Understanding ‘creaky’ joints in cats

October 24, 2010

‚??Arthritis,‚?Ě ‚??osteoarthritis,‚?Ě ‚??degenerative joint disease‚?Ě ‚?? we‚??ve all heard the terms and most of us suffer from them daily. Unfortunately, so do our pets. My oldest, furry companion, Smokey, has been struggling with arthritic pain for many years. Unlike people and dogs, cats are extremely sensitive to pain medications thus limiting our options for making them more comfortable. So what can we do?

Let‚??s begin with what degenerative joint disease (DJD) is. Healthy joints have a layer of cartilage over the ends of the bones. Cartilage is cushiony, without nerve endings, and leaks fluid to make joint movement smooth and easy. Pets that suffer from DJD lose the cartilage, leaving underlying bone exposed. Bone is rough with many nerve endings, thus causing pain and irritation in the joint. As bones rub together, they also stimulate formation of little bony, spur-like growths, increasing the level of pain. This degenerative process will continue to progress and worsen over time.

Older cats are more prone to DJD due to the long term wear and tear on joints. The repetitive rubbing of cartilage together causes them to thin down and expose underlying bone. Hips and elbows are the joints most commonly affected. Trauma, fractures and congenital disorders can afflict younger pets with this debilitating disease as well.

Cats are masters of disguise and naturally hide their illnesses so most owners fail to recognize their pet is suffering from joint disease. The most obvious sign of DJD is a limp, especially right after getting up from a nap. You may also notice excessive licking or chewing at affected joints. Other signs include decreased appetite and activity or less jumping up on furniture. Some cats will also stop using the litter box if it‚??s too far to get to or difficult to get into.

As I mentioned, cats are sensitive to pain medications so treatment is focused on alternative therapies. The single most important and safest treatment is weight management. An additional pound or two on a cat is equivalent to 10 to 15 pounds of weight on you. Imagine yourself carrying the weight of a bowling ball on a painful joint ‚?? ouch. Talk to your veterinarian about dieting your pet with an appropriate food to promote weight loss.

Secondly, keep your cat moving. No one wants to walk on or use a painful joint, but lack of movement will set you up for failure in the long run. When bone sits on bone, they begin to fuse together thus decreasing the mobility of the joint and increasing pain. Encourage your cat to move with treats and games. When your cat lies down, do 10 reps of flexion and extension or range of motion exercises of the joints.

Give your cat nutritional joint supplements. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are the building blocks of cartilage and have been shown in studies to slow the progression of cartilage degradation as well as promote new cartilage growth. Omega 3 fatty acids may also be beneficial as they block the production of ‚??pain cells‚?Ě in arthritic joints.

Pain medications, such as non-steroidals and opiods, can be used for chronic pain but they come with the risk of kidney, liver or bleeding problems in cats. Some pain medications may also negatively affect the production of cartilage. Ultimately, their usage is dependent on the quality of life for the cat versus their risk of harm.

Surgery is rarely recommended unless a total hip replacement is indicated. Inflammation resulting from healing will be present and progress to more degenerative changes post-operatively. Acupuncture is another form of alternative therapy to consider. There is no solid evidence of its efficacy, but some cats have responded well after acupuncture therapy.

Feline degenerative joint disease is a common, painful condition in senior cats. While there is no cure, we can try to help them be as pain-free as possible. Smokey eats a restricted calorie diet for weight loss and receives Cosequin and fatty acid supplements daily. Most of his exercise involves running away from the dog or my toddler, but he does have soft, quiet areas to rest his joints. We also provide a large, shallow litter box and we don‚??t allow him to use stairs.

Smokey is 11 years old now and has been with me through thick and thin. He traveled with me through my college years and played the role of my guinea pig when I was a veterinary student. His companionship helped me through the most stressful time of my life. The least I can do for him now is to make the last few years of his life as comfortable as possible.

Dr. April Shattuck practices at Delphos Animal Hospital. She may be contacted at