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Arthritis and Other Mobility Issues in Older Cats — How You Can Help

Article by Dr. Jason Nicholas | Found on PreventiveVet

Arthritis in Cats: More Common Than You Think

Thanks to advancements in medicine and nutrition, as well as important improvements in the way we view and look after our cats, our feline friends are living longer, fuller lives these days. However, as cats progress into their senior years, it’s common for many of them to develop joint pain and problems, such as arthritis.

A study found that roughly 30% of cats over the age of 8 suffer from arthritis — and eight isn’t very old for a cat! Another study found that 90% of cats aged 12 and over showed radiographic (x-ray) signs of the arthritis — that’s 9 out of every 10 cats over the age of 12! These are very significant numbers, especially when we also take into account that the pain and suffering that these cats are experiencing often goes undetected and therefore untreated, even by the most caring and attentive of cat owners. (Here are some things you can look for to help you determine if your cat might be suffering in silence from the pain of arthritis, or any other painful condition.)

Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to help improve the comfort, mobility, and quality of life for your cats with arthritis. Many of the things you can do to help your cat are inexpensive and easy to implement. Of course, many cats will also benefit from a pain management protocol involving safe and effective medications, supplements, and complimentary treatments (e.g. acupuncture, etc.) determined by your veterinarian. Read on to see what you can do to help your arthritic cat — regardless of their age.

Identifying the Cause(s) of Your Cat’s Mobility Issue

Lots of problems can underly your cat’s behavioral and mobility changes, and it’s important to work with your veterinarian to determine which one(s) are at play in your cat’s specific situation. Arthritis, which literally means “inflammation of the joint(s),” is certainly one of the most common, but it isn’t always the culprit. Other potential causes might include degeneration or weakening of their nerves (including that associated with diabetes in cats), muscle weakness and/or muscle mass loss, or even a torn cruciate ligament. On the other hand, it isn’t always an orthopedic or neurologic condition that’s hindering your cat’s mobility. A decrease in their vision, such as that associated with high blood pressure resulting from hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, or one of many other conditions, can easily affect your cat’s behavior, mobility, and activity level. Similarly, the cause could be pain unrelated to their muscles, joints, or bones — common problems include inflammation of or a mass associated with one of the organs within their abdomen (e.g. spleen, liver), or even something as “simple” as an overgrown or ingrown nail.

These are just some of the reasons why it’s important to bring your cat to see your veterinarian at least once per year, regardless of their vaccination needs or how healthy they may seem to you. With a thorough examination and history, and certain laboratory and other diagnostic tests, your veterinarian can thoroughly and fully evaluate your cat for the presence of conditions that could be causing your cat pain or other problems.

Tips & Products to Help Your Aging or Arthritic Cat

While cats definitely get the “short end of the stick,” compared to dogs, when it comes to products and even medications that can help alleviate their pain and improve their quality of life when dealing with arthritis, there are still plenty of safe and effective things you and your veterinarian can do to help your arthritic cat. The tips and products listed below have helped to improve the comfort level, quality of life, and ability to get around for many older and arthritic cats. Have a look and try some (or several) of them out, you may well be surprised at the change you’ll see in your cat!

Incidentally, you may notice that I don’t cover “medications” until the end of this article. It’s not because medications aren’t important and helpful, because they often are an extremely helpful component of pain management in cats. I’ve saved them for last because medication options for cats are definitely fewer than for dogs, and also because medications aren’t the only interventions that can help arthritic cats with their pain and mobility issues. The simple, yet safe and effective, tips and products I mention first are too little known about and all too often overlooked.

Stop the Slip

While getting a cat to accept and keep on non-slip socks or booties is far more difficult (and less likely to happen) than it is with dogs, there are still some simple changes you can implement to help your cat have an easier time walking, running, and jumping on hardwood, tile, and other slick flooring surfaces. (Yes, cats with arthritis and other painful conditions may still jump — they may just do it less often and less eagerly.) You needn’t remodel your home or replace all of your floors, but there are some things you can easily add to your cat’s environment to help them and improve their mobility.

  • Lay out area rugs or carpet runners (don’t forget the non-slip rug pads that go underneath!), or even yoga mats. Add these rugs, runners, and mats throughout your home and be sure to also put them on the floor surfaces around your bed, couches, and any windowsills your cat may spend their time lounging on — and therefore jumping onto and off of.
  • Add non-slip stair treads to your hardwood staircases — here are a few options.

