Osteoarthritis In Cats

Written by Shula Berg BVSc CertAVP(GSAS) GPAdvCert(SASTS) MRCVS
Clinically reviewed by Elizabeth McLennan-Green BVM&S CertAVP(SAM) MRCVS

Table of Contents

 - Overview
 - Symptoms
 - Diagnosis
 - Treatment
 - Outlook

What is Osteoarthritis?

Arthritis is a disease causing pain, inflammation and stiffness of the joints. Osteoarthritis specifically means joint inflammation not due to infection or an immune reaction (both very uncommon in pets). Arthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic pain, and is estimated to affect 60-90% of older cats. 

Arthritis, and the resultant discomfort, causes pets to put less weight through the affected limb/s. This eventually leads to loss of muscle, worsening the lameness. Our pets have four legs, which means they can often compensate well, however, changes in posture lead to increase discomfort elsewhere, such as the back and neck. 

Any cat can be affected by arthritis, however some breeds are more likely to be affected, such as Maine Coons. Additionally, pets with existing joint problems (such as hip dysplasia), or who have suffered injuries (such as fractures affecting a joint), are more likely to suffer arthritis, and at an earlier age. 

What are the symptoms of Osteoarthritis in Cats?

Arthritis is one of the most over-looked conditions in our pets, with symptoms commonly attributed to “slowing down” or “getting older”.  Changes often happen gradually, and affect more than one joint, so it is common that animals continue walking on all four limbs, despite increasing pain and discomfort. In cats especially, arthritis often causes changes in behaviour rather than overt limping on one limb.

Symptoms of arthritis can include: 

  • Lameness/stiffness 
  • Hesitating before jumping up, using the front legs to complete the jump 
  • Reluctant to jump down, takes an easier route or steps rather than leaps 
  • Slow to climb up or down stairs, taking one step at a time or taking a break part-way 
  • Reduced play, especially jumping and chasing 
  • Reduced or absent grooming, especially over the back end 
  • Toileting outside of the litter tray, especially if high-sided 
  • Less willing to interact, hiding away more, grumpy behaviour 

Which tests are used to diagnose Osteoarthritis in Cats? 

Arthritis can be considered very likely based on a history of compatible symptoms and a clinical examination by a vet. Your vet will ask for relevant history, such as previous accidents or injuries, and a description of any changes you have noticed. Cats are often unwilling to move around the clinic, so videos of observed behaviour at home can be very useful.   

Older cats are prone to many other problems that can cause them to “slow down”, so it is important to rule these out before assuming a diagnosis of arthritis. Imaging, such as radiography (x-rays) or CT, is the gold standard for diagnosis as this allows changes in the joint to be directly assessed. Occasionally, a sample of fluid is removed from the joints for analysis (called a “joint tap”). Sometimes anaesthesia is not advisable due to other health problems, so an assumed diagnosis is made based on consistent symptoms. In these cases, a positive response to treatment can also help confirm the diagnosis. 

How is Osteoarthritis in Cats treated? 

There are many aspects to successfully treating arthritis. As a progressive disease, it can only be managed rather than cured, but good management aims to keep pets comfortable and mobile, and slow down progression. Generally, several management options are required to see an effective difference; while some treatments must be prescribed by a vet, you can also make many changes at home to help. 

Weight management 

It is well demonstrated in both people and animals that obesity has a negative effect on arthritis. Not only does carrying extra weight increase pressure on the joints, but fat tissue releases inflammatory markers that increase joint inflammation. 

Home adaptations 

Simple changes such as offering low-sided litter trays, steps to access higher areas, draft free comfortable beds, multiple resources (e.g. beds, water stations, litter trays) to ensure they are close by and easy to open cat flaps can make a surprising difference to your pet’s ability to manage day to day life comfortably. Some cats may benefit from regular grooming and nail trimming. 

Encouraging movement 

Although we do not want to push cats to complete activities they find uncomfortable, small amounts of regular movement are good to keep joints mobile and maintain muscle tone. Short periods of gentle play, or use of feeding puzzles can help reduce stiffness. 

Anti-inflammatory medication 

Most cats with arthritis will benefit from anti-inflammatory therapy, as these drugs are highly effective at controlling pain and inflammation. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most commonly prescribed, but alternative veterinary and human medications can be used as well or instead. Medication should only ever be given as prescribed, and stopped if side effects are seen (such as gastrointestinal upset). Some pets respond well to a 2-4 week course of medication to control an acute flair of arthritis, whereas some will benefit from indefinite daily dosing. If other management strategies are employed as well, you may feel your pet is comfortable long-term on a lower dose than initially prescribed. Pets needing long-term NSAID therapy should have blood tests performed at the point of continuing treatment beyond an initial course, then every 6-12 months to ensure there are no other problems that mean the drugs are no longer suitable. 

Other medications 

Various other medications are available to help manage arthritis. These are newer treatments, and different vets may recommend certain treatments based on their experiences. They include treatments that are injected straight into the joint (such as stem cells or platelet rich plasma) and a monoclonal antibody therapy that is injected under the skin monthly. 

Complementary therapies 

These include physiotherapy, acupuncture, osteopathy, and laser therapy, amongst others. There is poor regulation of many of these practices, so always speak to your vet about whether they recommend a specific practitioner. Complementary therapy should never be administered without signed permission from your vet, as they are not all suitable for every pet. 


Supplements can be given as tablets or capsules, or are already included in a joint diet, such as Royal Canin mobility. There are many conflicting reports about their effectivity, but on the whole there is insufficient evidence to be certain of a benefit in veterinary patients. They are harmless if used properly, but shouldn’t be relied upon as a sole therapy. 


Most cases of arthritis don’t benefit from surgery. If there is an underlying condition present, such as hip dysplasia, surgery may be an option. Your vet will be able to advise if this is appropriate for your pet. 

What is the outlook for cats with Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, meaning once it is present, it will never go away and will gradually get worse. If management techniques are followed as described, many cats will live comfortably with arthritis for several years. Medication can make a significant difference to activity levels. If changes are not implemented until the disease is severe, or not implemented at all, quality of life will be affected much more rapidly. 

Regular check-ups are important to monitor progress. Change can be gradual, so more formal methods of monitoring changes can be useful. By identifying 3-5 activities that your cat struggles with at the start of treatment, and rating the difficulty with which these are performed at regular intervals, response to treatment can be measured and subtle improvements noted.


Please note that the content made available on this webpage is for general information purposes only. Whilst we try to ensure that at the time of writing all material is up to date and reflects industry standards, we make no representation, warranties or guarantees that the information made available is up to date, accurate or complete. Any reliance placed by yourselves is done so at your own risk.

Last review date: 12th February 2024

Next review date: 12th February 2026