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How to recognize—and treat—arthritis in cats

If your feline friend isn’t playing as much as usual, and has these other symptoms, it might be time to check in with your vet

Cats have a reputation as being standoffish, or aloof. Their feelings can sometimes be difficult to decode—including when they are feeling pain. What may look like reduced activity or lack of proper grooming can be signs of discomfort in your cat, especially in older cats. If your feline friend is suddenly avoiding jumping on the bed or chasing after toys, it could be a sign of arthritis.

RELATED: How to treat arthritis in dogs

How common is arthritis in cats?

Arthritis is a catch-all term that refers to inflammation of the joints and is a largely underdiagnosed condition that can lead to severe pain and discomfort in affected cats,” says Theresa W. Fossum, DVM, Ph.D., the founder of Dr. Fossum’s Pet Care

It’s common, 60% to 90% of cats are affected by arthritis, particularly those older than 12 years. Much like the condition in humans, it can cause achy joints or sore bones.

“Osteoarthritis (OA) is a more specific term that your veterinarian may use to describe a degenerative condition of your cat’s joints that leads to cartilage destruction and pain due to wear and tear,” Dr. Fossum says. When referring to arthritis in cats, osteoarthritis is generally what is being referenced.

How do you know if your cat has arthritis?

“The signs of arthritis in cats can be subtle,” says Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pet News Daily. “Pet parents might notice that their cats become less mobile and appear stiff, particularly after rest.”

Signs that your cat may have arthritis include:

  • Hesitance to jump onto or off of high surfaces
  • Difficulty climbing stairs
  • Stiffness especially after sleeping or resting
  • Problems using the litter box, including going outside the box
  • Trouble going through the cat door
  • Reduced activity or play level
  • Noticeable lack of grooming, such as scruffy coat
  • Over-grooming of painful joints
  • Resistance to being handled or pet

Some cats may limp, but this is less common. Cats with arthritis may also experience a loss of appetite, weight loss, or depression. “Osteoarthritis may occur in any joint, but is most common in the limbs (hip, shoulder, elbow, and knee) and the spine,” Dr. Fossum explains.

If you aren’t sure, the International Society of Feline Medicine provides a mobility checklist to give you an idea of if your cat is showing signs of arthritis.

What causes arthritis in cats?

There are many causes and risk factors for arthritis in cats, including:

  • Wear and tear on the joints: The normal cartilage cushion in the joints breaks down, eventually causing the bones in the joint to rub against each other.
  • Genetics: Some breeds are prone to conditions that can lead to arthritis such as hip dysplasia (abnormal development of the hip joint), patella luxation (dislocation of the kneecap), or an abnormality of cartilage.
  • Injury or trauma: Fractures, dislocations, and other joint injuries can cause abnormal joint conformation, possibly leading to secondary osteoarthritis.
  • Obesity: Obesity has not been shown to cause arthritis, but it can make arthritis worse and harder to manage.
  • Acromegaly: An uncommon condition in older cats where a tumor in the pituitary gland secretes too much growth hormone. This usually causes a cat to develop diabetes, but it can also lead to secondary arthritis in their joints.
  • Conditions or medications that affect collagen or cartilage: These can include conditions such as diabetes, or prolonged treatment with corticosteroids.

The issue of arthritis in cats is more quality of life than longevity. “Osteoarthritis is typically not life threatening in household cats that do not have to hunt and catch their food,” Dr. Fossum says. The most important thing is to treat your cat’s symptoms well enough for your pet to resume normal activities.

What is the best treatment for arthritis in cats?

There is no cure for arthritis, but there are ways to help make cats with arthritis more comfortable. “Most cats with arthritis respond best to multimodal therapy—several different types of treatment used in combination,” Dr. Coates says.

Lifestyle and environmental changes

Make your cat’s environment as arthritis-friendly as possible with these changes: 

  • If your cat is overweight, discuss a weight loss plan with your vet to help relieve some pressure on your cat’s joints
  • Provide soft, easily accessible beds in low places
  • Give access to safe heat sources such as placing a bed in a sun spot
  • Place steps or a ramp in elevated areas that your cat likes to frequent, such as the couch
  • Use an uncovered litter box, with at least one low side
  • Put food and water at floor level in raised bowls
  • Groom and clean your cat, including trimming nails

Try to keep everything your cat needs on one level of your home so your cat doesn’t have to climb stairs unnecessarily.


“Once your cat’s osteoarthritis becomes more severe, they may require painkillers, steroids, or other anti-inflammatory drugs,” says Dr. Fossum. Pain reduction is crucial for cats with arthritis, both for their comfort and to encourage exercise, which can lead to further reduction in symptoms.

Specific non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly prescribed for arthritic cats, but they must be given under the guidance of a vet. “Cats are very sensitive to NSAIDS, and you should never give Tylenol, ibuprofen, or aspirin to them,” says Dr. Fossum. “These drugs can be toxic to cats because their livers don’t metabolize them in the same way that humans do. If your cat is in severe enough pain to require medications, consult your veterinarian. They will know what drugs are safe to give and they will recommend a dose appropriate for your cat’s weight.”

In addition to, or in place of NSAIDs, other pain-relieving medications may be prescribed by your cat’s vet. These include:

If it’s a prescription that’s also given to humans, SingleCare can help you save on your cat’s medication.

RELATED: Where to fill pet prescriptions


There isn’t concrete evidence that supplements help cats with arthritis. Additionally, the industry is not regulated. The quality, including the amount of active ingredient, can vary widely.

That said, vets often say it doesn’t hurt to try supplements aimed at joint support for your cat. Feline joint support supplements typically contain omega-3 fatty acids, chondroitin sulfate, and glucosamine. As with medications, never give your cat a supplement without first checking with their veterinarian. 

Other treatments

Other treatments that may be used for cats with arthritis include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Therapeutic lasers
  • Acupuncture
  • Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs)—joint protectant injections
  • Surgery (rarely)

Knowing that arthritis is common, but often not obvious, in cats, it’s a good idea to watch for signs that your cat might be struggling with their mobility. This is especially important for senior cats, but arthritis can happen in younger cats, too.

If you do suspect that your cat has arthritis, take them to the vet for an examination, don’t try to treat your cat on your own. If your cat is receiving treatment, watch for any signs of side effects or a reaction, and also take note of what seems to be helping and what isn’t. Following up with your cat’s vet on a regular basis can help make sure your cat is getting the best quality of life they can.