Improve Your Cat’s Overall Comfort and Health

Sometimes it’s the “simple things” that can make the biggest difference. While the nursing and general care tips highlighted below might seem like “common sense,” they are too often overlooked. Which is a shame, as they really can make a big difference in your cat’s comfort level and quality of life. The added bonus is that they aren’t just effective, but they’re often simple to do and quite inexpensive, too.

  • Check their litter boxes: Make sure your cat can comfortably and easily get to and into their litter boxes. The importance of this one truly cannot be overstated! Even if you use enclosed litter boxes or boxes with high sides to prevent your cat from peeing or defecating outside of their box, it’s important to make sure that there is at least one short side to make it easier for your cat with arthritis to be able to get in and out of their box. Pain and difficulty experienced with litter box usage is a very common reason why older cats might stop using their box, become constipated, or even develop a devestating case of urinary obstruction.Because of their large size, underbed* storage boxes are often the best type of litter boxes you can get for any cat. And it’s even more the case for a cat with arthritis, because they also have low sides! So lots of room for your cat to “do their business in,” and low-sided enough for them to easily get in and out, too! For older cat with arthritis, I usually recommend specifically using the drawer inserts from this type of underbed storage box. They’re some of the lowest-sided options around, and still plenty big enough for your cat to not feel cramped.*Note that “underbed” is the type of storage box, not the location where you should keep your cat’s litter box 🙂
  • Nail care: Including regular nail trims, nail care can greatly improve your cat’s comfort level and mobility. If you can’t easily trim your cat’s nails yourself, speak with a good groomer or the folks at your veterinarian’s office about having it done. And don’t forget about including plenty of scratching posts and other scratching surfaces for your cat to help them maintain their own nails. If you don’t have them already, here are two great cat nail trimmer options (depending on the style you prefer — I personally prefer the first style for cats, but if you also have dogs, the second style can be a better all-in-one option).
  • Helping with the cold: Just like in people, cold weather can cause achy joints to “flare” and tighten up even more. So, make sure that the temperature of the room or area of your home that your cat spends most of their time in isn’t too cold — don’t forget about the garage or basement, if that’s where your cat likes to spend their time. Many arthritc cats love and benefit from having a heated pad or bed to lay on, and this one is inexpensive, doesn’t get too hot, and provides plenty of comfort and “coziness” for achy cats. 

Important note to be aware of: Because arthritic cats will often seek out warmth wherever they can find it, be extra careful to always check your clothes dryer before starting it! (Unfortunately, many cats have suffered serious burns, or even died, when their people shut and turned on the clothes dryer without realizing that their cat was inside.)
Watch your cat’s weight: Work with your veterinarian to ensure that your cat is at their optimal body condition(weight). Just like in people, excessive weight puts additional and avoidable strain on already painful joints. Learn how to recognize, correct, and avoid obesity in cats.

  • Provide comfy spots to lounge: Make sure your cat has well-cushioned and comfortable places to sleep at night and to lay around on during the day. Don’t forget about your windowsills, where many cats like to spend their time. Again, these heated mats are great for arthritic kitties.
  • Potty accidents: Cats with mobility problems are more likely to soil themselves (feces or urine, or both) either from a decreased ability to get up and eliminate in another area, or even from a concurrent decline in their cognitive/brain function and loss of “litter box training.” For this reason it’s very important to check your mobility-impaired cat regularly for any signs of urinary and/or fecal soiling, and to clean them when noticed. A good waterless shampoo can come in very handy to make such sanitary cleaning easier — although giving a cat a bath (with water) can be done!
  • Hydration: For cats that are experiencing severe mobility impairment, it’s important to ensure that they can easily and reliably reach their food and water bowls. Dehydration can be a very real, and very devastating problem for cats that can’t walk well on their own. So make sure to check their food and water bowls regularly, and make sure that they’re not in places that they can’t easily reach (e.g., up or down too many stairs, on top of benches or countertops they can no longer easily jump on to, etc.). Many cats love running water too, so you might want to add a water fountain like one of these options.

