As vets and as owners we are very aware of osteoarthritis (OA) in dogs. However, recognition of this condition in cats is often a lot later in the piece than in their canine counterparts. In recent years we have hugely improved in our diagnosis and subsequent treatment of OA and we have also recognized that because pets are living for longer, they develop ‘geriatric’ diseases. OA is one of these diseases and it is a degenerative and progressive joint condition.
It is often very difficult to diagnose OA because cats are usually very tolerant to pain and even at the best of times cats resent examination at the vet clinic (making identification and localization of pain very difficult for vets!). This being said, diagnosis is often made based on owner observation and treatment trials with painkillers. Unlike dogs, cats frequently do not tend to have a reduced range of motion or a grinding/crunching feel and sound to the joint. Clinical signs in cats are a lot more discrete – thus the term ‘silent sufferer’. Signs like weight loss, change in demeanor, poor grooming habits, lethargy/depression, inability or reluctance to jump, limping, and toileting outside the litter tray are noted. A cat with OA can have all or even just one of these clinical signs.
The process involves the breakdown of the cartilage that covers the bones inside a joint. This eventually results in bone on bone contact and causes pain in the affected joint. The good news is we can help alleviate pain and slow the progression; the bad news is that we cannot cure OA. Management options include weight-loss if affected cats are overweight, environmental adjustments (e.g soft bedding, extra warmth in colder months, litter trays with lower sides, and elevated bowls), pain relief and joint supplements. Our main aim is to safely improve the quality of life for our feline companions. In order to do this, we often have to implement more than one of the aforementioned options whilst also considering potential side effects.
The majority of arthritic cats are old and therefore we need to be even more aware of complications of medication. The use of anti-inflammatory pain relief is certainly not without side effects, more so with chronic use. Kidney, liver and gastro-intestinal integrity are the main parameters to assess and monitor when non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are used. Whilst they are great to help reduce pain, the ideal scenario is where we only use the lowest effective dose and only as needed. Some cats with OA need it daily but we do need to still aim for the lowest dose we can effectively give. With this in mind, the concurrent use of joint supplements frequently help to reduce the need for pain relief. There are many joint supplements out there and personally my favourite options are the Royal Canin Mobility diet, Pentosan/Atrophen injections and cat-pep.
Finally, if your elderly cat is just ‘slowing down’ and you think it is a normal aging process – do not be fooled, as your cat may be one of the hundreds of cats silently suffering. This is why yearly health checks are important especially for older cats, because the earlier we identify OA, the more effectively we can manage it.