Feline Arthritis: Are you overlooking pain in cats?

by Dr Penny Dobson, BVSc, MACVSc (Canine), Hill’s Helpline Manager


Cats are known for their quirky, independent behavior. There are times, however, when changes in an older cat’s behavior signal discomfort and may be indicative of an underlying condition. Many pet owners chalk these signs up to old age. “Shadow doesn’t jump as much as she used to” or, “Fluffy doesn’t like me to pet her anymore”. Sound familiar? These and other subtle behavioral changes may be signs of a disease which has relatively recently been recognized as widespread:  feline arthritis.

Being the elusive and secretive beings that they are, the signs of arthritis in cats are very subtle and these signs may go unnoticed unless the owner is looking for them. In fact, a 2002¹ study showed that 90% of cats over 12 years of age have radiographic evidence of arthritis. In a more recent study,²  61% of cats over 6 years old had arthritic changes in at least one joint, while 48% had two or more affected joints.

Why is arthritis so difficult to spot in cats?

There are probably several reasons, but foremost is, cats are adept at hiding any illness, especially pain, as this would be seen as a weakness in the wild, so it’s important to be able to recognize the signs:

Changes in hygiene

  • Reduced time spent grooming
  • Matted and scruffy coat
  • Inappropriate urination or not using the litter tray

Changes in mood

  • Irritable when handled
  • Increased aggression or biting
  • Avoiding contact with people or other animals

Reduced activity

  • Increased time sleeping
  • Hesitant to play
  • Unwilling to go out or explore

Reduced mobility

  • Hesitant to jump up or down
  • Making smaller jumps
  • Difficulty climbing the stairs, getting into the litter tray or using the cat flap
  • Stiffness

Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” – treating arthritis in cats doesn’t start and finish with a pill or potion.

It is a complex disease that cannot be cured and the best results are achieved by combining multiple treatment modalities.

Weight Control & Exercise:

This is the most important aspect in management. A reduction in body weight reduces local joint inflammation and pain.  Furthermore,  fat is an endocrine organ producing cytokines that are pro- inflammatory.³

Environmental Support:

  • Provide a warm, comfortable, quiet, draft free place to sleep
  • Provide ‘steps’ to higher sites where the cat likes to “hang out”, e.g. the couch
  • The litter tray should be large, with low sides
  • Place food, water and litter trays on one level so the cat can avoid stairs
  • Provide extra grooming and trim nails regularly
  • Where possible, provide non-skid floor surfaces


  • Chondroprotective agents – these stabilise joint membranes, help joint cartilage repair and improve joint lubrication
  • Anti-inflammatories and analgesics
  • Supplements and nutraceuticals ⁴,⁵


Adjunct therapies:

  • Massage
  • Hydrotherapy

The good news is that, with a little detective work and a multi-modal therapeutic approach, many older cats will find some relief for their achy joints.

References :

  1. Hardie EM et al. Radiographic evidence of degenerative joint disease in geriatric cats: 100 cases (1994–1997). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002; 220: 628-632
  2. Slingerland  LI et al.  Cross-sectional study of the prevalence and clinical features of osteoarthritis in 100 cats. Vet J 2011; 187:304-309
  3. Laflamme DP. Obesity in dogs and cats: what is wrong with being fat? J Anim Sci  2012; 90:1653-1662.
  4. Fritsch D et al. Improvement of Clinical Signs of Osteoarthritis in Cats by Dietary Intervention. J Vet Intern Med 2010; 24: 771-772
  5. Frantz N et al. The effect of feeding Hill’s Prescription Diet j/d Feline to 32 arthritic cats. Data on file 2009, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc., Topeka, KS