Helping Your Cat with Osteoarthritis

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

A diagnosis of osteoarthritis (OA) in your cat can feel devastating and even overwhelming. After all, we know that OA is a progressive, degenerative disease that worsens over time. By most estimates, 90% of cats over age 12 are affected by OA, making it the most common chronic disease cats face. Once a cat is diagnosed with OA, it is important to understand that the focus is management rather than cure. Success means maximizing your cat's comfort and function while minimizing pain.

The good news is that there are many strategies, both big and small, to help cats live with their OA.

What is the first step I should take to help my cat with OA?

Create a true partnership with your veterinarian. This means scheduling regular evaluations to monitor the progression of OA and modify the treatment plan.

Dedicate a journal or notebook to your cat's ongoing health/medical issues and write down your questions as you think of them. Take your notebook to all veterinary visits to record answers to your questions, as well as to note details of any updated veterinary recommendations. It is difficult to remember all the information that is provided at veterinary appointments, so writing it all down makes sense so that you can refer back to it later.

Can my cat's weight make a difference in managing OA?

Yes, it can. If your cat is carrying extra weight, work with your veterinarian to plan a weight-loss strategy to help your cat become lean and keep her that way. Your veterinarian will prescribe a specific diet that will provide joint support and help your cat lose weight. Ask for specific portion recommendations, and schedule regular weigh-ins to monitor success. It is a myth that cats need to eat at will. They can easily learn to eat two measured meals a day, and this is a big step toward getting your cat back in shape.

"If your cat is carrying extra weight, work with your veterinarian to plan a weight-loss strategy..."

Can exercise help?

With OA joints, we know that cats need to use it or lose it. Regular moderate exercise contributes to better joint health, even in the face of OA. Most cats can learn to use a harness and leash allowing them to take walks with human family members. Typically, they want to lead the way rather than heel like their canine counterparts.

Chasing the light from a laser pointer or a feather toy on a casting rod and reel are two additional activities cats may enjoy. You can also place their food in multiple areas of the house or in a treat ball so they have to ’hunt’ to eat.

Is there anything I should know about the pain medications, nutraceuticals, or supplements my veterinarian has prescribed for my cat?

Use all products strictly as instructed/labeled. Do not modify delivery/dosing of prescription medications except under the direction of your veterinarian. Be sure to ask for a written summary of potential side effects, and monitor your cat carefully. If you witness any adverse side effects from medications, contact your veterinarian immediately. Do not give any over-the-counter supplements without discussing them with your veterinarian first. Cats are very sensitive to certain herbal ingredients and can become ill if exposed to them or if they are ingested,

Are there any other veterinary management options I can investigate?

You may want to explore physical medicine to complement medication, nutrition, and nutraceuticals to help your cat with OA. Physical medicine options include physical rehabilitation, acupuncture, chiropractic, laser therapy, and medical massage. It is important to work with appropriately qualified and credentialed individuals, so seek your veterinarian's guidance for a referral. Physical medicine may allow for decreased doses of medication over time by helping to restore more normal movement, and strength in the cat's body.

How can I modify my home environment to maximize my cat's comfort and function?

There are some simple things you can do to make everyday living much more comfortable and fun for your cat with OA. Something as straightforward as providing raised food and water dishes can relieve low-back pain and make mealtimes more enjoyable. Dishes placed at a height between your cat's elbow and shoulder level are generally most convenient. Many cats like to sit on windowsills, so providing a stool or ottoman as a step-up makes it easier for them to go vertical. Carpeted steps can also help cats climb onto beds and furniture.

In addition, keep your cat warm and dry. Outdoor living is, in general, not appropriate for these cats. Cats with OA cannot easily defend themselves from attack, nor can they evade other outdoor dangers.

To make sleeping surfaces as comfortable as possible, consider providing your cat with an orthopedic or memory foam bed.

Consider having water bowls and a low sided litterbox on every floor so your cat does not have to climb up and down the stairs very often.

Finally, an often-overlooked yet very important environmental modification is slip-free flooring. In this age of hardwood, laminate, tile, and vinyl flooring, cats with OA struggle to get around the house. We can help them by:

  • Adding area rugs with non-skid backing. Yoga mats can be used as well.
  • Laying down interlocking squares of lightly padded flooring (such as those used to create play surfaces for children). These squares work well for covering large floor surfaces because they can be custom-fitted to any room and easily removed for cleaning and entertaining company.

What is my takeaway message?

Work with your veterinarian to expand and fine-tune these options for your cat. With a bit of imagination and creative thought, you can help your cat with OA enjoy a long, happy, and comfortable life!

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