Joint Infections (Septic Arthritis) in Cats

Key takeaways

Septic arthritis is rare in cats and is described as joint inflammation triggered by infection. 

  • Septic arthritis occurs when a joint becomes infected by a bite or puncture wound 
  • Rarely, infection spreads through the bloodstream and infects multiple joints
  • Symptoms include sudden onset lameness, swelling of one or more legs, poor appetite, lethargy and fever
  • Diagnosis involves physical examination, blood work, culture of joint fluid, and diagnostic imaging
  • Treatment includes pain relief, high dose antibiotics and some cases require surgical flushing of the joint under anesthesia
  • Prognosis depends on severity and speed of treatment 
  • Cases receiving early treatment usually recover quickly, whereas treatment delays sometimes result in damage to the joint surface, irreversible osteoarthritis, and sepsis
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A closer look: Joint Infections (Septic Arthritis) in Cats

Septic Arthritis is a rare, but serious condition resulting in pain and dysfunction of the affected limb. Prognosis depends on the speed of diagnosis and start of treatment and the degree of damage to the articular cartilage (joint surface). Cartilage damage increases with delayed treatment.

These cases require intensive, long-term care and may have a poor prognosis.

Cats with suspected septic arthritis require prompt veterinary treatment.

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Risk factors

Symptoms of septic arthritis vary depending on the underlying disease mechanisms.

Single joint septic arthritis usually results from an infection in the joint from an external source, such as a bite or injury. These cases often require treatment of the wound as well as the joint infection itself. Joints most commonly affected include the hip, knee, ankle, and wrist.

Multi-joint infections are more likely to be caused by spread through the bloodstream from other organs such as the bladder, kidneys, heart, teeth, and skin.

Severe or untreated infections sometimes result in sepsis.

Neutering male cats reduces fighting behavior, which may reduce the risk of seoptic arthritis. Outdoor cats are at higher risk of septic arthritis due to increased risk of penetrating wounds.

Possible causes

Septic arthritis results from a single joint becoming infected. Some cases of septic arthritis result from the infection spreading to the joint through the bloodstream and can occur in one or multiple joints.

There are multiple causes of septic arthritis including: Bite wounds caused by fighting with other animals, including cats. Puncture wounds caused by

  • Broken glass
  • Thorns Injury resulting in exposure of the joint surface caused by
  • Car accidents
  • Dog attacks Medical treatment such as
  • Joint surgery
  • Injections into the joint

Infection as a result of spread through the bloodstream can originate anywhere in the body.

Main symptoms

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnosis of septic arthritis involves:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood work
  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • Biopsy of the joint capsule

In addition to examination of joint fluid such as:

  • Bacterial culture
  • Microscopic examination

Steps to Recovery

Treatment options include:

  • Pain relief
  • Antibiotics
  • Hot and cold compresses
  • Surgical flushing of the joint
  • Physical therapy

Treatment of sepsis, if present, includes:

  • Antibiotics
  • Fluid therapy
  • Nutritional support

Septic arthritis is a serious condition which takes many weeks to resolve. Prognosis varies depending on speed of diagnosis and onset of treatment.

Cats with a traumatic injury that is rapidly diagnosed typically require 6-8 weeks of antibiotics, their prognosis is generally good and most cases recover fully.

Delayed treatment allows more time for the infection to cause damage to the joint, and is associated with a poorer prognosis. Severely affected cases of septic arthritis that recover often develop irreparable osteoarthritis, requiring lifelong management.

Cats with multiple joint involvement often have an underlying blood infection. Cats that develop sepsis often recover but require prolonged hospitalization and extensive treatment.


Prevention of septic arthritis is not possible, however, with rapid diagnosis and appropriate treatment prevention of long term complications is possible. Maintaining an indoor-only lifestyle reduces risk of penetrating injuries which can result in septic arthritis.

Are Joint Infections (Septic Arthritis) in Cats common?

Septic arthritis is uncommon in cats

Typical Treatment

  • Pain relief
  • Antibiotics
  • Hot and cold compresses
  • Surgical flushing of the joint
  • Exercise management
  • Treatment of sepsis
  • Fluid therapy
  • Nutritional support

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