We often think of older dogs being arthritic and having stiff joints and tense muscles. Cats have the same problems but tend to hide their pain and suffering. It can be difficult to observe a cat’s abnormal gait because older cats slow down and become inactive. They do not trot around on a leash or even walk around freely especially in a exam room. Nor are they willing to bounce around the room searching for a treat. The best way to evaluate musculoskeletal issues in a aging cat is to have your cat examined by a veterinarian.
The physical exam starts with getting an accurate weight. Many older indoor cats are overweight. They may seem to be in good flesh to owners but palpation by the veterinarian often reveals that they have lost muscle mass over the hips and thighs. These cats add fat from the inactivity caused by painful arthritis. It is difficult for these cats to even groom themselves and they often appear unkempt with a matted coat. A thorough examination often reveals painful areas, stiff joints and taut muscle bands. Cats will often signal a painful area during palpation by giving the examiner a stare, making a fast turn or tensing muscle groups. A grumpy growl is a sure sign that the older cat in some discomfort and will need further diagnostics.
Diagnostics start with lab work to rule out other kitty diseases (chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism). It is important to check blood pressure before sedating the kitty for radiographs. A more complete orthopedic exam of the joints is also performed while it is sedated. The x-rays are helpful to identify joints that are arthritic and how severe the changes are to the joints. It is common to have degenerative joint disease in the hips, elbows and vertebrae. The resulting myofascial pain can become debilitating in the older cat, which is why owners often report that older cats stay in one place in the house. The inactivity is not because they are sleepy or senile. It is because it hurts to move. Most of these older cats have chronic kidney disease and need to drink lots of water. One study has reported that co-occurrence is as high as 68 percent. This is why it is recommended to keep the water handy for these older stiff cats. Make sure there are several dishes of fresh water available at all times or think about getting a drinking fountain.
There are treatments and ways to manage arthritic cats. Weight loss is a good start to decrease extra fat that the kitty is hauling around. There are excellent prescription diets that will also help with the concurrent kidney disease. Anti-inflammatory drugs can work wonders but have to be used judiciously if there is a kidney issue. Gabapentin is widely used in humans for nerve pain and is now commonly used in cats (and dogs) for chronic musculoskeletal issues. A good joint supplement to try is called Dasuquin that helps to lubricate cartilage surfaces. Depending on the temperament of the cat, we are finding that therapeutic laser therapy and massage will really soften up the tense muscles. Some of these alternate therapies enable the clinician to reduce the oral medicines. This is always a benefit when treating cats. Our senior feline friends can enjoy their golden years if we recognize the signs of discomfort and cater to them.