Pain from Arthritis


People with older pets ask us a whole variety of questions but almost everyone asks the same one, “Is my pet in pain?” Pain occurs when chemicals, released by damaged cells, stimulate nerves near the damaged cells - in joints, in muscles or anywhere else in the body. The stimulated nerves relay messages to the brain, messages that are interpreted as pain. Just as with us, each pet perceives pain in its own way, and just as with us, its emotional make-up affects how much pain it feels. Brain chemicals called endorphins reduce pain and cats, to their good fortune produce more than dogs do. Pain and discomfort are inevitabilities of life but they occur with increasing frequency in older pets. Here are guidelines for assessing whether your pet is experiencing pain and if so, how much.

No Pain

  • Happy, content and bouncy
  • Eats normally
  • Sits, lies down, sleeps, gets up and walks with no difficulty

Mild pain

  • More quiet or indifferent than usual
  • Eats on one side of the mouth or drops out food
  • Sits, lies down or gets up somewhat tentatively.
  • Initially stiff or lame when walking
  • Reluctant to jump up or down
  • Dogs fold back ears and wags tail more submissively that you’d expect when approached. Cats are more irritable
  • Guards part of the body, for example a paw. Doesn’t like being touched in that region

Significant pain

  • Tentative or very careful with eating.
  • Doesn’t chew as it usually would
  • Uncomfortable when sitting, lies in a tense position
  • Reluctant to move or walks very slowly
  • Stands with a tucked belly and its tail hanging limp
  • Lies down but doesn’t sleep as you would expect
  • Unexpectedly quiet
  • Seemingly ‘depressed’. Less interest in interacting with you
  • Flinches or hisses when touched.
  • Unexpected aggression

Severe pain

  • Refuses all food
  • Can’t get up or down or refuses to move or constantly changing position
  • Rigid or shaking
  • Continuous or frequent crying, yelping, groaning, shrieking or screaming
  • Urinates or defecates without getting up
  • Completely uninterested in you

We Don’T Want Our Pets To Suffer

A degree of pain is an inevitable outrider of a pet’s final years but fortunately there are ways to prevent pain or when it can’t be prevented, to control it for what is often a remarkably long time, through a combination of medicines, nutrition and complimentary therapies.

Osteoarthritis Occurs In Cats Too

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis in which the normal cartilage that cushions the joint gradually, with time, wears away exposing the underlying bone that becomes inflamed and painful. It is very common in older dogs, especially in large breeds but occurs in cats too. Some breeds are more predisposed to develop arthritis in specific joints, for example hip dysplasia in Maine Coons, and knee arthritis in Abyssinians. Scottish Folds are particularly prone to arthritis in many joints while Burmese cats develop elbow arthritis more than other breeds. Being overweight does not cause arthritis. It does however make it worse and as the vast majority of cats eventually develop arthritis, excess weight is a major cause of needless pain.

Watch Your Pet Carefully

It’s easier to notice joint discomfort in dogs than in cats. Dogs continue to play but lameness is obvious afterwards. Cats on the other hand hide their discomfort. If a joint hurts they reduce physical activity. Their passive behaviour very efficiently disguises their pain. If your cat exhibits any of these behaviour changes it may have joint pain.

  • Reduced physical activity
  • Hesitation when jumping up or down from furniture
  • Unwillingness to jump up or down from furniture
  • Excessively licking a specific joint
  • Less grooming activity
  • Matted hair, especially in areas that need body contortions to be groomed
  • Sleeping in new and more accessible locations
  • Unexpected difficulties using the cat flap
  • Missing the litter tray, especially if it has high sides
  • Increased irritability, especially when petted or touched
  • Reduced interest or response to your petting
  • Overgrown, even ingrowing claws
  • Going outside or playing less
  • Less hunting and exploring

General pain and other medical conditions can also cause these passive behaviour changes. Contact us if your cat shows any of these signs.

Home Care For Arthritic Cats

Adjustments at home are easy. We will provide medication and nutritional advice while you can provide soft, comfortable beds in accessible, warm and quiet places. Cats often enjoy the feeling of security of enclosed places so consider an ‘igloo’ bed. Microwavable warmers are available to make beds cosier but use electrical heating pads only if you can carefully monitor them. Cat’s love radiator beds but these can be problematic for the arthritic cat. It may benefit from steps to get in and out of it.

Provide either carpeted steps or a carpeted ramp to help your cat get to higher places such as your sofa or bed. If the cat flap is high, provide a ramp there too and tie the flap open so there’s no need to push through.

Provide an indoor litter tray, even if your cat has always used the outdoors and make sure it has low sides. Arthritic cats sometimes feel more comfortable on softer varieties of litter. Keep the litter tray, food and water bowls all on the same floor. This is one circumstance where it may even be useful to have them relatively close to each other.

Gently groom your cat more, especially the areas that are more difficult for it to reach such as the bum. Check the claws routinely. It’s common in our experience for claws to become overgrown, sometimes to such an extent that they puncture the pads making walking even more painful.

Pain-Killers Are Effective

Age-related joint disease can’t be cured but the discomfort or pain that it causes can be controlled, often for years. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most commonly used medicines. These work by preventing the production of prostaglandins, chemicals released from damaged tissue, that trigger local inflammation and stimulate signals in local nerves that transmit to the brain and result in the perception of pain.

When NSAIDs don’t relieve pain, we sometimes use steroid anti-inflammatories or narcotic drugs, including in dogs narcotic patches stuck on a shaved area on a leg then covered with bandaging so that they aren’t eaten! Narcotics block receptor sites in the spinal cord or the brain preventing pain signals from being transmitted to the brain. This is exactly what the body’s natural pain killers, the endorphins do.

NSAIDs are very effective pain-killers but all of them can be dangerous to pets, although not, it seems, in the same way they’re dangerous to us. Although the newer generation of NSAIDs increase our risk of strokes, this is not the case with pets. These drugs do however have other potential dangers. All of them can cause gastrointestinal damage, even deep ulcers in the stomach. Some are also potentially damaging to the kidneys or liver. NSAIDs should always be given with food and in some instances combined with other drugs that protect the lining of the stomach.

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