Arthritis in Senior Cats

By Elizabeth Racine, DVM November 10, 2018

Does your cat seem more hesitant to jump to his favorite perch? Is he struggling to go up and down the stairs? Your cat may be suffering from arthritis, a painful but manageable medical condition. Recent studies have shown that arthritis may be more common in cats than was previously thought. A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 90% of cats over the age of 10 had some degree of degenerative joint disease. If your senior kitty seems to be slowing down, it may be more than simply getting older.

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a painful inflammation of the joints. It is also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease. It is caused by a progressive breakdown of the cartilage in the joints due to repetitive stress, injury, poor conformation, or simply the normal aging processes. Cartilage is the body’s natural cushion for the joints, and without it the joint becomes inflamed, painful, and has a decreased range of motion. Over time the condition worsens, resulting in damage to the surrounding structures. While the progression of arthritis can be slowed with appropriate treatment, the existing damage to the joint is often irreversible.

What Are The Signs Of Arthritis?

Some signs of arthritis are obvious, such as lameness or swelling of the affected joints. However, cats are stoic creatures and tend not to show many obvious signs. As a result, many arthritic cats can go undiagnosed for years.

Subtle signs that your cat may be suffering from arthritis include decreased activity, weight loss, decreased appetite, loss of muscle mass, depression, and poor grooming habits. Some cats may urinate and defecate outside the litter box, particularly if the journey to the box requires them to jump or use stairs. Many affected cats will be unwilling to jump or will be less agile, often having a reduced jump height and landing more heavily than usual.

Frequently it is the veterinarian who discovers pain during a physical exam. The veterinarian may also find swelling or decreased range of motion while palpating your cat’s joints. Some cats have no external signs at all and are only able to be diagnosed by taking x-rays. This is why it is essential that your cat be seen by a veterinarian at least once a year, especially when he reaches his senior years.

What Are The Treatment Options?

Treatment for arthritis generally involves multimodal therapy, which means several different treatment methods are used at the same time. The goal of treatment is to control pain, slow the progression of the disease, and improve your cat's quality of life. There are a wide variety of medications and supplements available on the market with varying degrees of efficacy. Below are just a few examples of some of the most commonly used treatments. Talk to your veterinarian to find out which treatment options will be best for your cat’s individual needs.

  • Pain Control

Pain control is an extremely important component of arthritis treatment. While it does not treat the underlying joint disease, it is essential for keeping your cat comfortable and maintaining good quality of life. There are several different drugs available to help treat pain in cats. Your veterinarian will help you choose what is best for your cat based on pain level, lifestyle, and the presence of other diseases. Never give your cat pain medications intended for humans or other animals. Cats are more sensitive to the effects of certain medications and these drugs may cause toxicity or even death. Always talk to your veterinarian before starting a new medication for your cat.

  • Joint Supplements and Diets

Just like in humans, there are many different joint supplements available for veterinary patients. These supplements may include ingredients such as glucosamine, chondroitin, fatty acids, green-lipped mussel, milk proteins, or polyphenols, among others. These ingredients have anti-inflammatory properties and may slow the progression of joint damage. Most of these supplements are available over-the-counter in products that are made specifically for cats. However, the supplement industry is poorly regulated and some of these products are less effective than others.

  • Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycans (PGAGs)

Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycans (PGAGs) are molecules that naturally occur in the cartilage throughout your cat’s body. These molecules have several important functions: they absorb water to help cushion the joint, they help create more synovial fluid to keep the joint lubricated, they have anti-inflammatory properties, and they are involved in enzymatic processes that repair damaged joints. Supplementing PGAGs can help slow the progression of arthritis and decrease pain and inflammation of the affected joints. PGAGs are typically given in the form of an injection, either under the skin or into a muscle. Many veterinarians will train pet owners to give these injections to their cats at home.

  • Weight Loss

Carrying extra weight around on damaged joints is undoubtedly painful. Unfortunately, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 58% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese! Achieving a healthy weight can help reduce pain, decrease inflammation, and improve energy level. Cutting back on treats, transitioning to a canned food diet, and increasing exercise can all help your cat trim down. However, just like in humans, it is important that these changes be made gradually over time. Your veterinarian can help you set a goal weight and develop a healthy weight loss plan for your cat.

  • Rehabilitation and Alternative Therapies

Rehabilitation is a rapidly growing field in veterinary medicine. While it is still a relatively new concept in the veterinary world, rehabilitation therapies have been used in human patients for decades. Rehabilitation for an arthritic cat may include treatments such as physiotherapy, medical massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, therapeutic laser, and hyperbaric oxygen. Believe it or not, some cats can even learn to use an underwater treadmill! These therapies can decrease pain, strengthen muscles, and improve circulation. Find a board certified rehabilitation veterinarian in your area to learn more about these therapies.

Environmental Management

Making a few adjustments around your home can make life easier for your arthritic cat. Make sure your cat has easy access to all of his basic needs, such as food, water, and a litter box. Offering each of these things on every floor of the house will ensure that your cat does not need to tackle the stairs on days when he is feeling sore.

Litter boxes can be particularly problematic for an arthritic cat, especially if the box has high sides that require the cat to jump to get in and out. If you have senior cats in your household, it is best to use litter boxes that have low sides or a front opening so the cats can easily step in. Some cats may find the texture of the litter unpleasant, especially if their paws are aching. If your arthritic cat is avoiding the litter box, you may want to experiment with other litter options such as absorbent pads or shredded paper.

Arthritic cats are often heat seekers and appreciate a soft bed in a sunbeam even more than their healthy counterparts. You can make it easier to reach those favorite sunny perches by using ramps or pet-specific stairs so your cat does not need to jump. Once ensconced in a cozy sleeping place, some cats will choose to skip meals, preferring sleep over making the trek to the food bowl. Keeping food and water within easy reach of your cat’s favorite sleeping spot can help ensure he maintains a healthy weight.


Arthritis is a progressive and lifelong condition, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating. With medication and a few lifestyle modifications, your cat can still live a long and comfortable life. If you’re concerned that your cat may have arthritis, talk to your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan. Your cat will thank you for it!

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