If your cat no longer jumps up like he or she once did there may be a good reason - osteoarthritis. A chronic, degenerative joint disease that makes movement difficult and painful, osteoarthritis mainly strikes pets in their middle and senior years. However, younger animals can also be affected. In fact, studies show that approximately 20% of dogs have the condition in some form and, even though they are less prone to show obvious signs, cats tend to be better at disguising signs of illness or pain and also suffer from it.
It can be heartbreaking to see your once lively, always active cat begin to limp, or notice his or her obvious pain when moving around. There is no cure for osteoarthritis. However, if it is treated promptly, there is a great deal that you and your veterinary surgeon can do to decrease your pet's discomfort and increase his or her mobility.
Early warning signs of osteoarthritis
- Difficulty in walking, climbing stairs, jumping up or getting in and out of the litter box
- An overall decrease in activity, especially play
- Resting more than usual
- Slowness in getting up from a lying position
- Failing to groom themselves or eating less, with a resulting loss of weight
- Slow or stiff movements upon waking, after a rest, or in cold weather
- Beginning to limp
- Swollen joint(s) that is/are warm to the touch and have a limited or painful range of movement
- Licking or biting at a joint
- Personality change - your pet no longer likes to be touched or played with
If you notice any of the signs above, don't just think that your pet is "slowing down with age". Take him or her to see your vet! The faster osteoarthritis is first diagnosed and treated, the better your pet's quality of life will be.
What causes osteoarthritis?
There are many causes, but practically all can be grouped into two main categories:
Abnormal stress on normal joints
- An injury that damages a joint.
- "Wear and tear": joints are subjected to repeated loads or stress.
- Obesity: an excessive load is put on joints.
Normal stress on abnormal joints
- Developmental defects that alter the shape or stability of a joint.
- Poor limb configuration: bow legs or knock knees can cause an uneven load on a joint.
- Genetic predisposition: some breeds may be more prone to osteoarthritis than others.
Hip dysplasia: Normal stresses on a dysplastic (malformed)joint will lead to arthritis.
Whatever the specific cause, stress on a joint can begin a destructive cycle of inflammation of the joint area and damage to the cartilage that leads to pain for your pet.
How is osteoarthritis treated?
- Weight control Dogs or cats that suffer from chronic pain caused by conditions like osteoarthritis often become inactive, which can result in obesity. Controlling your pet's weight will lighten the load on arthritic joints and make it less difficult to move around. Just as for humans, weight loss for animals involves both a well-balanced, calorie-reduced diet and regular exercise. Ask your veterinary surgeon for advice on the proper diet for your dog or cat.
- Exercise is essential because it contributes to strengthening the muscles that support joints. Daily, moderate amounts of low-impact exercise also improves joint mobility and can help get a lethargic, arthritic pet active again. Dogs will benefit from such activities as walking and swimming; cats can profit from play that keeps them moving without excessive jumping. Consult your veterinary surgeon about what amount and type of exercise would be best for your pet. Also, be aware that your dog or cat's osteoarthritic pain may be more severe at certain times than others. If this is the case, let your pet take a break from his or her exercise routine for a few days, until the painful flare-up subsides.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs combat inflammation in the joints, thus relieving pain, increasing mobility, and protecting the joint from further damage. As joint pain may vary according to the amount of exercise, the weather or season, or for other, unknown factors, your veterinary surgeon may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) as treatment. Cats have a reputation for severe and sometimes disastrous side effects for many anti-inflammatory drugs shown that are prescribed for humans and dogs. NEVER give anti-inflammatory drugs designed and/or prescribed for use in other species with out proper veterinary advice. Paracetamol is particularly toxic to cats. Some newer NSAID drugs are safer for cats but even then for long term use the dose will need to be tapered to the lowest effective dose. Such modern preparations formulated for cats can prove to be especially effective in reducing inflammation and pain to improve mobility without a major risk of the significant side effects - including gastrointestinal problems - previously associated with NSAID use. Ask your veterinary surgeon for more information.
In addition to the above, your veterinary surgeon may also suggest physical therapy, cold or hot packs and baths, massage or acupuncture as well as glucosamine/chondroitin diet supplements as an aid to maintaining joint health. In occasional cases surgery may also be considered to be indicated to achieve the best outcome.
What's the outlook for a pet with osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis may progress very slowly (over several years) or very quickly (you might notice a major change in just a few weeks or months). It all depends on your pet's age, his or her activity level, the joints involved and the underlying cause. Some pets' pain and loss of mobility can be kept to a minimum for long periods of time with a simple regimen of weight control, moderate, regular exercise and the occasional use of anti-inflammatory drugs if flare-ups occur. For others, severe damage to the joints may occur rapidly and require long-term medication and other therapy. In either case, your veterinary surgeon can determine the best course of treatment for your pet's particular condition. There is no reason why, with your loving attention and committed care, as well as your veterinary surgeon's guidance, your osteoarthritic pet cannot have a happy, healthy and comfortable life for many years to come.