How to Know if Your Cat has Degenerative Joint Disease

Degenerative Joint Disease (or osteoarthritis, as it’s also known) is an all too common condition in humans, with between 10-15% of all adults over the age of 60 suffering from its effects. The debilitatingly painful condition is caused when the firm, rubbery cartridge (best thought of as a kind of “shock absorber”) that covers the ends of bones breaks down through age and wear, resulting in the tendons and ligaments stretching and, over time, leading to friction between the bones. In humans, the condition is associated with aching joints, pain after overuse or extended periods of inactivity, stiffness, and joint swelling. If the condition is present in the hands, bony enlargements of the middle and end joints of the fingers may also develop.

While most of us know and recognize the symptoms of Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) in people, what most of us aren’t aware of is that cats can suffer the very same condition. As Phys.org reports, Degenerative Joint Disease is as prevalent in senior cats as it is in humans, with those aged 10 years or over being the most commonly afflicted.

Despite its prevalence, the condition has historically been under-diagnosed. Fortunately, the situation seems to be changing. A team of researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) has developed a new checklist to help both veterinarians and worried pet owners diagnose those cats that may be suffering from the condition. Titled the ‘Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Screening Checklist’, the tool features 6 questions that not only aims to allow vets to screen for feline DJD, but to improve awareness of the condition in cat owners. As cats are more likely to display the signs of DJD at home than they are in a clinical setting, reliable diagnosis is contingent on owners working in partnership with their vet. Using the checklist, owners can quickly establish if their cat is displaying any signs of the disease: if they are, their vet will use their findings as the basis for further evaluation and treatment.

So, what are the questions? And just as importantly, how can DJD be treated once the diagnosis is confirmed?

How to Diagnose Degenerative Joint Disease in Cats

To assess whether your cat is showing signs of DJD, consider their behavior over the past week as you answer the following questions.

  1. While climbing up the stairs, do they use a “bunny hop” action with both back legs held together at the same time? Do they need to take a few pit-stops on the way?
  2. While climbing down the stairs, do they take one stair at a time while angling their body to one side? Do they have to take any little rests as they descend?
  3. During play, do they need to take frequent rests, or show signs of slowing down after a few minutes? Do they seem to have a noticeably thinner frame near the tail?
  4. When your cat jumps up, do they hesitate just before making the leap? Have there been many times they fail to clear a jump in one go, or have to use their arms to pull themselves up?
  5. When your cat jumps down from a surface, do they hesitate beforehand? Where possible, do they prefer jumping down in small stages rather than making one big leap to the ground?
  6. When your cat moves at speed, do they alternate between jogging and walking? Do they tend to move with their back feet angled together?

If you answered yes to any of the above, there’s a possibility your cat may be suffering from the pain associated with DJD. The next step is to share your results with your vet, who will conduct further evaluation to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment of Degenerative Joint Disease

If your vet confirms your suspicion of Degenerative Joint Disease, don’t panic. The condition is certainly not a death sentence: providing it’s properly managed, cats with DJD can go on to live perfectly happy, healthy lives. Although most of the damage caused by DJD is irreversible, any pain associated with the condition can be managed through medication, while quality of life can be vastly improved with a few adjustments to living environment.

Pain relief in cats can be problematic, as many types of traditional medication can be fatal to their sensitive metabolisms. However, your vet will be well versed in what they should and shouldn’t prescribe, and providing your cat isn’t suffering from a pre-existing kidney or liver condition, they’ll generally respond well to medication. As a precaution, your vet may, however, recommend periodic tests of liver and kidney function to nip any problems in the bud.

Typically, the medications used in the treatment of DJD include:

  • NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
  • Tramadol
  • Amantadine

Supplements & Other Treatments

Along with prescription medication, you may want to look into the benefits of certain supplements. ”Glucosamine” and “Chondroitin” are two of the most commonly recommended. Although the scientific research surrounding them is small, many pet owners have reported excellent benefits with continued use. Omega-3 fatty acids are another all-natural supplement that’s been proven to decrease the joint pain associated with arthritis.

As supplements are not regulated, it’s wise to speak to your vet before embarking on a new regime: as well as being able to recommend certain brands, they’ll also be able to advise on dosage and any contraindications.

Other than dosing them with the appropriate supplementation and medication, the best thing you can do for your cat’s quality of life is to look at their environment. As cats with DJD find it hard to make big jumps, you might want to consider introducing some small steps to make it easier for them to reach their favorite perch, or even swap steep-sided litter boxes for shallow sided trays. Although vigorous rough and tumble is out, gentle play should be encouraged to help maintain muscle tone and joint mobility. Finally, as overweight cats tend to suffer the effects of joint pain more than their slimmer counterparts, keep a careful eye on their weight.



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