Cat Health

Feline Arthritis: Identification, Understanding, and Management

arthritis in cats

What is arthritis?

The terms osteoarthritis, arthritis, and degenerative joint disease (or DJD) are frequently used interchangeably.

Each term indicates joint inflammation. While many causes of arthritis exist, such as infection or injury, many cases are due to aging.

As felines age, the cartilage surfaces of the bone, which are normally smooth, wear thin and erode. While this process of erosion takes place the cat’s body repairs it, but the newly repaired surface may be incomplete or becomes increasingly irregular.

The joints experience pain and inflammation of the surface changes when the bones meet each other.

The most frequently affected joints are large examples such as the hip, shoulder, elbow, and ankle, but the joints of the spine can be affected, among others.

Geriatric cats are quite prone to arthritis, of course, but obese cats are another victim of this crippling condition.

The extraneous weight places increased strain on the joints. Also, it is critical to note that arthritis is progressive, worsening with time.

What are the causes of arthritis in cats?

Cat arthritis may be caused by injury, an autoimmune disorder, infection, or degenerative joint problems.

The type of this joint malady that most often strikes cats is the degenerative one osteoarthritis. Age can result in this problem; obesity compounds it.

How many types of feline arthritis are there?

Progressive polyarthritis is also known as immune-mediated polyarthritis or IMPA. It is more common in dogs than in cats, but several types of IMPA do affect felines. IMPA can be erosive or non-erosive. It is similar to rheumatoid arthritis in humans.

IMPA appears in felines when there is an occurrence of an inappropriate immune system response, which results in an attack on two or more articulated joints by the feline’s immune system. This results in inflammation and interference with joint function.

This immune system disorder may occur idiopathically (with unknown cause) or as a reaction to an infection or pathogen.

The result of this is antibodies having a reaction in the fluid that lubricates joints, causing an immune system reaction of swelling.

An article by Drs. NC Pedersen, RR Pool, and T O’Brien studied twenty cats with this condition, all male. In fact, the occurrence of IMPA is almost strictly found in male cats.

In the study, all but six of the feline participants were between a year and a half and five years of age.

The most prevalent disease form had the characterizations of osteopenia, or weakened bones, and periosteal new bone forming around affected joints.

Calicivirus infection can lead to inflammation in the joint, resulting in lameness, according to PetCoatch.

Generally, calicivirus is best known as a virus for the respiratory disease it causes, resulting typically in a runny nose and eyes.

Calicivirus is frequently included in the vaccine for distemper, rhinotracheitis, and chlamydia, which is given to cats and kittens.

The joint inflammation has been associated with the strain in the vaccine, although more rarely, and the field strain.

Generally, a disease that is self-limiting, meaning that it typically resolves on its own, calicivirus is often treated with supportive therapy that includes anti-inflammatory medicine and pain relievers. By far, most cats with this type of arthritis fully recover.

Bacterial or septic arthritis is most often caused by a cat bite wound that penetrates the joint, according to Drs. Julie Lemetayer and Susan Taylor.

This cause usually only involves one joint; the hock, carpus, and interphalangeal joints are at greatest risk of being targeted and infected. Rarely it affects multiple joints.

Cats suffering from septic arthritis tend to be systemically ill, depressed, and feverish. The affected joint or joints experience pain and palpable joint swelling. While this is indicative of the condition, diagnosis requires a bit more digging.

To confirm a diagnosis of bacterial arthritis, bacteria need to be identified in preparations or cultures of synovial fluid, urine, or blood taken from a cat with clinical signs. The synovial, or joint, fluid will be bloody, cloudy, or yellow in affected cats.

The degenerative joint disease is the proper name of osteoarthritis in cats. Often shortened to DJD, the condition occurs in both the appendages and the spine.

The latter tends to increase with age, while the former appears equally across the ages of cats.

In a paper by Dr. Elizabeth M. Hardy, it is stated that osteoarthritis is distinguished from other forms of inflammatory arthritis using synovial fluid analysis and radiographs.

According to Dr. Ilona Rodan, osteoarthritis is extremely common in cats, but often under-diagnosed if it is recognized at all.

One random study that covered a variety of different age groups of cats found that 91 of 100 cats showed radiographic evidence of arthritis, even in cats as young as 6 months old. It is difficult to catch because cats hide pain symptoms as a natural protective mechanism.

How do I spot the symptoms of arthritis in cats? 

PetMD says that the vital first step in treating arthritis is to detect it early; in fact, the earlier the better.

According to that site, the signs include limping, difficulty moving, and changes in grooming.

Dr. Cathy Lund is quoted in the PetMD article as explaining that a cat generally reveals stiff or painful joints in the manner in which it approaches its typical activities. I.E. if the cat usually jumps on beds, but abruptly doesn’t, or looks like it wants to jump.

Lameness in one or more legs, reluctance to go up or down stairs and to jump onto or off of furniture or counters, difficulty lying down and rising again, reluctance to be touched on various body parts, or unexpected aggression are all potential signs.

Behavioral changes such as litterbox accidents are another key indicator. She also notes that felines are sensitive to weather changes and that damp and cold days might lead to arthritis symptoms flaring up.

