Cats can be very good at hiding their true feelings, and particularly so if they are disguising what may be perceived as a weakness or illness.
In recent years, we have discovered that somewhere between 60% and 90% of cats over the age of 12 years have arthritis. And although this may be obvious when we look at their X-rays, it isn’t always obvious from watching the cat.
Once you are aware that there is a high chance that your older cat could have arthritis, you may like to be observant for the tell-tale signs.
Spending longer resting or sleeping. This is an easy way for the cat to restrict their ‘exercise’.
Sleeping in an unusual place. This could be because their usual place would involve jumping up on to a surface or climbing into something high-sided, which has become too difficult for them.
A tufty, scurfy or matted coat. Cats spend a lot of their time grooming and keeping their coats in perfect condition, but will cut down on their grooming time if their neck or back feels stiff and sore.
Long claws that get stuck in carpets and blankets. Once a cat becomes arthritic, they will spend less time climbing fences and will also use their scratching posts less, so their nails will often become long and straggly.
Grumpiness. This is a side effect of feeling sore, and may be at its worst if the owner tries to stroke or groom their pet over the sore areas.
Slow or awkward movements. This can be particularly noticeable when they are trying to jump up or down, or go up and down stairs; however, it can also be spotted when they are getting in or out of the litter tray or going through the cat-flap.
Arthritis in cats is usually ‘osteoarthritis’ (the ‘wear-and-tear’ type) rather than ‘rheumatoid arthritis’ (related to the immune system). It is a degenerative condition, and will progress. Although we can’t change this, we can aim to reduce the speed of progression, and certainly to relieve the symptoms.
Management of arthritis includes altering your cat’s environment at home to take into account their reduced mobility – for example, putting their bed on a lower surface, or making steps up to where they would like to rest. Cutting one edge of the litter tray down can make it easier for them to step in and out, and siting their food and water in an accessible place can help reduce how often they need to jump and climb. Providing thick bedding somewhere warm will reduce stiffness and discomfort.
Grooming your cat or removing the matts with clippers (never scissors!) will keep their skin healthier. Food supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, have been formulated specifically for cats, as have a number of diets that contain them. It is important to keep an arthritic cat from becoming overweight, as this can make the signs worse.
If your cat is stiff and uncomfortable, speak to your vet about your concerns. X-rays are sometimes recommended to give a definite diagnosis. In addition to what you can do at home, it may be worth considering anti-inflammatory pain relief. This is often given as a liquid medication to avoid the trauma of giving pills to cats! It is generally well tolerated, although of course you would need to speak to your vet about whether it is suitable for your cat.