Got an older kitty? Or maybe a not-so-old kitty with a few extra pounds on her bones? Consider that perhaps the most unthinkable feline malady—osteoarthritis—may be slowing her down…a lot.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a kitty named Meow. Meow’s owner, a new client, was wondering how Meow’s spine got to be so prominent. She was also wondering why her coat was getting “greasy” and “piecey” on her back. When I mentioned the possibility of arthritis she looked as if perhaps I might not really be the vet after all.

“I mean, I’ve had dozens(!) of cats in my life and none of my numerous vets (not a good sign) has ever told me that any of my cats had arthritis.”

Well…consider the possibility. Arthritis is much more common than conventional feline wisdom would have you believe.

And Meow is not alone. Arthritis is fairly common in cats—especially as they get older. Now that our pets get better care, both at home and at the vet’s, they’re living ever longer. With a nice long life comes all its trappings—arthritis, dental disease and cancer, which comprise the common geriatric triumvarate.

Osteoarthritis is a disease that affects the joints, usually after a lifetime’s worth of wear and tear. What with all the jumping and scampering our healthy housecats do, it’s no wonder vets see a lot of arthritis blooming as they reach their sunset years.

Because cats are marvels at hiding their pain, and because limping and struggling to rise are not common (as we see in people and dogs, for example), arthritis may easily go undetected for years in cats.

An X-ray is the surest way to see the telltale signs of arthritis. The most common joints affected? The spine, hips, knees and elbows. And how do we decide it’s time to take X-rays? We ask: How is he moving? Is he jumping much less? Does he miss the counter when he tries to jump up? Does he walk much slower? And we observe: Is his spine hunched or stiff? Has he lost muscle along his spine and over his limbs? Is the fur on his back greasy because he can’t reach to groom it? Does he resent manipulation of key joints?

Sure, it might be old age. But it could be arthritis, too.

So what can you do? First, recognize when your kitty slows down. Ages ten to fifteen is the most common time for this. Consider an X-ray right about now. If your cat is fat, even six or seven is not an unusual time to develop some arthritis.

How can you prevent it? If your cat is overweight, even at age two, you’re courting arthritis with the joint stress that extra weight exerts. Consider that with each additional ounce your cat weighs, any future arthritis will be compounded that much more. In fact, weight control is the most important factor in limiting arthritis in cats—apart from individual genetics, of course, over which we have no control.

Now what do we do? Meow has arthritis. That’s a fact. Now comes the trouble. Arthritis medication in cats is a complicated, controversial topic. Unlike in humans and dogs (where it’s also a controversial topic), these medications are more likely to do harm in too many if our feline cases. Although we have a much wider variety of drugs at our disposal than ever before, cats still suffer a limited menu of options.

The only arthritis medication approved by the FDA for cats? Metacam, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, aspirin-like drug. And remember (as if you need to be told), cats shouldn’t get Tylenol, Aleve or Advil-like drugs. They’re toxic. Even Metacam can have nasty side effects—especially when used on a regular basis to treat chronic conditions like arthritis.

So what’s a careful, compassionate cat lover to do? Our favorite option? We usually recommend the nutritional supplement glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, readily available in a cat-dosed format at most veterinary hospitals and pet supply stores. I tend to like Cosequin for cats because it comes in convenient “sprinkle caps” flavored with salmon and tuna.

Apart from weight loss—weight being the most significant contributor to arthritic discomfort—nutritional supplements and judicious use of pain medications, including opiate-like drugs when necessary, are our only realistic modes of control.

But, rest assured, new therapies are on the horizon. One of the newest measures? Hip replacements for cats. New feline pain medications are also in the pipeline—so stay tuned.

The love of cats has come a long way in our culture. Although cats like Meow are more likely to suffer geriatric problems like arthritis and cancer due to their ability to live to a ripe old age, at least vet medicine is doing its thing in working to alleviate their discomfort.