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Home > Cats > Arthritis in Cats: Vet Approved Signs, Causes & Treatment

Arthritis in Cats: Vet Approved Signs, Causes & Treatment

Painful joints of an old cat

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Dr. Lauren Demos

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Arthritis in cats has become more prevalent, with one study in 2011 showing that over 60% of cats over the age of 6 had signs of osteoarthritis in at least two joints. For cats over the age of 12, the rates increased to over 80%1. Veterinarians theorize that the increased chance of developing obesity has affected these statistics, much like similar correlations in humans. Cats also have similar arthritis symptoms, causes, and treatments to humans.

If you suspect your usually active feline is developing arthritis, how can you tell? Keep reading below for more information, including how to best care for your kitty.


What Is Arthritis?

Osteoarthritis, also called OA, is the most common type of arthritis in cats. Your cat’s veterinarian will likely diagnose the cat with one of two types of OA. Primary OA has no apparent cause, while secondary OA results from some underlying, contributing symptoms. These can include several factors causing the degeneration of the joint that affects normal functions and inflammation leading to discomfort and pain.

Physical exams and X-rays are two of the most common methods used to diagnose arthritis in cats. On an x-ray, you may see evidence of increased fluid or severe swelling, hardening of bone underneath cartilage, new outgrowths protruding from healthy bone, and possibly that the joint space has become smaller. These things can restrict movement, leading to stiff, achy joints that become more painful over time.

Other types of arthritis in cats include those caused by autoimmune disorders, infection, and gout. Rheumatoid arthritis will most likely be treated with medication to control inflammation and the body’s overreacting immune system. Arthritis caused by infection will probably go away once the condition is successfully treated, while gout typically recurs every so often or with triggers like certain foods.

unconscious cat on the table
Image By: Jeanette Virginia Goh, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Arthritis in Cats?

A veterinarian may be able to feel signs of arthritis or see them on an x-ray long before you notice changes in your cat’s behavior. The changes that lead to limited mobility and pain occur slowly, and your pet will likely adapt to them. By the time they become reluctant to jump from their favorite spot on the cat tree, arthritis has probably progressed significantly. Still, your kitty must see their favorite vet for a thorough exam and x-rays to properly diagnose the cause of their behavior change. The list below includes some of the other signs of arthritis in cats.

  • Difficulty getting in and out of their litter box
  • Reduced grooming due to decreased flexibility
  • Over-grooming painful joints, leading to skin trauma
  • Walking differently
  • Mood changes, such as aggression
  • Reaction to certain areas being touched
  • Reluctance to stretch or play

What Are the Causes of Arthritis?

Humans can develop osteoarthritis for many reasons, making it a complex disease, and the same is true for cats. With the high rates of OA in older pets, it’s safe to expect your cat will experience some degree of joint pain as they age, especially as they reach their 12th birthday. However, several risk factors may increase their risk of developing arthritis, especially at an earlier age. Most cats with OA have more than one contributing symptom.

If your kitty has any risk factors below, discuss them with their vet. Keeping an eye out for early signs and taking preventative steps could help keep your pet flexible and pain-free as long as possible.

  • Breed: some breeds are more susceptible to joint conditions like hip dysplasia and patella luxation, which are known to lead to osteoarthritis
  • Injury: OA is much more likely if the joint has been injured in some way, especially if the injury occurred when they were older
  • Joint Defect: If the joint is formed improperly from birth, it may not function as designed, leading to damage over time
  • Obesity: Weight may not cause arthritis, but it can contribute to worsening symptoms
  • Autoimmune: Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are caused by an overactive immune system and not damage to the joint itself
  • Acromegaly: This is a disease of the pituitary gland that results in too much growth hormone, resulting in secondary arthritis or diabetes


How Do I Care for a Cat with Arthritis?

If your cat has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, there are steps you can take to ensure they are as comfortable as possible. This includes medication, prescribed therapies, and things you can do for them at home. Be sure that you follow any recommendations by your vet and bring up any concerns or other treatments you’d like to try before changing their treatment.

cat in vet clinic
Image Credit; Andy Gin, Shutterstock

Recommendations From Your Vet

Pain Medication

Depending on the severity of their arthritis, your vet may prescribe pain medication. These are available as oral medications given daily or long-lasting injections. There are various medications based on size, age, and symptoms, but each will have possible side effects. Be sure not to give your pet medications prescribed for human use, even over-the-counter medications,  before first speaking with your vet. Human medications can be especially toxic to cats!

Natural Treatments

You may want to discuss more natural treatments, such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, or nutritional supplements. Because some nutraceuticals can interfere with other medications, you should consult your vet before trying them with your pet.

However, many pets can benefit from additional care. Changing to a healthier diet may help heavier cats long-term. This could be a prescription diet designed for their breed, age, or targeted food allergy. You may need to switch to a premium diet and feed according to weight management food measurements.

Things You Can Do at Home

Making changes at home can help your arthritic cat feel more comfortable as they adjust to a new way of moving. Not every kitty will benefit from all these suggestions, so try those you think will help them the most. These should be used in addition to any veterinary treatments prescribed by your vet.

  • Place several warm beds throughout the house
  • Try heating pads designed for cats
  • Make sure beds and litter boxes have low sides
  • Use ramps or steps by their favorite spots
  • Provide moderate exercise with toys
  • Avoid flaps on covered litter boxes and cat doors
  • Use elevated food and water dishes close by
  • Help them with grooming as needed
Man and cat in bed with electric heating pad, focus on cable
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock



How Fast Does Arthritis in Cats Develop?

It typically takes many years for arthritis to develop to the point where your cat shows signs of discomfort. It will most likely become severe and more difficult to manage when you notice symptoms. Before this, the only way to diagnose it would be with a physical exam or x-ray, which is not likely unless your cat has other underlying health conditions that require regular vet care. As soon as you notice signs that your cat isn’t feeling quite right, a vet appointment is necessary to find out why.

What Can I Feed a Cat With Arthritis?

Their vet may prescribe a particular food or supplement to help your cat lose weight and help manage their symptoms. If they haven’t, you’ll want to ensure they stay a healthy weight by feeding them a premium diet and following the recommended feeding guidelines on the package.

How Do You Groom a Cat With Arthritis?

Cats with arthritis may have difficulty grooming themselves because they aren’t as flexible. However, because some joints are more painful, they might also be reluctant to let you touch them. How do you groom them? The first step is to build trust with gentle petting.

Once they are comfortable with letting you touch them, including the painful joints, you can begin brushing lightly with a soft de-shedding tool. If they are already matted or won’t let you brush them, an experienced groomer could help. Be sure to discuss their condition with the groomer beforehand.



Arthritis is common in cats, and you can expect that your older cat will experience joint pain as they age. However, catching the signs early is essential. If your kitty has arthritis, follow your vet’s prescribed treatment plan and make changes at home to keep them as comfortable as possible.

Featured Image Credit: Rom Chek, Shutterstock

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