Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease, is the most
common form of arthritis in cats. Still, it is less common
in cats than it is in dogs and produces milder symptoms. In a cat with
degenerative joint disease, the cartilage covering the articulating surface of
a joint wears out and the underlying bone develops a roughened surface that
damages the joint. Osteoarthritis occurs in joints that have been severely
stressed, dislocated, or fractured. Proper early care of joint injuries may
reduce the severity of any subsequent lameness.
Although osteoarthritis may begin during the first half of life, symptoms
generally do not appear until much later. The signs are mainly stiffness and
lameness. Lameness is usually worse when the cat wakes up but gets better as
the day wears on. Cats may show swelling around affected joints and muscle
atrophy on legs with arthritic conditions. There may be a reluctance to jump
and leap. They often exhibit irritability and behavioral changes associated
with increasing disability. Cold and damp surroundings increase pain and
Cats with kidney problems have a reduced ability to excrete waste products into their urine, leading to a potentially toxic build-up in the bloodstream. While some kidney problems occur suddenly, chronic kidney disease shows up more slowly over a period of time. Timely veterinary assessment with ongoing supportive care and dietary management can allow some cats with kidney problems to maintain an adequate quality of life.
The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is made by joint X-rays that show bone spurs
at points where the ligaments and the joint capsule attach to the bone. There
may be varying degrees of joint space narrowing and increased density of bone
around the joint.
Osteoarthritis is incurable, but treatment can substantially improve the
cat’s life. Keeping cats at a trim weight will take stress off their joints. It
also helps to provide warm places for cats to sleep and rest. An arthritic cat
may need steps to get to favorite places, such as the bed, the couch, and the
windowsill. Massage, TTouch, and physical therapy may be beneficial.
Acupuncture can be helpful for many cats, and if the cat is willing to swim,
hydrotherapy can be a great boon.
Many cats will benefit from chondroprotective supplements such as
glucosamine-chondroitin products to repair joint cartilage and prevent further
damage. In severe cases, analgesics and corticosteroids may be used to relieve
pain and improve function.
Moderate exercise is beneficial because it maintains muscle mass and
preserves joint flexibility. Excessive exercise, however, is counterproductive.
Arthritic cats should never be encouraged to stand up on their back legs. There
are veterinary physical therapists who can help design an exercise (and
Overweight cats should be encouraged to lose weight. Being overweight
seriously complicates the treatment of osteoarthritis.
There are many new medications that can be used to treat pain and
inflammation in cats. They should only be used under the guidance of your
veterinarian. Unfortunately, many of the medications developed to treat
arthritis in dogs are not safe for cats and can be toxic. The same is true of
medicines developed for humans. Tylenol (acetaminophen), in particular, must
never be used. Fortunately, pain or severe lameness in cats is infrequent and
seldom produces significant disability.