Jeff Kahler: Examination, tests needed to diagnose arthritis in cat

Phyllis is a loyal reader who wrote in with a question concerning her cat, Mathilda. The 12-year-old indoor cat has slowed down quite a bit in the past year or so. She seems to be eating and drinking well, but she sleeps more than she used to and has trouble jumping onto furniture, something she used to do with minimal effort. Phyllis thinks it’s probably due to arthritis and advancing age. She has read about treatment for arthritis in dogs but wonders what she can use to treat her cat.

Certainly, cats do develop arthritis. Like any creature with a boney skeleton and joints, they can develop inflammation in those joints, termed arthritis. This is a huge field of research in human medicine and somewhat true in the veterinary world as well, especially with dogs. However, arthritis in cats has been a bit more difficult to treat.

The class of medications most commonly used to treat arthritis in dogs are called NSAIDs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. There are several available through your veterinarian and they work well in most instances. These medications in cats, however, can cause side effects that are quite serious and generally precludes their use, especially long term.

We are making an assumption that Mathilda is afflicted with arthritis and that this is what’s responsible for her “slowing down.” It is very common for caretakers to attribute changes in their companions’ behaviors and habits to old age – be it slowing down, sleeping more, decreasing exercise or any number of things. I try to never make that assumption.

One of my favorite responses to the “old age” diagnosis is “old age is not a disease.” Certainly there are changes in the body that do occur as a result of the aging process. That said, none of these changes are diseases. Certain diseases are more common as our companions age but, again, aging by itself does not mean disease.

Mathilda needs a visit to her veterinarian for a physical examination to determine what might be causing her decreased activity and jumping ability. At her age, she should have radiographs done to check her chest and abdomen, as well as her skeleton and joints. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will help determine how her heart is working and a blood sample will check several parameters including liver enzymes, kidney function, blood electrolytes, blood sugar level, a complete blood count and others. There may be other tests necessary depending on her physical exam and results of initial diagnostics. It is very important to make sure there is nothing else causing Mathilda’s symptoms before we chalk it up to arthritis.

There are special tests that can be performed to determine the presence of arthritis, however they are not usually necessary. Often, by the time a companion begins to show significant lameness from arthritis, radiographs taken of the affected area will show secondary changes in the bone. Armed with this visual information, we can give a proper diagnosis of arthritis and outline a treatment.

As we touched on, cats don’t usually tolerate the standard NSAID medications used alleviate arthritis pain in dogs. They do, however, do well with some of the supplements used in dogs. Products containing glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate have shown efficacy in some cats with arthritis and are available specifically formulated for cats from your veterinarian. If Mathilda indeed is suffering from arthritis pain, this type of treatment might just do the trick. We can also use cortisone therapy in cats. Cortisone is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication and cats generally tolerate it very well.

Hopefully, with a visit to her veterinarian and a determination of what might be slowing Mathlida down, she can be helped to improve her activity and overall quality of life.

Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.