Creaky Cats: Feline Arthritis

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a mobile, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. Find him online at www.DrPhilZeltzman.com. He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (www.WalkaHound.com).

While about 20% of dogs (of all ages) have arthritis, around 33% of cats (of all ages) have this painful condition. Worse: about 90% of cats over the age of 12 hurt in silence.  An estimated 12 million cats suffer from this painful condition, yet few pet owners are aware of it. This is the reason why cat arthritis has been called “the silent epidemic.”  And while a lot of research and effort have been dedicated to arthritis in dogs, cats have been, shall we say, ever so slightly ignored… 

What Are the Signs of Arthritis in Cats?
In dogs, most of the time, arthritis leads to limping or favoring a leg, so suspecting the condition is generally straightforward.  However, only around 15% of cats appear to be lame.  The top 10 other consequences of kitty arthritis include, in no particular order:

  • Hiding
  • Stiffness
  • More sleep
  • Lack of appetite
  • Personality changes
  • Decreased grooming
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Difficulty rising from a resting position
  • Reluctance or inability to jump – up or down
  • Muscle atrophy (a.k.a. muscle loss) in the affected leg


Of these signs, the most common one is a reluctance or inability to jump. The other changes can, in turn, lead to other negative consequences:

  • More sleep means less time spent moving around, exploring, hunting, playing or jumping on your lap
  • Decreased grooming (a common finding) translates into an unkempt hair coat
  • Personality changes mean that kitty may interact less with people or other pets, and may seem “grumpier” or may tend to be more solitary than usual

The severity of these changes can vary from mild to severe.  However, cats rarely express their pain “overtly” by, for example, crying, which can make it difficult for pet owners to suspect the problem.

What is Arthritis, Anyway?
Arthritis is inflammation or irritation in one or several joints.  It is also referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (aka DJD). As arthritis progresses, the happy, smooth, shiny cartilage that covers the joints becomes dull and wears off, and unfortunately, the body is not very good at repairing it.  The end result is bone spurs and loss of cartilage.  Eventually, instead of cartilage on cartilage, we end up with bone on bone, which is very painful, just like in people. We call arthritis a “progressive disease,” which means that signs worsen with age.

How is Arthritis Diagnosed in Cats?
Arthritis cannot be assumed, it has to be proven.  In dogs, that means taking X-rays of suspected joints. But cats, as always, are different. Quite often, arthritis is not visible on a cat’s X rays.  It doesn’t mean that we should not take X rays, it just means that we have to read them with caution.  In other words, just because we don’t see arthritis on X rays does not mean it’s not there.

The suspicion definitely starts with awareness on the owner’s part, and some good clinical sense on the vet’s part.  So if your 10-year old cat has some of the signs described above, you should be suspicious.  Of course, arthritis can also affect younger cats.

What Causes Arthritis?
People can get arthritis for no obvious reasons.  It’s called primary arthritis.  We don’t believe this happens in pets.  They get arthritis as a consequence of “something else.”  This is called secondary arthritis, and pet's arthritis is probably always secondary to another problem.  

Which problem?  Trauma, or a torn ligament (not uncommonly the ACL), or a loose kneecap, or bad hips, will lead to arthritis.  There are also other types or arthritis, including arthritis due to an infection (septic arthritis) or a hyperactive immune system (immune mediated polyarthritis and a few others).

Which Joints Can Be Affected?
Any joint can suffer from arthritis: the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist in the front leg; the hip, the knee and the ankle in the back leg; and the smaller joints between vertebrae, both in the neck and the back.

So How do I Help My Cat?
Again, first your family vet needs to confirm that we are truly dealing with osteoarthritis.

There is currently no cure for arthritis (feline, canine or human), but there are many ways to help. Be sure to read my other blogs about ways in which to ease and treat pet arthritis.

So if your aging feline companion seems to be slowing down, please don’t automatically blame it on old age.  Ask yourself if your cat has signs that might be indicative of arthritis.  If you think that might be true, then please take your cat to your family vet and inquire about this disease.  Arthritis is not a death sentence.  There are many ways to help, and a happy kitty very well might be the end result.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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Reviewed on: 
Monday, August 3, 2015

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