How Long Can a Cat Live With Arthritis? Senior Care Advice
If your cat has been diagnosed with arthritis, you understandably have concerns about their health and future, and want to know how long can a cat live with arthritis. The good news is that many cats with arthritis can still enjoy a long and happy life with appropriate treatment and care.
In this article, we'll provide information to help you give your arthritic cat the best care possible and discuss the following:
- What is feline osteoarthritis, including the causes, signs, and diagnosis
- The prognosis and life expectancy for cats with arthritis
- Pain-relief and additional ways to improve your cat's quality and length of life
- Guidance on how to know when its time to consider euthanasia
What Is Arthritis in Cats?
Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis, is a common condition, particularly in older cats, characterized by joint pain and inflammation due to a gradual loss of protective cartilage. Multiple joints may be affected, such as the hips, knees, ankles, elbows, shoulders, and wrists.
Cat arthritis can be primary, which is associated with aging and the gradual wear and tear of joints over time, or secondary, where cartilage deterioration is accelerated due to an underlying condition, such as a joint injury, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or a luxating patella.
Signs of arthritis in cats include:
- A stiff gait
- Less willing to move and play
- Difficulty jumping and using stairs
- Eliminating over the edge of the litter box
Veterinarians diagnose arthritis by observing a cat's mobility (either in the consulting room or using home videos) and performing a physical examination. X-rays may also be taken to visualize the joints but are not always necessary if the clinical picture fits (an elderly cat with a gradual onset of mobility issues).
For more information on arthritis causes, signs, diagnosis, and assessing pain, read The Complete Guide to Arthritis in Cats.
How Long Can Cats Live With Arthritis?
There is no cure for arthritis in cats. However, cats can live a normal life expectancy, and the prognosis is good if their pain can be controlled with medications and supplements. Some cats also respond well to the additional use of alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, laser therapy, massage, and Assisi Loops.
Arthritis is not considered life-threatening unless the pain is so severe that it can't be relieved with treatment or a cat is too challenging to medicate. However, there are now a variety of pain-relief medications available, such as flavored oral medications that many cats readily accept, and monthly injections that are easy to administer. By working with your veterinarian, a suitable pain relief plan can usually be established. A cat's arthritis tends to worsen gradually, so regular checkups are required as the pain relief plan may need to be adjusted.
What Can Be Given to Help With Cat Arthritis Pain?
Arthritis pain in cats is usually addressed with a multimodal approach, for example, combining pain relief with supplements and also considering other therapies, such as acupuncture and massage.
1. Arthritis Pain Medications
Always speak to your vet about the drugs available to help with arthritis. Individual responses to medications may vary, so strictly under the guidance of your vet, different options, combinations, and doses may need to be trialed.
2. Arthritis Supplements
Before starting supplements, consult your vet, especially if your cat takes other medications or has another illness.
Clinical studies demonstrating the efficacy of joint supplements in cats are lacking. However, one study found feeding a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin over a 9-week period significantly increased activity in cats with arthritis.1 Another study found arthritic cats who were given an omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for 10 weeks had increased activity levels, less stiffness, and more interactions with their owner.2 Fish oil and green-lipped mussel oil are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
It may be a matter of finding which, and if any, supplements work well for your cat, taking into consideration that it can take several weeks to see results. Always purchase from a reputable company that produces high-quality supplements, and can be easily contacted for further information about their products.
How Can I Improve My Cat's Quality and Length of Life?
In this section, we will explore 9 ways you can help keep your older cat happy and healthy.
1. Regular Veterinary Checkups
It's common for older cats to develop health issues, such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes, dental disease, heart disease, cancer, hyperthyroidism, and high blood pressure. Regular checkups can help detect and treat problems in the early stages, before any obvious symptoms, helping to extend your cat's quality and, hopefully, length of life. Since cats are living longer, it's not uncommon for them to develop multiple health conditions that need to be managed.
Problems can either be cured, such as dental issues, managed to slow the progression, such as chronic kidney disease, or treated before they present in a crisis, such as sudden blindness due to high blood pressure.
