Cats in the wild seldom suffer from diseases associated with ageing. To put it bluntly, if they slow down, for whatever reason, they become breakfast for another animal.
However, Fluffy has you to look after her. Her own cushion, balanced food every day, a heater in winter and a safe place to hide from predators in her territory. That's why she gets really old – and she might suffer from diseases usually associated with ageing, such as osteoarthritis.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is common among humans, especially the elderly. In fact, research has shown that between 60% and 70% of people, 70 years or older, suffer from this condition. Recent studies have highlighted the occurrence of this disease among cats as well, and experts stress cat owners' responsibility to diagnose this condition in their feline friends.
Feline osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, develops when the protective layer of cartilage between joints breaks down or wears off. When this happens, the bones of a joint rub against each other and cause the bones to thicken or grow lumps, which lead to pain, swelling and loss of motion in the affected joint.
This disease cannot be cured and one can only treat symptoms and take measures to ease the animal’s pain.
90% of older cats have it
"Studies have shown that 35% of the general cat population suffer from osteoarthritis," says Dr Eithne Comerford, an animal orthopaedic surgeon and professor at the University of Liverpool in the UK. "And up to 90% of cats that are 12 years and older suffer from it," she adds.
This condition is common among older felines, but young cats can be affected as well, especially if they've previously sustained an injury to a joint. Another culprit is obesity among cats. The extra weight places additional strain on joints, which causes them to deteriorate more rapidly.
"Feline osteoarthritis can be ascribed to the domestication of cats," says Comerford. Easier lifestyles (than in the wild) and improved veterinary care drastically increase cats' lifespans, which means they get much older than before and therefore suffer from diseases of old age.
Research has found that certain breeds, such as the Maine Coon (a large North American breed), are more prone to developing osteoarthritis than other breeds. However, the cause of this has not yet been determined.
How will I know if my cat has osteoarthritis?
It is the owner's responsibility to observe telltale signs in the cat's behaviour. It may might become quieter, lazier, be reluctant to jump, appear 'stiff' and may even neglect their grooming. "Owners should be vigilant and aware," says Comerford. "If you suspect your cat might suffer from osteoarthritis, pay attention to it when it jumps or moves around."
Caring for cats with osteoarthritis
This condition cannot be cured and owners can only alleviate some of the symptoms and try and make their cats' living conditions as comfortable as possible. Comerford suggests various environment modifications to ease the affected pet’s movements:
Put up ramps or platforms to help cats reach high places;
Help to groom them;
Get a low-sided litter tray;
Ensure easy access to and from the home;
Place litter trays and food bowls in easily accessible areas.
Although joints may be painful, Comeford says owners should ensure their cats get enough exercise. "Some movement is good to keep the joint lubricated and to strengthen the muscles," she says. "Keeping the cat still for too long would actually make the joint more stiff."
If the cat would allow it, owners can do physiotherapy on the affected joint. Swimming is also great way of exercising sore joints, but cats' general hatred for water usually prohibits this.
If the cat is obese, weight loss will be necessary to alleviate stress on the affected joint.
Guy Fyvie, veterinary affairs manager for Hills Pet Nutrition, says Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil reduce inflammation in and around the joint, and also helps block an enzyme which causes damage. Speciality pet foods have been developed to aid in feline osteoarthritis, and contains all the amino acids and nutrients to maintain lean muscle mass and decreases the chance of obesity.
Veterinarians may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease pain and inhibit further inflammation of the joint. However, Comerford warns that cats are prone to kidney problems and advises owners to first do blood tests to ensure the feline patient's kidney can tolerate the painkillers.
The last avenue is surgery. "Depending on which joint is affected, a joint fusion operation can be carried out to remove a part of the joint," says Comerford. Hip replacements have been done on cats in the United States, but it's not available in South Africa yet.
(Wilma Stassen, Health24, July 2007)
- Last updated: June 2010