Pain And Arthritis In Cats

Different studies have shown that a large percentage, (90% by age 12 in one study) of cats have some degree of degenerative joint disease or arthritis. A significant percentage (45%) of these cats show clinical signs. Arthritis can be seen in cats as young as 2 years and the percentage goes up above 90% when cats reach the elderly stage (17 years and over). Cats also react differently to the chronic pain associated with arthritis than do people and dogs. Pain in cats can be classified as adaptive (acute) or maladaptive (chronic as in arthritis). Adaptive pain (nociceptive and inflammatory) is easily treated and goes away even without treatment. Maladaptive (functional and neuropathic) gets worse over time and is much more complicated, and can lead to behavioral problems in the cat. It’s also more involved in that it causes changes in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), lowering the pain threshold to the point that even blowing across the body can be uncomfortable. These cats can react to petting by trying to bite or by moving away. According to recent studies, only around 7% are being treated. Zoetis has developed a simple six question questionnaire that cat caretakers can take on line to see if their cat is showing signs of chronic arthritis pain: It only takes a short time to complete and would be worthwhile even if your cat is young. 

The problem we have in the United States is that there are no medications approved for use in the cat that can really help long term. In Europe NSAIDs have been used for several years but only Onsior is approved for short term use in cats in the USA. Injectable Adequan, although not approved for use in the cat, may be helpful and can be given by the cat mom or dad at home. 

An additional complicating factor is anxiety, which can make the pain worse. Since cats are extremely self-protective, they are easily stressed by any changes to their environment. Some minor changes, however, can be helpful. Raising the food and water bowls, using low profile litter boxes with no cover and if tolerated, helping with grooming. Low profile litter boxes should be placed in the middle of a wall instead of in a corner. This can be very beneficial to the elderly cat with arthritis because he/she won’t have to turn around to walk out. Also, reconsider using the “green” litters as they can be very uncomfortable for older cats to walk on in the box. I recommend a non-scented, soft on the feet litter instead. It’s also important to know that soiling outside of the litter box is often associated with a covered litter box, scented litter, uncomfortable litter and boxes with a high entry. Litter boxes are not made for the cat; they are made for people. Young cats have no problem, but old cats don’t deal well with any of the above and will soil where they wouldn’t before. It’s also important to make sure the cat has an easy way off (and on) the bed or anything where they have to jump to get onto. Flooring (hardwood, tile and laminate) can also be problematic for the elderly cat with arthritis and/or neurologic weakness in the rear limbs.

Obese cats can look like they are mobility impaired, but the Zoetis check list should help to determine if arthritis is a problem. It’s worthwhile to know that fat is an excellent source for inflammatory products in the body, so weight loss is a good thing. 

Arthritis can be a significant problem for any cat over two years of age. Recognition and being proactive can be important in helping your cat to be more comfortable in its twilight years. If your veterinarian is amenable to dispensing low dose NSAIDs, they can be helpful and only need to be given every 2-3 days. In the not too distant future, monoclonal antibodies and anti nerve growth factor (NGF – Solenzia in Europe) are products that may prove to be just what the cat ordered in years to come.