The Arthritic Cat

Recognizing and Treating Pain in Cats

Cats are an incredible species and continue to amaze me ten years into my career.  One of the most amazing features of cats seems to be their ability to mask discomfort and illness.  When a dog comes in uncomfortable, they are often limping or will give a cry when the sensitive area is touched.  Cats are not so helpful in the exam room.  Cats tend to do one of two things, they either lie down and just wait, unmoving for their exam to be completed, or they let us know through claws and teeth that they are displeased with being brought out of the comfort of their home!  Neither leads to clues of how they are feeling in their everyday normal life.

Studies have shown that up to 20% of cats of any age have radiographic signs of arthritis.  When only looking at cats over the age of 12, that number soars to 90%. That’s a lot of painful cats!  I’ve mentioned why it is difficult to recognize signs of pain when cats are here in the clinic, but it will be more obvious at home right?  Unfortunately, not.  Dogs and people typically get arthritis in one hip or one elbow leading to a limp or holding up a limb.  Cats mostly get bilateral disease (the same on both sides) so they don’t limp or tend to favour one side over the other.  Also, we don’t always engage in the same physical activities with cats as we do with dogs.  We tend to walk our dogs, which is a prime time to notice any changes in their physical ability.  Cats seem to sleep most of the day and don’t always get active when we are around or awake.  It is however, a mistake to think that sleeping more is always normal and comes hand in hand with aging.  This can often be their sign to you that something is not quite right.

How, then, will we ever know that a cat is uncomfortable?  Well, first off, if the cat is over 12 years old, odds are not in their favour.  Subtle changes in behaviour can be seen at home, especially if you are on the look-out for them; lack of jumping, or even a hesitation before making a leap up or down, inappropriate urination or defecation, constipation, change in appetite, sudden aggression, a decrease in grooming, OVER grooming (especially when concentrated right over joints), vocalization, avoidance of stairs, weight loss, changes in postures and avoidance of touch and petting.  So if your cat used to leap up to the counter in a single bound (much to your chagrin) and now needs to jump to a chair first, they are likely having some trouble with pain and mobility.  Cats may also show changes in their facial expression.  Their eye position can change to form a V and their eyes can be squinty.  Their ears may be pulled forward or back.  Here is a picture of a comfortable cat facial expression versus a painful kitty:

Happy Cat          Painful cat

Happy Cat                                                    Painful cat

Once pain is recognized, there are many things that we can work together to do to make them more comfortable.  At home; change in placement of the litter, relocation of the water or food dishes, helping out with the grooming, and maintaining a healthy weight and level of play/exercise are all things that will prove very rewarding.  During a consultation, we can discuss the use of nutritional supplements, special diets, medications, acupuncture, chiropractic and laser therapy which can be used alone or in combination to fit the individual needs of the patient.   At Guelph Animal Hospital we have seen the best results when we employ an integrative approach to pain management in cats.  To learn more about our integrative approach to arthritic pets click hear: .

The most important message?  Pay attention to your cat’s normal behaviour and report any changes to your veterinarian.  Your observations are crucial in the proper recognition and treatment of pain in your feline friend.  Let’s work together and keep more cats comfortable into their old age!


Ilana Smolkin DVM, Certified Animal Chiropractor

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