Cats are notoriously difficult critters to read when they’re sick. As a young veterinarian, probably nothing provoked anxiety in me more than peeking at the appointment book to find a cat “not doing well” or “not eating.” That could describe a cat who is just out of sorts for a bit (“He got a bad mouse,” my mom would say) or one on death’s door, and anything in between.
Of course, I had gone to veterinary school (unlike, as you may have guessed, my mom) and had at my disposal the skills and tools to figure out what was going on, or at least to sort the not-so-sick from the deathly ill and act accordingly. Still, there were times in those early days when I couldn’t help viewing cats as furry little black boxes.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that cats are hard to diagnose with arthritis. When I started studying pain management, I was a bit taken back to discover that experts now estimate the number of older cats with clinical arthritis to be between 75 and 90 percent! Signs can start as young as 6 or 7 years, and by the time cats reach about age 10, the vast majority will have some arthritis pain. Pet owners and veterinarians have a great opportunity to help cats enjoy their geriatric years more fully and comfortably.
Why is arthritis overlooked so frequently in cats?
It isn’t because we aren’t paying attention or don’t care. Here are some quirks of feline patients that make arthritis difficult to catch:
- Joint disease in cats often affects both limbs more or less equally, so more often than not, they don’t limp
- Cats instinctively mask their pain (this is an advantage in the wild if they’re vulnerable to predators)
- Cats are difficult to examine – they crouch on the exam table, hide their pain, cower away from the staff, and hate to be handled
- If x-rays are taken, they often look normal, even when there is significant disease in the joints
So if a cat with arthritis doesn’t limp, won’t react when a painful area is touched, and has normal x-rays, how on earth do we know she has arthritis?
The key, it turns out, is in her behavior.
Behavioral changes are the most reliable method of screening for arthritis in cats.
The most common clinical sign of feline arthritis is a decrease in how high they can jump. At home, you might observe that your cat is no longer raiding the kitchen counter, visiting certain locations in the house, or sleeping in his usual places (cats generally feel more secure up off the floor, the higher the better).
Other hints may include “missing” the litterbox by either going just outside the box, or in another area entirely; spending much more time sleeping; grooming herself less – you may notice your cat’s fur looks clumped or greasy instead of smooth and glossy, for example – or a decrease in appetite.
And of course any of these changes could also mean something else, so it’s best to check with your vet if you see them.
So let’s say you take your cat to the clinic because you notice one or more of these signs. He checks out fine, and routine diagnostics don’t reveal any problems. What to do?
Sometimes the only way to make a diagnosis is to go ahead and treat the cat for arthritis, and see if they improve. If he’s jumping to the top of the piano again, then his joints are probably feeling much better!
If you have an older cat, chances are they have at least some arthritis in one or more joints. Now you know what to look for and what to do about it. In partnership with your vet, you can help your feline companion enjoy a comfortable old age.