Cats are generally very athletic, and we are used to watching them run, climb, and chase prey animals. But all that running and jumping they do puts their joints under considerable strain over the course of a lifetime. This means that osteoarthritis – an inflammation of the joints usually caused by wear and tear – is very common. Studies have shown that about 20% of the whole cat population, and a much higher proportion of elderly cats, show some signs of arthritis. And other joint problems can occur too, though less commonly. So let us take a look at joint problems in cats, and what can be done about them...
If your cat suddenly becomes lame or has swelling in a joint, this is unlikely to be caused by osteoarthritis, which is a progressive condition. It is much more likely to be due to an injury which has caused a sprain, or a fracture which involves a joint. The latter is not good news, however, because even if the fracture heals well it often leaves long term joint damage.
Osteoarthritis is caused by the cartilage lining the joints breaking down, so that the bones rub directly against each other, causing pain, swelling, and loss of movement. It occurs most commonly in older cats. Its cause is most often wear and tear, but it can also be caused by earlier injuries or hereditary deformations of the bones. It most commonly affects the elbow and hip joints.
It is not always easy to recognise arthritis in cats. They do not always show that they are in pain or having trouble moving; instead they may hide away, cry if picked up, become aggressive, or run away if handled. This may only happen gradually, and the owner may not notice the cat's reduced activity levels. However, once the cat is diagnosed and treated, it will return to its previous way of life, and the previous change becomes obvious. It can be as though your old cat suddenly becomes young again!
Other clues may be over-long claws and a reluctance to use a scratching post, a dull, matted coat since the cat is having trouble grooming himself, and generally decreased activity. The vet can physically examine the cat, but results can be misleading, and the only reliable way to diagnose osteoarthritis in cats is to radiograph the joints under anaesthetic or deep sedation.
Osteoarthritis is not the only form of joint disease in cats. Some cases of arthritis are due to auto-immune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis. This is much less common in cats than in people, but it is occasionally diagnosed.
One cause of sudden lameness is septic arthritis, which is due to an infection settling in one or more joints, either from a penetrating wound some other cause. Such infections may need both painkilling medications and a prolonged course of antibiotics to clear them up.
As with people, osteoarthritis is generally a long term condition, and treatment usually involves management rather than a complete cure. There are a number of things you can do to help your cat is he is suffering from this...
Certain food supplements may help to control arthritis, although hard evidence for their effectiveness is lacking. Cod liver oil is used, but cats must be dosed very carefully, or it can have toxic effects. Supplements containing glucosamine and chontroitin, which help in healing the cartilage lining bones inside joints, have become available for cats. They may help in mild cases, but require long term daily dosing. Veterinary prescribed diets for arthritis are also available. They can help the joints by achieving a balance between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Vets can also prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as meloxicam, to treat arthritis or other causes of chronic pain. In my experience these work extremely well, and can be responsible for you finding you've got your young active cat back again! But do take your vet's advice on this, as they may not be suitable for all cases.
In some cases corticosteroid drugs are used, and they are often very effective, but they do have side effects. Your vet may want to run regular blood tests to ensure your cat is suitable to continue with long term treatment.
Never ever give your cat any medicine that has not been prescribed by your vet. Many human painkillers, such as aspirin and paracetamol, are highly toxic to cats.
If your cat has joint problems or appears to be in pain, take him or her to the vet. Osteoarthritis and other conditions are treatable, and early diagnosis and treatment can enable your cat to live a long and happy life.