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Vet Speak: Arthritis in cats is very common in later years but can be treated

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Arthritis is common in cats aged 10 and older.
Arthritis is common in cats aged 10 and older.

“Dumpling” was a lovely, ten-year-old Chocolate Burmese cat. She had always been an affectionate pet, happy to be petted and stroked while sleeping on the comfy lap of a family member.

She was brought to the clinic as she had recently been hiding from her family despite previously being very affectionate, and she was reluctant to jump onto her favourite “viewing” spots at the window. Also, she had been extremely grumpy, which was out of character.

On examinations. I noted that she was rather overweight. Also, she was immediately tender to examine particularly over her tail, head and spine.

I advised that she had some bloods, to rule out any underlying health concerns, and X-rays done under a safely monitored anaesthetic.

Dumpling’s blood tests were normal for her age and stage. However, her X-rays revealed that she had quite progressive osteoarthritic changes of her lower spine and hips, which was certainly making her feel painful, grumpy, and really quite miserable. Also, her excess weight was putting an extra strain on her joints.

Our pets are living much longer lives. However, with this sadly comes age-related chronic diseases, such as osteoarthritis, which sadly will affect 80 per cent of cats over the age of 10.

Cats are masters of disguise when it comes to hiding painful symptoms of osteoarthritis, and signs may be quite subtle.

They may become withdrawn, grumpy, and notably less agile. There may be a loss of appetite and a weight loss, or a weight gain due to inactivity. Often there are changes in their demeanour and depression. They can be lethargic and sleep a lot, have poor grooming habits and a matted coat. They may toilet outside the litter tray and be unable to jump on and off objects and not be present in their usual “viewing” places. They may be reluctant to venture outside, or to move from one comfortable spot. Also, they can be noisier, and aggressive or defensive when touched. Surprisingly, an obvious lameness is not commonly reported a clinical sign by cat owners.

Osteoarthritis is a condition that leads to pain and progressive deterioration of joints. It is a degenerative condition in which the normal protective cartilage “cushion” within the joint breaks down and a joint thickening and bony “spurs” form. These changes within the joint cause a decreased movement and pain. In cats, often the Xray changes in affected joints are usually more subtle. A noted thickening of the tissues around and inside the joints is a common finding on X-rays.

Cats, unlike most dogs, seem to quietly tolerate osteoarthritis due to their smaller size and natural agility. There is a point though, where it becomes obvious that there is some pain involved.

Read more: VET SPEAK: Follow dental and diet advice with your new puppies

Although osteoarthritis cannot be cured, it can be alleviated and managed on-going with a recommended treatment plan to ensure that your cat has a more pain free life. Anti-inflammatory and pain relief medications, and joint supplements are generally prescribed. Your vet will advise on treatment. This may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory treatments to reduce pain and inflammation, given as a daily oral medication. Or now, a monthly injection of a monoclonal antibody which prevents pain signals reaching the brain.

Cat specific joint supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and Omega 3, can also be used at the same time as prescription medicines, to slow down progression of osteoarthritis. There are also specialist prescription diets that can assist. Physiotherapy and acupuncture can be used in conjunction to relieve the symptoms. If you are interested in these, speak to your vet. NEVER give your cat any dog or human pain relief medications. Dog dosages will be different, and human pain killers can be extremely toxic to cats.

In addition, there are plenty of ways to help your cat cope with osteoarthritis at home. Provide a soft, padded, easily accessible bed. Orthopaedic memory foam beds, placed at ground level away from draughts, can be very comfortable. Also, a safe, pet heat-pad punder their bed can naturally help sooth your cat’s stiff joints. Use easily accessible, slightly raised food bowls. Avoid obesity! Keep your cat slim, even a little bit of extra weight puts more strain on your cat’s sore joints. Change your cat’s type of litter tray. A litter tray with low sides can make it much easier for your cat. Encourage gentle exercise within the home environment. You may also need to use a variety of cat ramps and steps to help your lovely, ageing cat reach their favourite places, .. such as your armchair!

Wee “Dumpling” was much more comfortable after her advised treatment.s, and she was put on an advised, strict, weight-management diet. She was monitored and managed long-term on the lowest effective dose of her daily non-steroidal treatment, along with additional joint supplements, and she was referred for regular acupuncture sessions.

Osteoarthritis is often a hidden disease in cats. By having more the awareness of it, and in knowing what common signs to look for, hopefully, with appropriate medications, supplements, weight management and some small adjustments made at home, we now can more readily ease the silent suffering of many older pet cats.

If your cat shows signs of osteoarthritis, call your vet.

– Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant at Crown Vets.

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