When I started practicing veterinary medicine over 20 years ago, we (the veterinary profession) believed that dogs frequently suffered from arthritis but cats rarely did. However, in the past 10-15 years, we’ve come to realize that this assumption is simply not true. We believe now that cats suffer from arthritis much more commonly than we previously realized. In fact, a 2002 study showed us that 90% of cats over 12 years of age showed evidence of arthritis on radiographs (x-rays). A more recent (2011) study revealed 61% of cats over 6 years old had arthritic changes in at least one joint while 48% had two or more affected joints.

Is arthritis under-diagnosed in cats? It’s likely that it is. Why is arthritis so difficult to spot in cats? There are probably several reasons.

  • Cats are good at hiding signs of pain and illness. Signs of arthritis in cats can be very subtle. Our cats don’t tend to limp or favor an individual leg like a dog might. It is often difficult for even the most observant cat owner to detect the pain associated with arthritis.
  • The only outward sign that your cat is arthritic may be a decrease in your cat’s activity level. Your cat may sleep or rest more often than previously. This is usually a gradual process. Because arthritis often involves older cats, many cat owners simply assume the change in behavior is due to age.
  • Arthritic cats may have difficulty jumping onto perches or other elevated areas that were favorite resting spots in the past. In an older cat, this change may also be attributed to age by many cat owners. Alternatively, a cat owner may assume that the cat is no longer jumping onto countertops and other areas because the cat has become better trained. It may never occur to the average cat owner that their cat’s behavior has changed because the cat can no longer accomplish feats of physical activity that were easily performed in the past because of the pain involved with performing them now.
  • We know that cats outnumber dogs as pets. Yet statistically veterinarians see fewer cats in their practices than dogs. Taking a cat to the veterinarian is often a daunting task for a cat owner. Even those pet owners that realize that their cat needs regular veterinary care (as all cats do!) may postpone or neglect the task because of the associated hassle and anxiety. Unfortunately, failure to have your cat examined by your veterinarian may mean that health issues like arthritis go undiagnosed.

Is there anything you can do for your cat? If your cat hasn’t been to the veterinarian recently for an examination, this is your first step. Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your cat is arthritic and can help you formulate a plan for managing pain if necessary. You can find more information about dealing with feline arthritis in this post: Living with an Arthritic Senior Cat.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Sources:

Hardie EM, Roe SC, Martin FR. Radiographic evidence of degenerative joint disease in geriatric cats: 100 cases (1994-1997). J Am Vet Med Assoc2002;220:628-632.

Slingerland LI, Hazewinkel HA, Meij BP, Picavet P, Voorhout G. Cross-sectional study of the prevalence and clinical features of osteoarthritis in 100 cats. Vet J. 2011 Mar;187(3):304-9.

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