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Cat advice: dealing with arthritis in older pets

If your cat seems to be slowing down in old age, osteoarthritis could be to blame

Senior Cat Advice Articles

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What exactly is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a disease that affects the surface of your pet’s joints. It can affect any joint in their body but is most commonly seen in the hips, elbows and stifles (knees). It occurs when the protective layers of cartilage that cushion the joints begin to deteriorate, resulting in pain and inflammation. In one study as much as 90% of cats over 12 years old had evidence of osteoarthritis.

What are the signs of osteoarthritis?

OA causes joint inflammation which can be very painful. Unfortunately, cat’s OA is not always easily diagnosed and therefore often remains untreated. This is because cats are very good at adapting and hiding their pain from their owners and vets. Unlike dogs, stiffness and limping due to OA is rare in cats. Some of the more common signs to look out for are: 

  • A change in behaviour, especially grumpiness or uncharacteristic aggression towards people and/or other animals
  • Difficulty or reluctance in jumping up/down or climbing stairs 
  • Difficulty using the litter tray or cat flap which can result in toileting accidents in the house
  • Sleeping and resting more, often in a different (more easily accessible) place
  • Overgrown nails
  • Spending more time alone
  • Grooming less resulting in a matted, scruffy coat
  • Over grooming specific areas (often painful joints)


How is osteoarthritis diagnosed?

OA is generally diagnosed based on the clinical history and a clinical examination of your pet by a veterinary surgeon. In some cases, X-rays can help to confirm the diagnosis and better assess the severity of the problem but often if there is uncertainty a pain relief trial will be recommended.

Is osteoarthritis curable?

Osteoarthritis is a lifelong condition which can’t be cured and management should include more than one ‘treatment’. OA can be very effectively managed, keeping your beloved pet happy and healthy for longer.

Managing Osteoarthritis

To keep your arthritic cat comfortable they do need a bit more TLC. You will need to think about environmental changes, their diet, and weight as well as provide pain relief. Make sure to have their nails clipped regularly and assist them with careful grooming.

Environmental changes

Ensure soft, comfy beds are easily accessible in a quiet, safe locations. Keep beds, food, water and litter trays easily accessible, avoiding stairs if possible. Many cats get fed on a worktop which can be tricky to reach for an arthritic cat and can lead to unhealthy weight loss. Move the bowls to floor level or introduce steps to allow easier access. Make sure their litter tray(s) are easily accessible, open top ones with a low ledge are preferred. Cat flaps can become tricky for arthritic cats and they will often spend more time inside as a result so make sure they have access to a litter tray if not already present in the house. Allow easier access to preferred areas such as windowsills and sofas by using ramps or other items as ‘steps’. 

Diet and weight

Maintaining an optimal weight for your cat is a vital part of managing OA. Obesity makes OA worse due to the increased weight placed on the joints, whilst body fat itself can contribute to inflammation. Your Vets4Pets team will work with you to devise specific dietary guidance for your pet.

Joint supplements such as essential fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin can be of benefit for cats with OA by providing the raw materials necessary for their body to try and maintain cartilage and joint fluid. These can be found added to specific joint diets or can be given as a separate supplement. Speak to your vet for more advice.

Pain relief

Most cats with OA will at some stage benefit from the administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (‘NSAIDs’) on a daily basis to keep them comfortable. Flavoured tablets and palatable solutions are available which make this quick and easy to do.  

There are other drugs which control pain but these are usually prescribed either in addition or instead of NSAIDs depending on the specific case. 

You might also hear of other pain relief techniques such as acupuncture or laser. Evidence that these methods work is limited and we would always recommend discussing other options with your vet.