Osteoarthritis is defined as a degenerative condition of the joints in which the normal cartilage cushion in the joint breaks down. Eventually, adjacent bones rub against each other, causing pain, decreased joint movement, and sometimes the formation of bone spurs and other changes around the joint. It is a progressive disease; however, it can be actively managed so that the course of the disease is slowed and remaining joint function is preserved.
Diagnosing osteoarthritis in cats can be difficult. Your veterinarian will rely on you to tell him about changes you’ve noticed in your cat. He may ask if your cat is moving around less, not climbing or jumping on and off of things as well and if you have noticed any changes in her behavior. Because we see our pets each day, subtle changes are even more challenging to notice, but if your cat exhibits any of the following, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your veterinarian:
- Changes in chewing, eating and/or drinking habits
- Weight gain or loss
- Withdrawal from social interaction or avoiding being touched
- Changes in activity level
- Changes in sleeping habits (sleeping more or hyperactivity)
- Increased vocalization
- Increased urination and/or ’accidents’
- Grooms less or more or grooms some areas excessively
- Just not acting normal
A common symptom of osteoarthritis in dogs is lameness, but this symptom is not seen as often in cats.
Research has shown that many more cats are suffering from osteoarthritis than we are aware of, especially cats past the age of 11. AAHA-accredited practices are encouraged to consider pain as the fourth vital sign they check for in each examination. The other three vital signs are temperature, pulse and respiration. You may not always be aware that they’re checking your pet’s pain level, but they are. They may examine your pet and also ask you questions to determine if pain is a possibility. Because pets differ in how they show pain, and some do such a good job hiding it, you may never realize they are in pain if you’re not specifically looking for it.
Cats have a tendency to hide when they’re not feeling well, so it can be even more challenging to detect or see subtle changes in your cat. Their survival instinct gives them a unique ability to cover a painful condition. Your cat may seem perfectly healthy but could have a major illness that you’re completely unaware of. Because cats are such masters at hiding pain, it’s a good idea to follow an established timeline for veterinary examinations. AAHA, in collaboration with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), recently developed Feline Life Stage Guidelines. These guidelines can help you determine when and how often your cat should be examined by your veterinarian.
This chart shows a convenient life stage classification developed by the Feline Advisory Bureau and adopted in the recent AAFP Senior Care Guidelines. Six age groupings are defined, from kitten through geriatric cat.
Tamara Fox noticed that her cat, Brianne, a 16-year-old Himalayan, was having problems jumping on and off the bed and couch.
"I had noticed that she was vocalizing more and she didn’t seem to like being touched as much," Tamara explained. "When I tried to pet her, it seemed like she was sore and sometimes she would pull away from me." Tamara took Brianne to her veterinarian for a checkup.
Dr. Marie Bartling, a veterinarian at Aspen Arbor Animal Hospital, an AAHA-accredited hospital in Broomfield, Colo., diagnosed Brianne with osteoarthritis. After a thorough examination, including blood work, her treatment plan included acupuncture and occasional Buprenex for pain.
"After the first acupuncture session, she seemed more relaxed and playful," Tamara said. "She’s responding well to treatment."
Bartling said, “Pain is complex. The body manufactures many different chemicals and receptors and even has different types of nerves to transmit pain information to the brain. Pain serves a function – preservation. It is designed to let the body know that an area is injured so that it is not overused and further damaged. Inflammation serves as the first stage of healing, to bring blood and nutrients to an area of injury. However, ultimately, pain and inflammation can both get out of hand.”
Osteoarthritis in cats usually affects their joints, including the elbows, hips, shoulders and ankles. The most common arthritis seen in cats is that of the vertebrae and sternum.
“For chronic arthritic pain, I recommend a combination of joint supplements and anti-inflammatories to reduce destruction of and replace some of the lost compression materials in arthritic joint fluid and cartilage,” Bartling said. “I also have the advantage of treating cats with acupuncture. It activates chemical reactions in the body to stop pain pathways, stimulates nerves in a given area to function, and stimulates blood flow to areas to allow for healing.”
There are fewer pharmaceutical options available to treat pain and osteoarthritis in cats. Because of this, it’s important to work with your veterinarian to design a pain management program. This can include the following:
- Weight loss if your cat is overweight
- Increasing exercise and play
- Moving food and water dishes to a more convenient location and providing soft or therapeutic bedding
- Purchasing a litter box with low sides, cutting down high sides or constructing a ramp around the box may also help cats gain entry into the box more easily.