Pet Health
Treatment of Osteoarthritis In Cats
Holly Frisby, DVM, MS
Veterinary Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.

It is never easy to see a beloved pet and friend in pain.
Medical reatment of
degenerative joint disease
has greatly improved in the last several
years thanks to the introduction and approval of several
new drugs and supplements. And while there is not yet a
cure for this debilitating disease, there is much you can
do to control the pain, make your cat comfortable, and
perhaps slow down the progression of the symptoms.

Weight management

Weight management is the first thing that must be addressed in cats with degenerative joint
disease (DJD). All surgical and medical procedures will work much better if the animal is not
overweight. Considering that up to half of the pets in the U.S. are overweight, there is a fair
chance that many of the cats with degenerative joint disease are also overweight. Getting the
cat down to his recommended weight and keeping it there may be the most important thing an
owner can do for their cat. This may be the hardest part of the treatment, but it is worth it.
Very few cats can drive to McDonalds, work a can opener, or open the refrigerator, so you the
owner are controlling what your cat eats.

Because overweight cats, especially those in pain are not active, their caloric requirement is very
low, so it may be difficult to get them to lose weight. It may be necessary to feed a 'light' food
and/or feed multiple times during the day to prevent begging. It is very important that
overweight cats not have their food restricted too much or lose weight too fast. This can cause
a serious
liver condition. Consult with your veterinarian to design a weight control program for
your cat.

Some older cats may be too thin, and because of the difficulty in moving about, and the pain,
may eat less than they need. There are other medical conditions, however, such as kidney
disease and
hyperthyroidism, which may cause cats to lose weight. Have your cat examined by
your veterinarian to determine the cause of the cat being too thin. If the cause is osteoarthritis,
feeding a high
calorie food, placing several food dishes around the house in areas easily accessible
by the cat, and varying flavors of foods may be of benefit.


Exercise is the next important step. It is difficult to get cats to exercise, although many have
been taught (or submitted) to walk on a leash. New toys and catnip may be helpful in getting
your cat to move more.

Provide warmth and good sleeping areas

Cats tend to like it warm, but warmth can be especially important to some cats with arthritis.
Arthritis tends to worsen in cold, damp weather. You may want to consider keeping the
temperature in your home a little warmer, too. Place comfortable places for your cat to sleep in
sunny areas or near heat registers.

Massage and physical therapy

Cats may not be too keen on physical therapy, however, ask your veterinarian or the veterinary
staff about how to perform physical therapy on your cat to help relax stiff muscles and promote a
good range of motion in the joints.

Some cats may like a massage, others may not want that much human touch. Your cat may
benefit from massage. Remember, your cat is in pain so start slow and build trust. Start by
petting the area and work up to gently kneading the muscles around the joint with your
fingertips using a small, circular motion. Gradually work your way out to the surrounding muscles.
Warm towels on the area may help relax the muscles.

Make daily activities less painful

Place litter boxes and food and water dishes where your cat can reach them easily. You may
need to find litter boxes with lower sides.

Going up and down stairs is often difficult for arthritic pets. Many people build ramps to help the
cat get to different areas of the house. For my arthritic cat, I made a set of 'stairs' from cushions
so he could get up on the couch to his favorite spot to watch the birds. Use your ingenuity to
design ways to decrease jumping but increase movement.

Many cats may have difficulty grooming, so gently brushing your cat and/or cleaning the rectal
area may help him in this important daily activity.

Glucosamine and chondroitin

Glucosamine and chondroitin are two of the medications that have recently become widely used
in treating both animals and humans for osteoarthritis. These products have been around for a
while, but due to the lack of scientific studies supporting them and the medical profession's
resistance to endorse a
nutraceutical, they had failed to gain popularity. But due to the
overwhelming success in treating patients with osteoarthritis, these products have come to the
forefront of therapy and are becoming one of the most popular products for treating arthritis
today. More research on the amount of benefit from these supplements has been performed in
dogs and horses than cats. However, many veterinarians prescribe them for cats with
osteoarthritis and have seen good results.

