Arthritis and Nutrition for Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

How can my cat with osteoarthritis benefit from a change in diet?

Approximately 20% of cats across all ages suffer from painful osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) in one or more joints, and 90% of cats over 12 years of age had evidence of arthritis on radiographs (X-rays). The incidence of osteoarthritis increases with age. Because cats are living longer, it is more likely than ever that every cat owner will face the issue of osteoarthritis at some point. Nutritional science reveals that pet owners can significantly impact the quality of life of their cats with osteoarthritis by carefully choosing appropriate nutrient profiles, depending on their needs.

How does my cat’s weight affect her condition?

Research reveals that the white fat that accumulates in overweight and obese cats secretes inflammatory and pro-inflammatory hormones that contribute to the inflammation and pain of osteoarthritis. That means weight and obesity are even more critical factors in cats with osteoarthritis than we once thought. For generations, it was presumed that the excess weight just put extra stress and strain on joints with osteoarthritis, and that was the extent of its effect.

Step one in an overweight or obese cat is reducing weight to achieve a healthy body condition. It is not enough just to make the number on the scale lower. The goal is to help your cat burn fat and preserve or even build muscle. Your veterinarian can prescribe a specific nutrient profile and a daily portion to accomplish that goal. A lean body condition means we should see a well-defined waistline when we view the cat from above. We should be able to easily feel (not see) the ribs on the sides of the chest just behind the shoulder blades. Your veterinarian can help you look for and interpret these landmarks.

In cats with osteoarthritis, targeting a lean body condition is much better than a slightly heavy one. If your veterinarian uses a 1-to-5 body condition scoring, the target should be 2.75/5. If your veterinarian uses a 1-to-9 body condition scoring, the target would be 4.5/9. These targets are slightly leaner than what was previously considered ‘ideal’.

Once my cat is lean, what else can I do with nutrition for my cat’s condition?

Your veterinarian is the best source for evaluating the nutritional science and the various nutritional products labeled for ‘joint support’. We know that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), provides demonstrable joint support. The level of omega-3 fatty acids needs to be high enough to impact the joints. One option is to supplement the chosen diet with a triglyceride form of omega-3 fatty acid that is easily absorbed. Again, your veterinarian is the best source for a recommendation.

"The level of omega-3 fatty acids needs to be high enough to impact the joints."

In addition, dietary joint supplements, called chondroprotective agents, will help with cartilage health and may even have some anti-inflammatory effects. These supplements are meant to slow the breakdown of cartilage as well as provide the building blocks that may help in repair. Some supplements can also increase joint fluid secretion and decrease inflammation. Once again, ask your veterinarian for advice on using these nutraceutical products.

What if my cat has another disease in addition to osteoarthritis? What do I feed her?

Many older cats with osteoarthritis have other diseases as well, such as heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease, among others. Chronic diseases in cats can often be managed effectively using specific therapeutic nutrient profiles. Your veterinarian will discuss what diet options are best for your cat based on their individual nutritional needs.

It is great to know that, in many cases of osteoarthritis, we can reduce the need for medications simply by our choice of therapeutic nutrition. Working closely with your veterinarian will take the guesswork out of choosing from many options.

Related Articles