Does your older cat hurt?

In 2012, 36% of US households had pet dogs and 30% had pet cats. Even though cats are popular pets, our understanding of chronic pain in cats is poor. It is accepted among veterinarians that conditions such as osteoarthritis, cancer, cystitis, dental disease and long-term skin lesions as associated with chronic pain in cats.  Recent studies now show that the signs of pain in cats are very different than those associated with dogs.

Degenerative joint disease (DJD) refers to any degenerative changes within a joint and includes osteoarthritis.  Dogs with DJD are often lame and can have swollen, painful joints with decreased flexibility. These clinical signs can be identified by a owner at home or a veterinarian on physical exam. Cats can display lameness or a stiff gait, but usually the signs are much more subtle and easily missed.  Scientific studies have revealed that behavioral changes are the best way to detect signs of pain in cats. Decreased grooming, a reluctance or inability to jump up into their favorite places, soiling outside the litter box, changes to sleeping habits or a withdrawing from human interaction can all be signs that a cat is uncomfortable. These changes may seem vague and many people wrongly consider these changes as normal for an aging cat.

A breakthrough veterinary study randomly selected 100 cats between the ages of 6 months and 12 years. These cats were radiographed to look for degenerative joint disease. The study found that 92% of cats had at least one joint with evidence of DJD and, as the cats aged, the risk of DJD increased.  The hip joint was the most commonly affected but cats can also have DJD in their elbow, knee and hock joints. The majority of these cats did not show signs of pain or lameness to their owners or veterinarians. 

So how can you tell if your cat is painful? First, consider any behavioral changes you have seen at home. There are feline pain scores available to help gauge if your cat is uncomfortable. If you think your cat may be suffering from chronic pain, make an appointment with your veterinarian. They will determine the tests needed to determine if your cat is painful and the source of their pain. Radiographs are needed to diagnose DJD but bloodwork and urine testing may also be indicated. 

Treating pain in cats is not as straight forward as dogs, who are typically easier to medicate and rehabilitate. There are very few pain medications made specifically for cats and some cannot be given with concurrent conditions like renal disease or liver disease. This is where a partnership with your veterinarian will be crucial to find the best option for your individual pet.

There are non-drug related options to treat pain in cats. Many of the same concepts used in canine physical rehabilitation apply to cats and are better tolerated than you may expect. Massage, heat therapy, laser therapy, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) and therapeutic exercises have all been successfully used in cats with DJD.  It does require some patience and creativity on your part but it is not impossible. Some cats are even comfortable using therapeutic underwater treadmills.  Acupuncture is indicated to treat the pain associated with a large number of chronic conditions, such as DJD or cystitis. Despite many people's expectations, cats are surprisingly tolerant to acupuncture and often seem to enjoy it.

Don't believe me? Click the picture below to meet Moki, a cat with a chronic neurologic condition who receives acupucture and hydrotherapy.

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