Understanding Cat Arthritis

Understanding Cat Arthritis

Posted by Lianne McLeod D.V.M. on

Understanding Cat Arthritis

Arthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, is a common yet often under-recognized condition in cats. This ailment, particularly prevalent in older cats, involves the deterioration of joint cartilage and the development of new bone formations, leading to painful joints and chronic pain.

This article will cover the nature of arthritis in cats, the signs and symptoms, diagnostic methods, and various treatment options, including pain relief, weight management, physical therapy, and more.

do cats get arthritis, too?

Understanding Arthritis in Cats

What is Cat Arthritis?

Cat arthritis, or feline osteoarthritis, is a progressive condition characterized by the degeneration of cartilage within one or more joints, leading to inflammation and pain. The condition can affect any joint but is most commonly diagnosed in the hip joints, knees, elbows, and spine. Over time, the joint's cartilage wears down, and new bone formations, known as osteophytes, can develop, contributing to the stiffness and discomfort experienced by affected cats.

Causes of Arthritis in Cats

Below are some of the primary causes of arthritis in cats:


As cats age, the wear and tear on their joints over time can lead to the breakdown of cartilage and the development of arthritis. Most cats develop some degree of arthritis as they become geriatric, typically around the age of 12 years and older. This natural degeneration process is a common cause of arthritis in older cats.


Certain breeds of cats are more predisposed to developing arthritis due to genetic factors. For instance, breeds like Maine Coons, Scottish Folds, and Siamese cats have higher incidences of joint-related issues, including hip dysplasia and patellar luxation. These genetic predispositions can lead to the early onset of arthritis.


Obesity is a significant risk factor for arthritis in cats. Overweight cats carry extra weight that puts additional stress on their joints, particularly the hips and knees. This added strain can accelerate the wear and tear on the cartilage, leading to the development and progression of arthritis. Overweight cats are also less likely to be active, which can further exacerbate joint stiffness and pain.

Joint Injury

Previous injuries to a cat's joints can result in arthritis. Traumatic events such as fractures, dislocations, or severe sprains can damage the cartilage and joint structure. Even after the initial injury has healed, the affected joint may develop secondary osteoarthritis due to the lingering effects of the trauma.

Joint Abnormalities

Congenital or developmental abnormalities in the joints can lead to arthritis. Conditions like hip dysplasia, where the hip joint does not fit together properly, can cause abnormal wear and tear on the joint. Similarly, patellar luxation, where the kneecap dislocates, can lead to chronic joint instability and arthritis.


Chronic inflammation within the joints can be both a cause and a consequence of arthritis. Inflammatory joint diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or immune-mediated polyarthritis, can directly cause the breakdown of cartilage and lead to arthritis. Additionally, inflammation resulting from other systemic diseases can contribute to the development of arthritis in affected felines.


Although less common, infections within the joints (septic arthritis) can lead to arthritis. Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections that reach the joint space can cause severe inflammation and damage to the cartilage and bone. Even after the infection is cleared, the residual damage can result in chronic arthritis.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Poor nutrition, particularly during the developmental stages of a cat's life, can affect joint health. Deficiencies in essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can impair the development and maintenance of healthy cartilage. Ensuring a balanced diet with adequate nutritional support is crucial for preventing joint problems.

Excessive Physical Activity

While regular exercise is beneficial for joint health, excessive physical activity, particularly high-impact activities, can lead to joint injuries and the subsequent development of arthritis. Activities that involve repetitive stress on the joints, such as jumping from great heights, can cause microtrauma that accumulates over time, leading to arthritis.

Secondary Arthritis

This condition develops as a result of other underlying conditions affecting the joints. For instance, cats with hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or other orthopedic conditions are at increased risk of developing secondary arthritis due to the abnormal mechanics and stress placed on the joints.

understanding arthritis in cats

Clinical Signs of Arthritis in Cats

Cats with arthritis may exhibit a range of clinical signs that can vary in severity. Some of the most common signs include:

Decreased Mobility

Arthritic cats often show reluctance or difficulty in performing activities that require physical exertion:

  • Jumping: Cats may be unwilling or unable to jump onto furniture or countertops.

  • Stairs: Difficulty climbing up or down stairs can be a noticeable sign.