Checkups typically include a physical examination, bloodwork, urinalysis, and blood pressure measurement. CatCare4Life recommends yearly checkups for mature cats, increasing to twice yearly once they reach 11 years of age. If a health problem is identified and requires more frequent monitoring, your vet will advise how often your cat needs to be seen.
2. Prompt Veterinary Care
Cats often hide signs of illness, so even if you notice subtle changes in their behavior, it's best to contact your vet for advice. You know your cat better than anyone, so trust when you sense they are not quite right. Also, don't just assume they are normal changes because your cat is aging, as they may be due to an underlying medical condition that is treatable.
Potential changes you may notice in an older cat include:
- Decreased activity levels
- Excessive vocalisation
- Disorientation and confusion
- Increased/decreased thirst
- Increased/decreased appetite
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Increased urination or blood in the urine
- Breathing difficulties
- Reduce hearing or eyesight
3. Maintaining Adequate Hydration
Cats have a low thirst drive, but their thirst response can decrease further as they age, putting them at increased risk of dehydration, particularly if they have an illness that causes increased urination, such as diabetes or chronic kidney disease, or they become forgetful due to cognitive dysfunction. Dehydration can lead to additional issues, such as constipation.
Feeding canned food, offering flavored water, and providing plenty of bowls around the house can help maintain your cat's hydration. For more ideas on how to get your cat to drink more water, read 20 Tips to Get Your Cat to Drink More Water. If your cat refuses wet food, read How to Get a Cat to Eat Wet Food.
4. Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Maintaining your cat's ideal weight can help improve their quality and length of life. One of the best ways to do this is by learning how to score your cat's body condition, which allows you to track if they are becoming overweight or underweight. For a step-by-step guide, read How to Body Condition Score Your Cat.
Being overweight is common in adult cats and can put extra strain on joints, worsening signs of arthritis. To learn more about the health problems associated with excessive weight, read 12 Cat Obesity Health Risks You Should Know. If your cat is too fat and needs to slim down, read The Best Diet Plan for Cats.
Although obesity is one of the most common nutritional disorders in adult cats, from around 12 years of age, cats will naturally start to lose fat and muscle mass, and are prone to becoming underweight.3 It's helpful to have digital pet scales at home and record your cat's weight every 2-4 weeks. If you notice their body condition score or weight is unintentionally trending down, it's essential to inform your vet so they can investigate for underlying health conditions.
Preventing cats from becoming too thin ensures they have plenty of reserves to cope with chronic illnesses they may have or develop. To help prevent weight loss in a senior cat, consider the following:
- A veterinary health check. Book a veterinary visit to check for diseases that can cause weight loss, such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and gastrointestinal disease.
- Dentals. Although cats rarely stop eating due to dental disease, they certainly can eat less if their mouth is painful, so having a veterinarian check their mouth is pain-free and healthy is important, especially if they have bad breath, red gums, chew on one side, or drool.
- Food texture. Cats with dental issues or who have had most of their teeth removed may prefer softer foods like pate and mousse. Mashing the food may also make it easier to consume.
- Senior diets. Older cats are less efficient at digesting fats and proteins, so should be provided with a high-quality and easily digestible diet, such as Purina Pro Plan 11+ Wet Food or Hill's Science Plan 11+ Dry food.
- Fading senses. Since a cat's sense of smell and taste naturally declines with age, offer highly palatable and fragrant flavors, or try warming the food up to release the aromas.
- Ad-lib feeding. Provide their food ad-lib (available at all times) or frequently throughout the day.
- Whisker-friendly. Some cats prefer wide, shallow whisker-friendly bowls or plates, as they don't like their sensitive whiskers touching the side of the bowl.
- Multiple food bowls. Since cats are naturally solitary feeders, placing multiple food bowls in separate locations is best if you have more than one cat, as aging cats may not cope well with the competition and usually prefer to be fed separately.
- Food bowl location. Place food bowls in a quiet area, where they can be easily accessed, and away from their water bowl and litter box (cats in the wild tend to eat, drink, and toilet in separate locations to avoid contamination).
- Raised bowls. If your cat has arthritis, provide them with a raised bowl for comfort, as it puts less strain on the neck, shoulders, and elbows.