This YouTube video shows the signs of arthritis in cats and is helpful if you are unsure what a cat neglecting half its grooming might look like, as well as being otherwise informative.

How does a veterinarian diagnose feline arthritis?

Diagnosis starts with a thorough medical and behavioral history. The doctor asks the owner about the symptoms when they started, and whether they have steadily gotten worse, stayed about the same, or waxed and waned, as well as about general health.

Next comes a careful examination of the animal, paying close attention to its joints, limbs, and back.

The doctor will seek out signs of heat, swelling, and signs of discomfort. This complete physical will help locate the precise site of the joint inflammation.

Usually, a medical history with explicit symptoms of arthritis on top of a physical examination that reveals sore and tender joints are enough to lead to a tentative diagnosis of one kind of arthritis or another.

Blood and urine samples are then submitted to a laboratory for a urinalysis and blood work.

These routine tests are less to specifically prove arthritis and more to rule out other potential causes for the cat’s discomfort. Joint infections are one possible contender.

Once other causes are ruled out, radiographs, or X-rays, are an effective tool for the identification and assessment of the degree of arthritis; these resulting films or images can reveal changes in the joint capsules and narrowing of joint spaces.

X-rays also reveal build up of fluid in the joints, soft tissue mineralization and thickening, alterations in the cartilage connecting bones in joints, other bone-related changes, osteophytes or intra-articular calcified bodies, and other known physical changes.

Another procedure that can be used is bone nuclear scintigraphy. This helps the veterinarian localize the sites of arthritis.

Sampling and analysis of the fluid lining the inside of the joint capsules, or synovial fluid, helps determine the degree of inflammation.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, and computed tomography, or CTs, are also available in specialists’ referral clinics as well as in veterinary teaching hospitals.

This help visualizes joint incongruity, the overall extent of arthritis, and physical cartilage changes.

Find pain relief for aching felines

According to TheSprucePets, Acupuncture, the insertion of needles at certain points for health benefits, has long been a popular treatment option for humans, but it is increasingly used for cats as well.

It is safe and painless. The needles, when properly inserted, send no pain signals to the brain.

Most cats relax during this procedure, and in fact, many take catnaps. This is not a remedy that will work overnight, but changes should be visible in the feline patient.

The cat may be more social, alert, relaxed, and move about more like its old self.

Treatments may last anywhere from thirty minutes to less than a minute. The acupuncturist will allow the owner to be present throughout the procedure; in fact, it is preferred for the comfort of the cat.

Massage is another popular treatment for both humans and felines. Some cats may like a massage, but others may be too sensitive to the pain to enjoy that much human contact.

Even cats receptive to massage are in pain, which is an important factor to mind.

Start the massage by petting the area, then gradually work your way up to the gentle kneading of the muscles that surround the joint.

Use your fingertips in a small circular motion. Slowly and steadily work your way to the surrounding muscles.

Warm towels on the area may also assist in muscle relaxation. Remember, it is always best to first have the veterinarian show the proper techniques and steps and offer complete instructions on proper care for each cat.

Physical therapy is difficult for many humans, and that is with the conscious knowledge that they are enduring pain for the ultimate purpose of healing and a reduced or completely removed pain level. Cats, unfortunately, lack that innate understanding.

However, it is often helpful for cats to experience a certain degree of physical therapy. The veterinarian will show the owner how to manipulate a cat’s limbs to assist in relaxing stiff muscles and in promoting a good range of joint motion.

Hydrotherapy is a variety of physical therapy that occurs in water and is used for humans, dogs, and yes, even cats.

If cats can be leery of massage and uncomfortable with physical therapy, it is understandable that they might be still more anxious about this.

However, the idea behind hydrotherapy holds strong: it is a gentle type of physical therapy in that it does not place excess pressure on joints, bones, or organs, and it is excellent for building endurance as well as strength.

Because hydrotherapy improves flexibility at the same time as being particularly kind to arthritic joints, it is a prime therapy for felines with arthritis.

It is particularly ideal because arthritic cats tend to be forced to limit their own exercise due to pain levels.

Consider the treatments for arthritis in cats

The website PetMD suggests dietary supplements first; Dr. Lund advises that chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine can be effective.

These are available over the counter and are distributed in the forms of sprinkles, treats, and liquids. Supplements help attack the cause rather than treating the result, which is the actual pain.

These supplements can assist in protecting and repairing cartilage as well as improving the quality of the joint fluid, which is effective in easing pain and lubricating joints.

Veterinarians may also suggest prescription pain relievers such as gabapentin and meloxicam.

Feline arthritis is a common and treacherous disease, slowly eating away at a cat’s spirit and mobility as pain levels increase.

It can, to some extent, be prevented with a healthy diet and regular exercise to stave off obesity and encourage healthy joints.

Treatments for arthritis in cats are wide-ranging, from cold lasers to hydrotherapy to simple food additives.

The key question to ask is: how much pain is the cat in, and how much is arthritis affecting its quality of life?

The most important element in treating arthritis in cats is the wellbeing and comfort of the feline patient.

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