Limited Mobility in Cats

Key Takeaways

Limited mobility (LM) in cats presents as a reduction in movement or agility. Cats with LM struggle with actions or behavior that were previously considered normal. 

• Common symptoms are struggling to jump or climb, stiffness after rest, choosing to move less around the house, or go outside less than previously, appearing to ‘miss’ the litter tray when toileting

• LM is a non-specific symptom which is often associated with orthopedic or neurological pain, although many conditions present in a similar way

• Investigation of LM focuses on testing for underlying conditions and often involves laboratory testing and diagnostic imaging

• Treatment targets the underlying condition as well as directly treating the symptoms, such as pain

• Prognosis is good for improvement of symptoms but many underlying conditions resulting in LM are managed rather than resolved

A Closer Look: What is Limited Mobility in Cats?

The severity of LM varies depending on the underlying condition. Factors to consider when assessing severity include:

Age of onset: Older animals are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis or vestibular disease

Speed of onset: Acute onset normally links to trauma or other emergency conditions such as aortic thromboembolism

Progression: Diseases progress differently over time. Degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis deteriorate slowly, or wax and wane, whereas traumatic injuries, such as ligament sprains, present acutely then slowly improve. Other conditions, such as patella luxation, may be static for many years.

Identifying which specific signs of limited mobility are occurring, and whether the signs change over time or are associated with any other symptoms is helpful information when diagnosing an underlying cause.

Possible Causes

LM is a non-specific symptom that links to dysfunction in many different body systems. LM commonly affects body systems like joints, bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments, and the nervous system, including the spinal cord or brain. Associated conditions include:

• Osteoarthritis • Injuries, including cranial cruciate tears • Intervertebral disc disease • Luxating patella

• Vestibular disease

Chronic pain is a common finding in many cases of LM.

Risk Factors

LM is most common in senior or geriatric cats, with younger cats uncommonly affected. LM is not an emergency, but most cases have an underlying cause which requires prompt veterinary assessment. LM is often painful and distressing for cats, but symptoms and quality of life usually improve with treatment.

Testing and Diagnosis

Investigation of limited mobility focuses on identifying the underlying cause. Diagnostic tests include:

• Physical examination • Blood tests and urinalysis • Diagnostic imaging - X rays, CT scan, MRI scan

Challenging cases may be referred to a board-certified neurologist or orthopedic specialist.

Treatment options include treatment of symptoms and underlying conditions. Medical treatment of pain involves using anti-inflammatories, opioids, and newly released treatment protocols such as monoclonal antibody therapy. Medications used for different conditions may include antibiotics, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants. Surgical treatment is appropriate in conditions such as cruciate ligament rupture or trauma.

Complementary therapies such as physical therapy or changing the environment help minimize flare-ups and improve comfort levels. Common interventions include: 

• Reducing obstacles around the house • Using ramps to reduce jumping

• Maintaining resources on the same level, such as not having food and water on counter tops

• Using carpet runners to aid movement over slippery floors

Similar symptoms

LM may be mistaken as weakness or collapse. These differ by the underlying condition. LM often relates to pain, whereas weakness or collapse usually results from problems with blood flow, imbalances of hormones or electrolytes, or respiratory disorders.

LM is also mistaken for incontinence or loss of litter training, as cats with LM sometimes struggle to get in and out of the litter box. Often the accidents are close to the litter tray.

Associated Symptoms

Cats with LM sometimes display behavioral changes such as resenting being picked up or groomed, and may be more likely to lash out.

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