Don’t Let Arthritis Slow Your Cat Down! Detecting Feline Arthritis & Joint Disease
Pepper liked to jump. And, unlike my other cats, Pepper jumped with grace and beauty—as well as a good deal of planning. My fat yellow Tom, Lothario, an advocate of leaping before looking, often missed his target completely or skidded across the side of a low table.
But, Pepper's jumps were a thing of beauty. She'd stand on her tiny hind-paws to assess the distance and height and then with one seemingly effortless leap she'd land on a table or bureau without so much as clicking of her claws. But, one day Pepper stopped jumping. It seemed sudden. Pepper no longer tried to jump on the bureau or the table and to get up on the bed she'd first climb onto the chest sitting at its foot—something she'd never deign to do in the past. She seemed happy, but she didn't jump and on rainy days she'd lay in her heated cozy cushion instead of running around the house peering out the windows with the rest of the cats.
But, Pepper was much older than any of my other kitties. At almost twenty, she was the undisputed Queen of my feline pack. And, due to Pepper's Siamese heritage, unlike many older cats, she was still very slim—weighing in at a delicate six and one-half pounds. I suspected that Pepper's age and activity had finally caught up with her and that she had developed osteoarthritis. And, x-rays and a veterinary examination confirmed that Pepper indeed had arthritis in her front paw. No doubt, she had been jumped less over time and I had just failed to notice it until she stopped jumping altogether. Pepper, a very proud cat, was well-known in our family for hiding any problems—from sneezing to an upset stomach. And, she was an absolute terror when it came to administering medicine—especially in the dreaded pill form.
Osteoarthritis, the form of the degenerative joint disease affecting Pepper, is caused by the gradual breakdown of the protective cartilage that covers the ends of the joints. There is no real cure for this progressive disease—although there are several ways to slow its progress. Approximately 25-30% of family pets suffer from osteoarthritis and it is relatively common in the human population as well. This particular form of arthritis is usually seen in older cats (and dogs,) but can occur in middle-aged animals that are highly active. Obesity in pets is often a contributing factor, but Pepper was a very small cat and had maintained the same weight throughout her life.
Once x-rays had confirmed the vet's initial diagnosis, Pepper was prescribed an initial steroid injection and an ongoing regime of glucosamine and chondroitin. I also switched her senior care pet food to a brand with added Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, as well as glucosamine. Because Pepper hated taking pills, I began mixing her glucosamine and chondroitin capsules in water and then either adding them to cat-milk or water. Pepper was suspicious at first, but once she saw that I was mixing the capsules and not actually planning to feed them to her, she settled down.
Since NSAIDS are dangerous for cats, I turned to heat therapy to control Pepper's discomfort. Pepper already had a heated bed, but I purchased a heating pad to put under her favorite perch as well as a heated disc (that could be reheated in the microwave and slipped under her when she wasn't sitting near an electrical outlet.) I invested in a book on cat massage, which Pepper enjoyed greatly. And, I purchased several pet steps so that Pepper could more easily reach the bed and the window sills.
While my cocker-spaniel, Lady had been recovering from her ACL injury, she had used water therapy. But, since Pepper hated even the smallest sprinkle, water therapy wasn't a possibility for her. My Maine Coon, Tig, enjoys swimming, as do some cats, and I suppose that water therapy might be a good alternative therapy for water-loving kitties with joint problems. Luckily, massage and heat worked wonders for Pepper. And, after three weeks she was jumping again on a limited basis. She would jump onto the couch, the cedar chest, and low chairs. The vet told me that it usually took two to three weeks' time, and sometimes as long as four weeks, for the results of glucosamine and chondroitin therapy to be visible. Although Pepper lived for three more years (to the age of twenty-three,) and her limp lessened until it was only visible during the rainiest days in winter, she never fully resumed her jumping routine.
Because Pepper suffered from osteoarthritis and because of her age, surgery was not an option for her. However, cats suffering from secondary (traumatic) arthritis are candidates for surgery and more aggressive treatment. This type of arthritis is caused by trauma to the joint and chronic sprains. Cats involved in severe falls or car accidents often suffer this type of arthritis. It can also be identified positively by x-ray and treated by heat and water therapy, massage, and glucosamine, and chondroitin, as well as arthroplasty procedures, such as hip replacements. Arthrodesis or permanently freezing of a joint is sometimes used when a joint is particularly unstable. Your vet can provide you with a range of options depending on your cat's type of arthritis, age, and activity.
Although the prognosis for cats with joint disease is good, in most situations you can expect to see a slow progression of the disease with time. This is especially true with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, a rare autoimmune condition in cats that can strike at any age and causes degeneration in the joints and tissues. Symptoms for all types of arthritis include reduced motion, limping or favoring one side of the body, general lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, and reluctance to climb and jump. If your cat is not very active, then it may be very difficult to evaluate lessened activity. Pepper was always a very active cat and her change in activity was noticeable. Some of my other kitties are much less active—literally lying on cushions for hours and mewing when moved—so diagnosing a decrease in activity would be very difficult in their cases. And, cats, who are such proud animals, are notorious for hiding their pain.
If you have an older feline, your vet will usually include a joint assessment during his (or her) geriatric check-up. However, Pepper's geriatric exams didn't reveal any problems—only x-rays confirmed her joint deterioration. On the other hand, Lady, my dog, clearly had a leg injury and which was easily diagnosed. The x-rays confirmed the ACL tear that the vet had already determined. Dogs, unlike cats, are usually upfront with their pain. When Lady injured her leg during a jump, she immediately sought me out and tried to "tell" me that something was wrong with her. Cats often behave in a completely opposite manner. They hide when they are in pain. They seek the dark and want to be alone. If there is any change in your cat's behavior for more than a day or two, it is always best to visit your veterinarian. Although Pepper's problem, osteoarthritis, was manageable and not unexpected in a cat of her years, any indication of pain in a pet should not be ignored.
Pepper was able to live with osteoarthritis for three years with only a slight change in her routine. She took glucosamine and chondroitin daily for the rest of her life and continued heat and massage therapy. Lady, whose ACL injury healed completely in a few months, still takes glucosamine and chondroitin tablets and has to restrict her activity. So far, she had not developed any arthritis as a rest of her leg injury, but the vet has warned me that it wouldn't be unusual for her to develop some joint problems with her previously injured leg as she ages.
Arthritis, though less common in cats than in dogs, is a growing problem as our pets live longer lives. Just as arthritis is more common in older humans, it also develops more frequently in older pets. So, if you have an older cat (or dog,) keep a sharp eye for changes in their behavior. Make sure that they stay slim—no easy task. And, you might want to start them on glucosamine and chondroitin supplements on a lesser preventive dose just in case. No one likes to think that their pet is getting older, but your pet can grow old with grace. Pepper lived a long life with relatively few health problems. She died a month before her twenty-third birthday. Lady will be seventeen in August and has luckily had few health problems. Aging pets need special care and osteoarthritis is definitely a big problem in their population. But, with your vigilance and good care, your pet can live a very long, healthy, and active life.