Glucosamine is a major component of cartilage. Chondroitin enhances the formation of cartilage
and inhibits
enzymes in the joint, which tend to break down cartilage.

When a pet has degenerative joint disease, the joint wears abnormally and the protective
cartilage on the surface of the joint gets worn away, and the resultant bone to bone contact
creates pain. Glucosamine and chondroitin give the cartilage-forming cells (chondrocytes) the
building blocks they need to synthesize new cartilage and to repair the existing damaged
cartilage. These products are not painkillers; they work by actually healing the damage that has
been done. These products generally take at least six weeks to begin to heal the cartilage, and
most animals need to be maintained on these products the rest of their lives to prevent further
cartilage breakdown. Because these products are naturally-occurring compounds, they are very
safe and show very few side effects. There are many different glucosamine/chondroitin products
on the market, but they are not all created equal. We have seen the best results and fewest
side effects from products that are formulated especially for cats and dogs that contain pure
ingredients that are human grade in quality. Products such as Drs. Foster and Smith's Joint Care,
or the veterinary-sold product Cosequin are several that fit this category.

Anti-inflammatories and pain relievers

Buffered Aspirin: Aspirin must be used with great
care in cats and should not be used except under
direct supervision by your veterinarian. Cats are very
sensitive to aspirin and the dose is generally limited
to every other day.

Butorphanol: Butorphanol is a pain reliever used in cats. It comes in both an injectable and
tablet form, and is available through your veterinarian. It can cause sedation in cats, which in
most cases is undesirable since we want the cat to move about.

Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids have been used for many years to treat the pain and
inflammation associated with osteoarthritis, although their use now is controversial.
Corticosteroids act as a potent anti-inflammatory, but unfortunately, have many undesirable
short- and long-term side effects. Because of these side effects and the advent of newer, more
specific drugs, corticosteroids are generally only used in older animals where all other pain control
products have failed, or in
acute flare-ups. Corticosteroids are a prescription product and come in
both a pill and injectable form.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has received a lot of press lately, primarily because of studies done in humans that have
linked it to preventing and controlling a variety of diseases. Much of the use in animals has been
extrapolated from human medicine. Humans are one of only a handful of species that have a
requirement for vitamin C. Cats and dogs synthesize their own vitamin C so this is one area where
we probably should not be using human studies as guidelines for treating cats and dogs. We
know that vitamin C acts as an antioxidant, and is an important
nutrient in the synthesis of
collagen and cartilage. We also know that Vitamin C is water-soluble, and it is very difficult to
create a toxicity. Vitamin C does lower the pH of urine, and some researchers question the
possible long-term side effects of over-acidified urine. The benefits of vitamin C in preventing or
treating degenerative joint disease are purely speculative. Using reasonable doses of Vitamin C
does not appear to be harmful, and some day research may show that it is beneficial in animals.
Vitamin C supplements should not be used in cats with lower urinary tract disease (such as
crystals, stones, or bladder infections) who are on special diets.

Surgical treatment

Because of their size, surgical treatment and/or joint replacement is generally not performed on
cats. In rare cases, surgery may be performed on the hip to remove the end of the femur
(thighbone) that is part of the hip joint. This procedure is called a 'femoral head excision.' The
cat would then develop a 'false joint' and have less pain.


Each cat with arthritis will need to have a management program specifically designed for his
needs. What helps one cat with arthritis, may not help another. Work with your veterinarian and
watch your cat carefully so that between you, your cat, and your veterinarian it can be
determined what is best for your cat. Realize, too, the program may need to be changed as your
pet ages, or if symptoms improve.

Copyright © 1997-2004, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted from
Buffered aspirin, or aspirin of     
any kind, should not be used    
in cats, unless prescribed by   
your veterinarian
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