Reviewed and updated for accuracy on May 29, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
Senior cats have the highest risk for contracting osteoarthritis—a type of arthritis in cats that’s also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD).
Arthritis is the general medical term for inflammation of the joints, while osteoarthritis is the term that specifically refers to a form of chronic joint inflammation that is caused by deterioration of joint cartilage.
Osteoarthritis is defined as the progressive and permanent long-term deterioration of the cartilage surrounding the joints.
Symptoms of Cats With Osteoarthritis
Cats hide symptoms of illnesses, so you may not notice anything specific but rather that your cat is slowing down or doesn’t come up onto the bed anymore.
Cats with osteoarthritis are unlikely to exhibit typical signs of joint pain, like lameness (limping, favoring one leg), although a stiff-legged gait, decreased range of motion and increased irritability may be apparent.
But more likely is that your cat will start to have difficulty grooming, jumping onto furniture or accessing the litter box.
Osteoarthritis in cats does not have an immediate, severe impact. It is a slow deterioration; it will take a long time between the onset of DJD and when you can start seeing symptoms.
A cat with a history of trauma, or any other event that caused short-term limping or pain, is likely to develop DJD. Abnormal wear on joints and cartilage from a compromised gait—or a congenital defect present at birth, such as an improperly formed hip (also known as hip dysplasia)—leads to arthritis as well.
There is some evidence that declawing cats (amputation of the last knuckle of the toe) leads to DJD because it changes the way they walk, which can lead to more wear and tear on their joints.
Autoimmune diseases can also lead to osteoarthritis in cats. Though rare, proliferative periosteal polyarthritis (meaning arthritis at multiple sites) has been found in cats.
For some cats with severe arthritis, treating them for a possible underlying autoimmune disease can reduce their symptoms or slow progression of the disease. However, these types of diseases are rare in cats.
Obesity is another factor for DJD, as it increases stress on the joints. This is made worse as cats age and lose muscle.
Your veterinarian can diagnose osteoarthritis in cats by assessing the historical symptoms, such as decreased activity or stiffness. They will also do a physical examination to look for a decreased range of motion, stiff-legged gait, deformity of the joints, and swelling or pain in the joints.
Not all cats are cooperative for an orthopedic physical exam, so it is important to be able to describe the changes you have noticed. Your veterinarian may also recommend X-rays to confirm the extent of joint damage.
Medical treatment of DJD is designed to control the signs and symptoms of the osteoarthritis in cats, as this disease cannot be cured.
In some cases, surgery may help alleviate symptoms and slow the disease’s progression. This can include reconstructive procedures, joint removal or replacement, and the surgical removal of aggravating causes, such as bone or cartilage fragments in a joint.
Physical therapy designed to maintain or increase joint motion in cats is very beneficial and may be done with various motion exercises, swimming and massage. Exercise designed to strengthen muscle tone is also useful. The pain that comes with arthritis can be managed using cold and heat therapy.
Long-term prescription pet medication may also be helpful in reducing joint swelling and joint pain in cats with DJD. Anti-inflammatory drugs, for example, are often recommended.
A series of injections with a pain relief medicine called Adequan may help slow the process of degeneration and improve function. Stem cell therapies are also available and have shown promise in early testing.
Weight loss for those cats who need it will also reduce the severity of symptoms.
Living and Management
Continue to monitor your cat’s symptoms, as osteoarthritis is likely to progress with time.
A change in medication or dosage, or additional physical rehabilitation exercises, may become necessary. Limit physical activity to a level that will not aggravate the symptoms.
In addition, a diet that’s high in omega fatty acids (or a fish oil supplement) is often recommended for decreasing inflammation.
Prompt treatment of DJD is an important part of reducing the disease’s progression of symptoms. Exercise and a healthy diet are essential for the prevention of obesity, which can add stress to the joints. Not declawing cats can also help slow or prevent DJD.
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