with oral or tooth pain, osteoarthritis can also affect the jaw)
- Almost anything else that’s “weird” or “unusual” for a normally active kitty