  • Litter Box: Some cats may avoid using the litter box if it has high sides or is located in an area that requires jumping or climbing.


Lameness or limping is a direct indication of joint pain. Affected cats may favor one limb over another, particularly after periods of rest.

Behavioral Changes

Behavioral alterations due to chronic pain can include:

  • Irritability: Cats may become more irritable or aggressive when handled.

  • Withdrawal: A normally social cat might become more reclusive, avoiding interaction with family members.

Decreased Grooming

Cats with painful joints may have difficulty grooming themselves, leading to:

  • Matted Fur: Unkempt or matted fur, especially around the back and hindquarters.

  • Overgrown Claws: Reduced activity and grooming can result in overgrown claws.

Weight Gain

Due to decreased activity levels, an arthritic cat may gain weight, which can further stress the joints.

Changes in Posture

Many cats with arthritis tend to adopt unusual postures to alleviate pain, including:

  • Hunched Back: A hunched or arched back can indicate discomfort.

  • Stiff Gait: A stiff or stilted gait when walking.

Difficulty Rising

Some cats may have trouble getting up from a lying or sitting position, often showing stiffness or hesitation.

how do you know your cat has arthritis?

Diagnosis of Arthritis in Cats

Accurate diagnosis of arthritis in cats involves a combination of thorough clinical examination, diagnostic imaging, and sometimes laboratory tests. A thorough approach ensures that other conditions mimicking arthritis symptoms are ruled out.

Thorough Physical Examination

A veterinarian will conduct a comprehensive physical exam, focusing on:

  • Mobility Assessment: Observing the cat's movement, gait, and ability to jump or climb.

  • Palpation of Joints: Feeling the joints for swelling, heat, and pain, and assessing the range of motion.

  • Muscle Condition: Evaluating muscle mass, especially around the affected joints, since muscle atrophy can signify disuse due to pain.

Diagnostic Imaging

Imaging techniques are crucial for visualizing the internal structure of joints and confirming the presence of arthritis:

  • Radiographs (X-rays): X-rays can reveal radiographic signs of arthritis such as joint space narrowing, the presence of osteophytes (bone spurs), and bone remodeling.

  • Advanced Imaging: In some cases, advanced imaging techniques like MRI or CT scans may be used to provide detailed images of the joint structures, particularly if soft tissue involvement is suspected.

Laboratory Tests

While not always necessary for diagnosing arthritis, laboratory tests can help rule out other conditions and assess overall health:

  • Blood Tests: These can identify underlying systemic conditions that might contribute to joint pain, such as infections or inflammatory diseases.

  • Joint Fluid Analysis: In some cases, analyzing the synovial fluid (fluid within the joint) can help diagnose specific types of arthritis, such as septic arthritis or immune-mediated arthritis.

Client-Specific Outcome Measures

Veterinarians may use standardized assessment tools to evaluate the severity of arthritis and measure pain relief:

  • Pain Scales: Tools such as the Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Index (FMPI) can help quantify the cat's pain levels and functional impairment.

  • Behavioral Observations: Owners may be asked to keep a diary of their cat's behaviors and mobility, noting any changes or patterns that indicate pain.

Retrospective Radiological Study

Comparing current X-rays with previous ones can help assess the progression of the disease. This retrospective approach is useful in chronic cases to understand the rate at which arthritis is advancing.

Physical Exam by Specialists

In some cases, referral to a specialist such as a veterinary orthopedic surgeon or a veterinary physiotherapist may be necessary for a more detailed examination and diagnosis.

following up after diagnosis of cat arthritis


Monitoring and Follow-Up

Regular veterinary check-ups are essential to monitor the progression of arthritis and the effectiveness of the treatment plan. Adjustments to the treatment protocol may be needed based on the cat's response and any changes in clinical signs.

The primary goals of treatment are to alleviate pain, improve joint function, and enhance the overall quality of life for the affected cat. Here are some comprehensive treatment options:

Appropriate Management and Medications

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs are commonly used to reduce inflammation and pain. However, not all cats tolerate NSAIDs well, and long-term use requires careful monitoring by a veterinarian to avoid potential side effects such as gastrointestinal issues and kidney damage.

Other Medications

  • Analgesics: Medications like gabapentin and tramadol can be prescribed to manage chronic pain. These drugs are particularly useful for neuropathic pain and can be used alongside NSAIDs.