Medications, Supplements, and Other Means of Decreasing Inflammation and Pain

Because of differences in the way they can handle and tolerate drugs, there are typically fewer safe and effective pain medications available for cats than for dogs. That said, there definitely are some safe and effective pain medications labeled for use in cats, and some prescription medications that aren’t specifically labeled for use in cats have been successfully used “off label” (under veterinary guidance) to treat and manage pain in them. Of course, it’s also true that pain management in cats with arthritis isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” topic. Achieving their best comfort often requires more than one medication and supplement, and it frequently benefits from additional treatments or “modalities,” such as acupuncture, physical therapy, etc. Work with your veterinarian to figure out the best pain management approach and combination of treatments for your cat.

  • Joint supplements: Supplements such as Cosequin for Cats, can be a good “drug-free” way to help in the management of a cat’s arthritis pain. Whatever you use for a joint supplement/treat, be sure that they aren’t adding too many additional calories to your cat’s diet. Excessive weight and obesity in cats can worsen their arthritic pain (along with causing or exacerbating a host of other conditions).
  • Fish oils: The Omega 3 fatty acids found specifically in fish oils can help to decrease pain in arthritic cats, by minimizing inflammation. They may also help in cats with cardiovascular or kidney disease, and can also help to keep their skin and coat shiny and healthy, too. Nutramax Welactin is a great fish oil product for cats, and easy to dispense and administer too, given its liquid formulation.
  • Prescription diet: Speak with your veterinarian about prescription joint/mobility diets specifically formulated to help your arthritic cat. The prescription weight loss diets for cats can help, and Hill’s has a specific mobility support diet for cats called Hill’s j/d Feline Mobility.
  • Integrative therapies: Such as acupuncture, massage, laser, and physical therapy can be very helpful for decreasing pain and improving mobility in cats with arthritis and a host of other conditions. Talk to your veterinarian about referral to a certified veterinary rehabilitation specialist or acupuncturist.
  • Injectable medication: Adequan is one of the medications that has been successfully used “off label” in cats suffering from arthritis (and even bladder inflammation). Adequan is an injectable therapy licensed to help dogs with certain types of arthritis. It acts by helping to protect the cartilage within joints and helps to reduce inflammation. Cartilage is the thin, smooth layer of cells that covers the bony surfaces within joints. Healthy cartilage is necessary to prevent the painful “bone on bone” rubbing that characterizes degenerative arthritis. Talk with your veterinarian to see if “off label” use of Adequan injections might help your arthritic cat.
  • Stem cell therapy: While still in its infancy and while still needing further scientific research, stem cell therapy treatment does seem to be showing some promise for helping cats with arthritis (and perhaps a few other conditions). Depending on the extent of your cat’s mobility problems (and your finances — stem cell therapy often costs in the $1,500-2,500 range), this could be something worth researching and discussing with your veterinarian. (If you have pet insurance, some policies cover this type of treatment option, as well as some of the other options listed in this section.) You can see this recent Washington Post article and this wonderful synopsis of veterinary stem cell therapy on the Data For Good website.
  • Prescription medications: These often play an important role in pain management for mobility-restricted cats. The specific medications needed and the degree to which your cat might need and depend upon them is different in each situation, and will likely change over time and as some of the supplements and tips discussed above are added in.If you need help giving your cat a pill, check out these two articles for tips and suggestions. “Options for giving your pet a pill,” and “Chase the pill after you give it.”What is very important to note is that pain relieving medications should only be given to your cat under the guidance and recommendation of your veterinarian. Please — and I really cannot stress this enough — do not administer your own pain medications, or even “pet aspirin” to your cat without first speaking with your veterinarian. Many a well-intentioned cat owner has inadvertently injured their cat or complicated their care by administering over-the-counter or human-prescription medications to their cat. Please do not do this, always speak with your veterinarian first — even if you yourself are a M.D., D.O., R.N., or another human medical professional. See more here about why “self-prescribing” can be a dangerous practice.  

Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital (OVSH) has been serving the Portland and Beaverton area community since 1979. Drs. Steven F. Skinner (Neurology, Neurosurgery) and Robert T. Franklin (Internal medicine.) We welcome referrals from veterinarians all over the Pacific Northwest. Our goal is to help your pet regain health and live a long and happy life.

Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital

9339 SW Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy,
Beaverton, OR 97005.
Phone: 503.292.3001
Fax: 503.292.6808
Email: [email protected]