Arthritis and joint care in cats

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a complex condition involving inflammation and degeneration of one or more joints, it is also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD). Feline arthritis is very common in middle to older aged cats, with around 90% of cats over the age of 10 years, having arthritis in at least one joint. OA occurs when the cartilage (smooth, firm, connective tissue that protects the ends of bones) within a joint is worn away, this occurs most commonly in the elbows and hips of cats. This lack of cartilage in the joint can cause terrible chronic pain and can lead to poor quality of life.

Causes of OA

There is no single cause of OA. Many factors influence its initiation and development, including:

  • Age: As cats get older, cartilage will begin to degenerate. Though OA is much more common in senior cats, young cats can also suffer from OA.
  • Breed: Certain cat breeds are more prone to OA and decreased mobility. These include Himalayan, Persian and Siamese.
  • Excess weight: Excess weight means excess stress on the joints and cartilages, which can lead to OA.
  • Accidents or trauma: Trauma caused by accidents can damage cartilage, resulting in OA later in life and adversely affecting mobility.
  • Infection: Occasionally, infections can lead to the destruction of cartilage and joint tissue.

In fact, most cats with OA experience a combination of these factors as their OA develops and progresses. We now know that just “getting old” is not a cause of OA.

Diagnosis

OA is diagnosed through a combination of physical examination, including feeling the joints with the fingers to localise pain and determine its intensity, and additional diagnostics including x-rays or other imaging technology.

As a cat owner you have an important role to play in diagnosing OA. Any change in your cat’s normal behaviour may be a sign of pain, so keep a notebook and write any new or changing behaviours. Cats with OA rarely limp because the disease usually occurs in the same joint in both legs (e.g. both knees). This differs greatly from arthritis in dogs, who may exhibit more pain in one leg so there is a noticeable limp.

The most common signs seen in cats include:

  • Decreased activity
  • Trouble jumping on/ off surfaces
  • Not using the litter box
  • Not grooming effectively- knots in the coat
  • Walking stiffly
  • Social reclusiveness
  • Reluctance to be touched on some parts of the body
  • Unexpected aggression towards other cats or towards humans
  • Reluctance to go up and/ or downstairs

Management

The management of OA is often multimodal- using several different approaches together to help reduce your cat’s pain and improve mobility.

  • Nutrition

The food your cat eats plays an important role in overall health and well-being. Balanced nutrition is an essential part of an active, healthy lifestyle. Shedding any excess weight is an important factor in relieving joint pain; the best way to achieve this is with the help and support of your veterinary practice. They will prescribe a reducing diet such as ROYAL CANIN® Satiety, which controls hunger and calorie consumption, whilst still providing all the nutrients your cat needs to stay healthy.

If your cat is not overweight, ROYAL CANIN® Mobility is a dry kibble diet that is specially formulated to help support healthy joint function in adult and ageing cats. ROYAL CANIN® Mobility is formulated with Omega-3 fatty acids and New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel, which help to support healthy joint function. This formula is enriched with a blend of antioxidants to support general wellbeing while also helping to neutralise free radicals.

  • Pain medications

Non-steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are generally the first treatment against the pain caused by OA. Your vet may wish to carry out some blood tests to check liver and kidney function before starting your cat on NSAIDs. These medicines are generally given as oral liquids that can be added to food.  It is important never to use your own pain medicine if your cat has been diagnosed with OA. Drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are toxic to cats in very low doses.

  • Nutraceuticals

Your veterinarian may also recommend a joint supplement or nutraceutical such as Yumove for cats. This contains a very concentrated source of Omega 3 fatty acids to decrease inflammation in joints; glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid help to maintain healthy cartilage and joint fluid. The capsules can be sprinkled on food each day and are well accepted by cats.

  • Other therapies

Many cats are very difficult to give medicines to and so owners may look to alternative options. Medical acupuncture can provide excellent pain relief for many cats with OA. Likewise, medical massage, therapeutic laser and physiotherapy can all be considered.

There are also some simple things that any cat owner can provide to a cat with OA that can help with comfort and mobility. These include:

  • Soft, padded bedding
  • Raised food and water dishes (elbow height)
  • Non-skid floor surfaces
  • A ramp or stool/step for getting onto higher surfaces

Prevention

Whilst OA cannot be reliably prevented, there are factors that may contribute to reducing the likelihood or severity of OA. The most important is allowing a cat to grow slowly as a kitten and maintaining a lean body condition into adulthood. This will ensure good quality cartilage is formed, which is less likely to erode. Throughout life, excellent nutrition, maintaining optimal body condition, and taking regular exercise, will all help reduce the odds developing OA.

Written on May 20, 2022

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