Arthritis Treatment for Cats

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PetMD Editorial
Published: April 07, 2020

Updated and reviewed for accuracy on April 7, 2020 by Dr. Amanda Simonson, DVM

Most people are aware of arthritis and the pain that it can cause for both people and dogs. But did you know that cats can also be commonly affected by this condition?

A cat can develop arthritis over time in their joints and limbs as well as their spine.

Fortunately, there has been an increase in options available to help manage and treat arthritis pain in cats.

Here’s what you need to know about what causes cat arthritis, the signs you can look for, and what veterinary treatment options are available. Don’t forget that each pet is unique, so you need to talk to your veterinarian about the best options for your cat.

Causes and Signs of Arthritis in Cats

Arthritis in cats includes inflammation of the joints and sometimes a breakdown of cartilage that usually helps prevent bone-on-bone wear and tear. Cats can develop arthritis for a variety of reasons, including aging, obesity, trauma, and occasionally genetic or heritable conditions. 

Cats can hide their pain or show very subtle, vague signs of pain. Here are some possible signs of arthritis pain in cats:

  • Being less active (may not roll on back or stretch as previously did)

  • A change in the desire or ability to jump up or down

  • Mobility or gait changes

  • Being protective of areas of their body

  • Decreased tolerance for being brushed or pet

  • Changes in appetite, attitude, or eliminations

  • Changes in grooming behavior

  • Changes in sleeping patterns (unable to rest for several hours at a time without changing positions)

  • Changes in body tension or posture

Treating Mild Arthritis in Cats

Treating arthritis when it is mild can slow the progression of disease. Early detection and treatment can also delay the need for use of prescription pain medications, which can have side effects.

Here are a few ways to treat a cat with mild arthritis.

Weight Management

Weight management is a cornerstone of successful arthritis therapy for cats, just as in people and dogs. Similarly, weight management requires two things: exercise and food management.

Exercising a cat can sound tricky, but many cats love to play with toys on the end of a string, chase a laser light, or even play hide-and-seek with a reward of finding their food in different places in the house.

The second part of weight management includes calorie restriction. Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with guidance on the type of food and how much you should be feeding your cat to support their weight loss.

Multi-cat households may have to get creative to ensure the cat being treated isn’t sneaking food from the others. You can do this by putting free-choice food in a higher place, where the cat cannot jump to it, or inside a small enclosure where only smaller cats can reach it.

Diet and Supplements

Dietary therapy comes in a variety of forms and is based on the needs of your cat. Some diets will significantly restrict calories—without making your cat feel hungry—while other diets will have additional supplements built into the food.

Joint supplements can also be helpful to add to your cat’s daily routine. Oral supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate come in treats, liquids, and sprinkle powders.

Omega-3 fatty acids (such as found in fish oils) have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects as well, and many cats love the taste.  

For finicky cats and confident cat owners, an injectable product called Adequan can help treat joint inflammation (and is given less frequently than oral medications).

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can be a great option to keep arthritic cats active and help keep their muscles and joints from stiffening up.

Some cats love a light massage, stretching, or gentle range of motion of their joints. Other cats prefer a heated cat bed or heat from a warmed rice bag to soothe arthritis.

Environmental Modifications

Small changes to your cat’s living space can have a big impact on their comfort and accessibility to your home.

A few changes you can make include:

  • Use furniture or cat stairs to help your cat reach their favorite spots more easily and safely.

  • Put food bowls in multiple places for easy access.

  • Consider using raised food bowls.

  • Place low-sided or low-entry litter boxes in several easy-to-access spots around your house.

  • If you have cat doors, make sure they are tall enough for your cat to easily pass through them.

Treating Moderate to Severe Arthritis in Cats

If arthritis is more severe or progressively getting worse over time, you and your veterinarian may decide to use additional therapy.

Here are a few treatments that your veterinarian may discuss with you.

Prescription Medications

Cats are extremely sensitive to common drugs and should never be given painkillers intended for people, dogs, or other pets. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), for example, damages the liver and is lethal to cats. Never give a drug to your cat without consulting your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian must prescribe a feline-friendly painkiller and closely manage their progress.

Several classes and types of prescription medications can ease a cat's pain:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) (when used carefully)

  • Neuromodulating drugs (like gabapentin)

  • Steroids

  • Opioids

These drugs can have excellent benefits, but they also may have side effects.

If your vet prescribes pain medications for your cat, they may need to do continual blood and urine tests to ensure that your pet’s kidney and liver are functioning properly. Painkillers can also irritate the stomach, so pay attention to changes in your cat’s eating habits. 

Though it can be difficult to give medications to your cat, many prescription drugs are available in liquid form or flavored pills or capsules. Some medications are also available in an injectable form. Talk with your veterinarian to find the right option for you and your cat.

Acupuncture and Laser Therapy

Acupuncture helps restore the body’s natural balance by sending signals through the tissues and the nerves to the spinal cord and brain. This releases chemicals that signal the body to react. These signals have systemic effects, including a release of metenkephalin, B-endorphin, dynorphins, and opioids, and increased serotonin levels.

Laser therapy can also be beneficial. Laser therapy produces anti-inflammatory effects by using light to send chemical signals to body tissues. This relieves pain and is a therapy that’s well-tolerated by most cats.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is usually only indicated if there is another medical issue with the arthritic joint, such as a torn ligament, hip dysplasia, or a dislocated knee cap.

Watch for Improvement

Whatever treatment you are using for your cat, pay attention and monitor your cat for changes. If you are not seeing improvement in your cat’s appetite, attitude, and range of movement, talk with your veterinarian about other treatment options.

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