Joint Pain in Cats

Key Takeaways

Joint pain in cats is soreness localized to the articulated parts of the limbs. 

• Changes in behavior such as reluctance to jump, run, or climb stairs; vocalizing or flinching when touched; or increased resting especially in hidden or warm spots are signs of joint pain

• In some cases, swelling accompanies joint pain

• Joint pain is common, especially in older cats or cats who are overweight

• Pain can affect quality of life and can indicate underlying issues

• In cases of acute joint pain, rest and time are usually sufficient for recovery

• In cases where joint pain is chronic or severe, veterinarian attention is required

• Possible causes include injury, developmental disorders, degenerative diseases, or cancer

• Possible diagnostic tools to investigate joint pain include physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging

• Treatment and outcome vary depending on diagnosis

A Closer Look: What is Joint Pain in Cats?

Joint pain is common especially in older cats or cats who are overweight. Joint pain affects quality of life and, in some cases, indicates a serious underlying cause. Veterinarian assessment is necessary to determine severity and treatment plans. In cases where joint pain is acute but not serious such as with bruises, strains, or sprains, rest and time are sufficient for healing. In cases where joint pain is chronic or severe, diagnosis of underlying causes is necessary to ensure proper treatment. Generalizing outcomes is difficult due to the variety of possible underlying causes.

Possible Causes

Potential causes of joint pain include:

• Injuries such as bite wound abscesses, joint fractures, or ligament tears • Cancers such as osteosarcoma

• Developmental disease such as osteochondritis dissecans, hip dysplasia, or luxating patella

• Degenerative disease such as osteoarthritis  or intervertebral disc disease

• Immune-mediated disease such as immune-mediated polyarthritis

Risk Factors

Variation of symptoms depends on the underlying cause of joint pain as well as the following considerations:

• The age at onset • Gradual or sudden onset • Consistent or intermittent pain

• Progressive pain that worsens over time or pain that stays relatively the same

For example, young cats exhibiting joint pain require investigation of developmental issues such as osteochondritis dissecans. In older cats, joint disease is most likely osteoarthritis. Should the pain be immediate and intense, a joint fracture is possible. Should the onset be gradual, it is likely to be a degenerative disease. Careful observation of behavior and mobility are required to gain an accurate assessment of joint pain. In cases where the joint pain causes changes to mood, mobility or behavior, immediate veterinarian attention is required.

Testing and Diagnosis

Joint pain is sometimes difficult to detect in cats for a few reasons. First, cats instinctively hide their pain. Second, cats tend to spend less time around their pet parents than other kinds of animals, obscuring changes to behavior. Third, many pet owners assume that older cats slow down due to old age without assessing underlying causes.

Close observation is the first step to diagnosis and treatment of joint pain. Careful exploration of the affected limb helps to determine the specific location of the pain. Veterinary care is useful in determining underlying causes and assessing severity. Diagnostic tools used to determine underlying causes of joint pain include:

• Physical examination • Bloodwork • Diagnostic imaging

In cases where joint pain is acute but not serious - for example with bruises, strains, or sprains - rest and time are sufficient for recovery. In cases where joint pain is chronic or severe, further treatment is required. Treatment plans may include:

• Symptomatic relief such as compresses, rest, time • Pain medications (only as prescribed by a veterinarian)

• Wound cleaning, antibiotics (only as prescribed by a veterinarian) for bite wound abscesses

• Nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs for inflammatory diseases, intervertebral disc disease, and immune-mediated arthritis (only as prescribed by a veterinarian)

• Lifestyle and dietary changes to reduce weight • Chemotherapy or amputation to avoid metastases for osteosarcoma

• Immobilization or surgical stabilization with pins or other hardware in the case of joint fracture, patellar luxation, or intervertebral disc disease

• Other medications that interrupt pain signaling pathways in the case of osteoarthritis 

Note: The potential for harm when using over-the-counter NSAIDs and pain medications in cats is high. These products are potentially toxic and mask symptoms before a diagnosis of poisoning is possible. Prescription by a veterinarian is required before any pain medications are used in cats. In challenging cases, referral to a veterinary specialist such as a neurologist or orthopedic surgeon is necessary.

Similar symptoms

Pain in the muscles, tendons, ligaments or bones can be difficult to distinguish from joint pain without a thorough veterinary examination.

Associated Symptoms

Joint pain in cats often presents alongside the following:

• Vocalizing or flinching during certain movements or while being touched • Aggression • Increase in hiding

• Decreased activity • Limited mobility • Lameness • Joint swelling

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