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You may be surprised to learn that cats have a much higher incidence of arthritis than we ever knew. A recent study showed that up to 60-90 percent of all cats (young and old) exhibited radiographic changes consistent with osteoarthritis. The most telling signs of arthritis in cats are behavioral changes.

They may sleep in different locations, be reluctant to jump onto or off of objects, not use stairs, play less, have “accidents” outside the litter box (especially if they have to go to a different level in the house or if the box has high sides), groom excessively (e.g., licking the area around a joint), and act grumpy when touched.

Cats are a conundrum when it comes to arthritis. Bony changes may be seen on radiographs (X-rays) that look like arthritis, but the pet may not have any signs of lameness or pain in the joint. Conversely, the cat may show symptoms of arthritis, but there may be no obvious radiographic abnormalities seen. This is why it is so important to watch for subtle signs of pain in cats.

One of the main contributors to pain in an arthritic joint is excess weight. Carrying extra pounds around causes more stress on arthritic joints. Since 58 percent of all cats (that’s 43 million cats) are overweight, and 22 percent are obese, weight loss could be helpful in many arthritic cats. In one study, obesity led to a four times greater risk of clinically-relevant lameness. Research also shows that a healthy body weight can help prevent arthritis from developing in predisposed individuals

How can you help your cat shed that excess weight? Let’s first look at what predisposes our kitties to obesity. Contrary to popular belief, genes are only partially (a quarter to a third) responsible. This is proven in humans and the situation is likely similar in cats. Therefore, an individual’s weight is two-thirds to three-fourths dependent on outside factors, like how much food is eaten. One big contributor is neutering. We know that metabolism slows down by about 30 percent after pets are neutered, so you need to feed less or they will gain weight.

In order to lose weight, you have to reduce your cat’s calorie intake. But this must be done slowly. The optimum amount of weight loss in cats is about one half pound per month. Therefore, if your cat is six pounds overweight, it will take 9-12 months for the excess weight to come off.

It’s best to feed your cat a weight loss diet because these products are formulated to contain the right nutrient levels. If you feed a smaller portion of a regular maintenance diet, your cat is likely not on an optimal plane of nutrition. Canned food is great because it is lower in fat and carbohydrates and higher in protein. Each can also contains an exact number of calories, which helps when you are calculating the amount you need to feed. Precisely measuring dry food can be difficult. For example, if you feed just ten extra kibbles per day for one year, your cat will gain a whole pound.

The best way to make sure you are feeding your cat the right amount of the right diet is to make an appointment for an examination and consultation with your veterinarian.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Mark E. Epstein. Managing Chronic Pain in Dogs & Cats. Part 1: The Two Most Important Tools in the Treatment of Osteoarthritis. Today’s Veterinary Practice. November/December 2013; 3(6): 20-23.

Ward, E. (2013, October). Fat Cats and the Fat Gap: Convincing Cat Owners to Begin a Weight Loss Program. VIN/AAFP Rounds presentation. Accessed on VIN January 14, 2014

Image: CBCK / Shutterstock

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