  • Corticosteroids: In some cases, corticosteroids may be used for their potent anti-inflammatory effects, though their use is generally limited due to potential side effects with long-term use.

Nutritional Supplement

  • Glucosamine and Chondroitin: These dietary supplements help support cartilage health and repair.

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids help reduce any inflammation and support joint health.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Laser Therapy

Low-level laser therapy can reduce pain and inflammation, stimulate cell repair, and enhance blood flow to the affected areas.

Massage and Stretching

Gentle massage and stretching exercises can help maintain joint flexibility, improve blood circulation, and reduce stiffness.


Water-based exercises, such as swimming or underwater treadmill sessions, provide a low-impact way to strengthen muscles and improve joint mobility without putting additional stress on the joints.

treatment of feline arthritis


Weight Management and Diet

Weight Reduction Diets

Special diets formulated for weight loss can help obese cats shed excess pounds, reducing the strain on their joints. These diets are typically lower in calories and higher in fiber to promote satiety.

Regular Exercise

Encouraging moderate, regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight and improve joint health. Activities should be low-impact to avoid exacerbating joint pain.

Nutritional Support

  • Antioxidants: Diets rich in antioxidants can help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the joints.

  • Joint Support Diets: Some commercial diets are specifically formulated to support joint health, containing added glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Adjunctive Therapy

Physical Rehabilitation

Structured rehabilitation programs tailored to the cat’s specific needs can enhance mobility and reduce pain. Techniques may include range-of-motion exercises, strength training, and balance exercises.


Acupuncture can help alleviate pain and improve overall well-being by stimulating specific points in the body to release natural pain-relieving substances.

Therapeutic Ultrasound

Therapeutic ultrasound can be used to heat deep tissues, improve blood flow, and reduce pain and muscle spasms.

advanced treatment of arthritis in cats

Advanced Treatment Options

Joint Replacement

In severe cases of arthritis, surgical joint replacement may be considered. This involves replacing the damaged joint with an artificial one, which can provide significant pain relief and improve function.

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cell therapy is an emerging treatment that involves injecting stem cells into the affected joint to promote the regeneration of damaged tissues and reduce inflammation.

Surgical Interventions

  • Arthroscopy: Minimally invasive surgery to clean out the joint and remove any debris or loose cartilage.

  • Joint Fusion (Arthrodesis): This procedure fuses the joint in a fixed position to eliminate pain caused by movement, typically used for severely damaged joints.


the bottom line on arthritis for cats


The Bottom Line

Managing arthritis, a degenerative joint disease in cats, requires a multifaceted approach encompassing various treatment plans. By addressing pain relief through medications like NSAIDs and analgesics, incorporating physical therapy, and focusing on weight management and nutritional support, veterinarians and pet owners can significantly improve the quality of life for cats suffering from this ailment. With proper care, many arthritic cats can lead fulfilling lives, maintaining mobility and comfort despite their condition.



  1. Williams, K., & Yuill, C. (n.d.). Degenerative joint disease in cats. VCA Animal Hospitals. Retrieved from https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/degenerative-joint-disease-in-cats#:~:text=What%20is%20degenerative%20joint%20disease,or%20more%20of%20the%20joints

  2. Klinck, M. P., Frank, D., Guillot, M., & Troncy, E. (2012). Owner-perceived signs and veterinary diagnosis in 50 cases of feline osteoarthritis. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 53(11), 1181–1186. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3474573/

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2021, October 7). Osteoarthritis in cats: More common than you think. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/osteoarthritis-cats-more-common-you-think

  4. Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. (n.d.). Arthritis management and prevention. Retrieved from https://vetmedbiosci.colostate.edu/vth/services/orthopedic-medicine/arthritis-management-and-prevention/

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Lianne McLeod, DVM, is a former writer for The Spruce Pets, contributing articles for 11 years. Before Dr. McLeod began writing about pet care, she worked several years in small animal practice. She has written extensively about the care and keeping of exotic pets and pet health care. She now researches water quality and chronic disease at the University of Saskatchewan. Lianne McLeod earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She also received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Simon Fraser University. She continued her education and received a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Now, she splits her time between her family, research and writing about pet health for all the animal lovers out there.

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