Old cats get arthritis, just like dogs and humans do too
My fifteen year old cat Sushi recently became slower to move around, and she started to sleep more than usual. At the same time, she began to walk less smoothly: you might say that she bumps along, rather than gliding like a healthy cat. She's stopped grooming herself too: she's taken to developing matted fur along her lower back and underside, so that I need to clip this off from time to time.
The cause of what's going on? She has arthritis. You might be surprised to discover that this is common in older cats.
Most readers are aware that elderly dogs often suffer from arthritis: this is the reason why older animals tend to be slow to stand up after sleeping, and why they sometimes plod along after their owners during walks. A range of joints can be affected, including elbows, shoulders, knees and hips. Once the vet has made this diagnosis, there are a number of possible treatments, with the most common being a daily anti-inflammatory tablet or liquid. Many older dogs have their lives directly extended thanks to this treatment: their owners discover that their dog was not "just getting old", and with the medication, a spring can be put back into their step.
Arthritis is easier to diagnose in dogs, because they tend to be more closely involved with their owners compared to cats. We take dogs for walks, so we can see clearly when they are hobbling or lame.
In contrast, cats tend to do their own thing, and when they are unwell in any way, they adapt their activity to cover up if they have a problem. That's why Sushi started to sleep more than usual: it was uncomfortable for her to walk and run around. And without watching her very closely, it would be difficult for me to notice that she was spending less time grooming herself. So it is very common for owners to be unaware that their pet cats are suffering from arthritis.
Arthritis is defined as inflammation of the joints. These days, different terms are usually used to describe the disease. Osteo-arthritis is more accurate: this means inflammation of the bones and joints, which is what is actually happening to the animal. Another term is degenerative joint disease - or DJD - which explains how the disease starts and progresses.
That's the main issue here: as with dogs, the wear and tear of daily activity gradually damages the joints, causing their surface to change from a smooth, non-stick frying pan finish to a pitted, rough surface like the base of an old, burnt, cast iron pot. When you move an arthritic joint, it creaks, like a rusty hinge, rather than moving in a friction-free, smooth way.
There are three problems for arthritic cats: first, the joints and bones are painful when they move. Second, the joints are stiff, so it's more difficult to flex and extend them. And third, the muscles around the joints become weaker, because the cat starts to take less exercise. This is a vicious circle: the less the cat does, the weaker they become, yet the stiffer the joints get, the more muscle strength is needed to move them.
If you suspect that your cat has arthritis, it's best to go to the vet to have this confirmed. Vets start by physically examining the cat. When I examined Sushi, I found that she had painful shoulders and hips: when I manipulated them, she miaowed and struggled. Sometimes joints feel roughened and swollen too, and often there's a reduced range of motion, again, like trying to open and close a door with a rusty hinge.
If vets suspect arthritis, they'll often recommend taking x-rays. These allow you to clearly see the outline of the bones and joints: in arthritis, the contours become roughened and irregular, with new bone being laid down around the worn and torn parts. When I x-rayed Sushi, I could see that her shoulders and hips had advanced changes of arthritis: it was definitely time for her to start treatment.
The ideal option for pets with badly arthritic joints would be to surgically install complete new metal joints, just like humans with new hips and knees. While this is available for dogs, it's rarely done for cats. They are so small and light that they don't tend to suffer from the same severity of signs as larger creatures like dogs and humans.
Instead, medical treatment is given, which is what I've been doing for Sushi. There are three components to this.
First, and importantly, Sushi had to slim down. Partly because she had become less active, she had put on weight, and obesity is a major reason why animals with arthritis deteriorate. The extra pressure on the joints from excessive weight causes more damage, more inflammation and more pain. Sushi had to go on a weight reduction diet, and she successfully lost around 10% of her body weight.
Second, I started her on a daily anti-inflammatory medication to take away her pain: she gets a few drops of special cat pain relieving liquid every evening, before bed. She also gets a nutritional supplement, glucosamine chondroitin sulphate, which is supposed to help the health of her joints.
Third, we have adjusted Sushi's lifestyle: she has a heated, extra-comfy bed, which she loves sleeping on. We watch her closely, lifting her up stairs and steps, and being aware that sometimes she needs and extra bit of help to get around. She may be an old, arthritic cat, but she's now as comfortable as she can possibly be.