A closer look: 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.
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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
- 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
- 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)
- Pain medications (only as prescribed by a veterinarian)
- Lifestyle and dietary changes to reduce weight
- Immobilization or surgical stabilization with pins or other hardware in the case of joint fracture, patellar luxation, or intervertebral disc disease
- Chemotherapy or amputation to avoid metastases for osteosarcoma
- 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.
Pain in the muscles, tendons, ligaments or bones can be difficult to distinguish from joint pain without a thorough veterinary examination.