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Hiss and Tell—Is Your Cat Hiding Arthritis Pain?

Recent feline behavior and medicine advancements have illuminated a hidden arthritis epidemic—and countless cats are finally receiving the care and relief they deserve.

Dr Treat
Hiss and Tell—Is Your Cat Hiding Arthritis Pain?

Key takeaway

Is your cat concealing their arthritis pain? With our Dr. Treat team on the case, we can teach you to decode your cat’s secret messages to reveal the truth about how they feel.

ot long ago, veterinary professionals assumed cats did not suffer from arthritis—or if they did, they did not experience the same pain, stiffness, and deterioration known to affect dogs and humans.

Fortunately, recent feline behavior and medicine advancements have illuminated this hidden epidemic—and countless cats are finally receiving the care and relief they deserve. Is your cat concealing their arthritis pain? With our Dr. Treat team on the case, we can teach you to decode your cat’s secret messages to reveal the truth about how they feel.

#1 – Below the surface

A closer look at arthritis in cats

Your cat’s joints are more than a place where two bones meet. Each joint is supported by muscles and ligaments, and protected by a fibrous capsule. Inside the joint capsule, the two bone ends are covered in slippery shock-absorbing cartilage, which is continuously bathed in thick joint fluid—creating smooth and effortless movement.

Over time, age or injury-related changes wear away the healthy cartilage and reduce joint-fluid production, which leads to bone-on-bone articulation that causes painful inflammation. In an attempt to heal, the body replaces the cartilage with bone—creating a rough and uneven surface, and painful restricted (i.e., stiff) movement. Arthritis can occur in any feline joint, but is most commonly diagnosed in the elbows, hips, stifles (i.e., knees), and the spine.

#2 – Suffering in silence

Why cats hide their pain

To the untrained eye, many arthritic cats appear perfectly normal and healthy. Although your cat’s secretive behavior can be confounding, your feline friend has a primal and logical reason for concealing arthritis pain. Despite being a predator—because of their small size—cats are larger carnivorous mammals’ prey.

In the wild, a cat displaying weakness, pain, or illness is an easy target for watchful predators. While your cat may not perceive you as a threat, their instinctive need to hide weakness persists.

“Left untreated, arthritis causes chronic and progressive stiffness, range-of-motion loss, reduced mobility, and a poor quality of life. ”

#3 – 9 lives and 90%

Arthritis prevalence in cats

According to a radiographic study, the joints of as many as 90% of cats older than 12 years of age have visible arthritic changes. Other studies suggest that between 60% and 90% of cats live with arthritis pain.

Left untreated, arthritis causes chronic and progressive stiffness, range-of-motion loss, reduced mobility, and a poor quality of life. The disease can be accelerated by other lifestyle factors, including obesity, stress, inactivity, injury, and trauma.

5 Subtle signs your cat may have arthritis

Although cats do not limp or cry out in pain, you can learn to recognize subtle changes in your feline friend’s behavior that may indicate they are experiencing arthritic discomfort. Once you can identify arthritis signs, you may discover that your cat has been hiding their condition in plain sight:

Reduced grooming

Cats were self-care proponents long before the practice was cool. Therefore, any change in your cat’s purr-sonal hygiene routine may indicate a health crisis. When an arthritic cat’s joints no longer flex smoothly, self-grooming becomes an uncomfortable or impossible task. Arthritic cats may show a decrease in grooming frequency or be less thorough. Depending on whether their pain is local or generalized, a cat may neglect a specific body area (e.g., the hind legs, above the tail, the urogenital region) or have an overall unkempt appearance. Owners may notice oily, flaky, or matted hair, or an odor. Cats who are unable to groom after using the litter box may experience irritation and secondary bacterial infections.

Reluctance to jump or use stairs

While arthritic dogs may balk and refuse to jump or climb stairs, cats simply find a new way to get from point A to point B. Rather than fully performing an action, arthritic cats divide their movements to lessen the impact on their aching joints. For example, rather than leaping directly to a sunny window ledge, a clever cat may hop on an ottoman, then to a nearby chair, before finally accessing their desired destination. In addition, rather than taking the stairs in one strenuous action, a cat who has arthritis may stop to rest mid-staircase before completing their trek.

Opting to sleep in low places

Cats seek out elevated locations because these areas provide them with a natural vantage point for observing prey and providing protection from ground-dwelling predators. If your height-loving cat suddenly chooses to slumber on the floor, they may be avoiding the strain and pain of climbing to their former elevated resting place. Because arthritic cats tend to sleep more than healthy cats, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spot this tell-tail sign.

Unexplainable personality changes

As anyone with chronic pain can attest, discomfort can change how you feel about the world. Arthritic cats may express abnormal behaviors such as increased irritability, avoidance, disinterest in previously enjoyed activities (e.g., petting, playing, social interactions), lethargy, or sudden fear or aggression. If your cat defensively scratches or bites, do not react negatively by scolding or physically punishing them. These responses can diminish your cat’s trust, potentially intensifying your feline friend’s stress, anxiety, and fear.

Abnormal litter box habits and house soiling

Healthy cats make the up-and-over step easily as they get into their litter box, but an arthritic cat can view this simple hop as an impossible leap. Pain from stiff and sore hips, knees, and elbows can cause your cat to develop a litter box aversion, and seek relief on less physically demanding locations (e.g., a low laundry pile or soft rug). Alternatively, some cats may eliminate near the box or at the base of a staircase or other barrier. Because litter box stress can worsen your cat’s overall health, our Dr. Treat team encourages senior cat owners to replace standard litter boxes with large low-sided models placed in easily accessible locations.

Additional arthritis signs in cats

Cats are masterful at masking illness, but severely arthritic felines may be unable to hide their pain. Late-stage arthritis may manifest itself with more obvious signs such as:

  • Limping
  • Gait changes (e.g., taking smaller steps, shuffling)
  • Arched back
  • Decreased muscle mass along the spine, hips, and thighs
  • Increased sleeping

#4 – Putting the pounce back in their step

Help for your arthritic cat

Our customized treatment plan may include options such as omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to encourage healthy joints, and medications to treat and prevent pain. A new medication, Solensia (Frunevetmab), has recently been developed to help control the pain your cat may experience from OA. Many cats enjoy significantly improved mobility and comfort with this exciting new treatment. Environmental modifications, such as adding ramps to allow your cat to access their favorite spots, can also be helpful.

Arthritis cannot be cured, but your Dr. Treat veterinarian can customize your cat’s care plan to help them enjoy a comfortable life. While some veterinary treatment plans rely exclusively on medical management, our purr-sonalized Dr. Treat approach considers your feline friend’s lifestyle, preferences, and daily routine to maximize their comfort, mobility, and independence—a promise that’s right up your cat’s alley.

Final notes

If you believe your cat has been hiding a painful health condition such as arthritis, book an in-clinic appointment with our Dr. Treat team, or request a convenient virtual visit on the Dr. Treat One™ app.

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Written by:

Dr Treat

A veterinary practice that is reimagining the approach to the health and wellbeing of companion animals.

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