- Praise. Some cats respond well to words of encouragement and gentle petting while eating.
- Never force feed. Do not force feed a cat with food in a syringe as it will likely cause them to dislike both you and the food, you are very unlikely to be able to feed them an adequate amount, and there is a risk of inhaling it into their lungs. If a cat is unwell, not eating, and losing weight, you need to visit the vet to address the underlying problem, and they may require appetite stimulants, anti-nausea medication, or a feeding tube.
5. Appropriate Nutrition
Older cats can be fed senior diets formulated to meet their changing nutritional needs and help slow down processes associated with aging. However, if they have a health condition, such as chronic kidney disease, they may require a prescription diet. Speak to your veterinarian about the best food for your cat's age, activity level, and health status.
6. Regular Exercise
Mild, regular, and low-impact exercise can benefit older cats, including those with arthritis, by improving muscle tone, reducing joint stiffness, and providing physical and mental stimulation. It is important to keep in mind your cat's physical limitations and tailor the activities accordingly.
Ideas to encourage daily exercise include:
- Gentle play with fishing rod-style toys
- Interactive feeders that are not overly challenging
- Simple tricks using clicker training
- Walk in the garden or an outdoor enclosure
- Cat game apps on smartphones and tablets
- Cat trees and climbing structures
7. A Comfortable Living Environment
As cats age and become less mobile, we must adjust their environment to help keep them comfortable. Consider the following suggestions:
- A soft bed that is gentle on their joints, ideally with optional heating, since it's harder to keep warm due to a lack of muscle and fat.
- Multiple food and water bowls around the house.
- Multiple indoor litter boxes with low entrances that are easy to climb into, and ideally, soft sand-like litter that is gentle on their delicate feet.
- Some cats may find flat cardboard scratchers easier to use than upright scratching posts, especially if they have arthritis in their back legs.
- All resources should be in easy-to-access locations.
- Use cat stairs so they can still easily access their favorite resting posts, such as the window sill or the couch.
- If you have tiled or wooden floors, place non-slip rugs along routes they regularly walk.
- If your cat yowls at night and medical causes have been ruled out, such as high blood pressure and cognitive dysfunction, providing night lights may help them see better and reduce their stress if they have fading eyesight.
For more information, read How Can I Improve My Arthritic Cat's Comfort?
8. Grooming and Massage Sessions
Senior cats need lots of love and attention, including pampering sessions.
Coat brushing. Unkempt fur is common in older cats and gentle daily grooming sessions can help keep their skin and coat healthy. If a cat develops mats, it is often because of a lack of grooming due to sore joints or a painful mouth. Ideally, they should be taken to an experienced groomer, or to reduce stress, consider having a mobile groomer come to your home. If your cat is a bit dirty, it may be better to use gentle wipes, such WaterWipes, to clean them rather than a bath, which can be stressful.
Nail care. Overgrown, thickened nails are also common in older cats since their nails shed less easily and can become so long you hear them tapping on the floor, or they may even grow into the paw pad, which is extremely painful. Small, sharp nail trimmers should be used to regularly trim their nails, but it's best to have training from a veterinary nurse or groomer first to avoid cutting the quick (pink bit), as doing so will cause pain and bleeding. Get your cat used to having the nails extended by pressing on the paw pad, and once they are comfortable with this, you can start trimming, even if only a few nails at a time. Keep the experience positive by offering them treats and not pushing them so far they get upset.
Massage. When cats have arthritis, the muscles surrounding a painful joint can tighten and spasm, which causes further discomfort. To relax the muscles in their legs and either side of their spine, massage the muscle between your thumb and index finger, using circular motions and adjusting the pressure depending on their preference.
9. Managing Stress
A consistent, stable, and predictable environment is important to help prevent stress in older cats. Also, since they now require more regular veterinary visits and potentially oral medications, which can be a source of stress for both them and you (and can potentially damage your bond), we have some tips to help you manage these worries.
How to reduce stress when visiting the vet:
- Use a suitable carrier. Ideally, the carrier should be spacious and sturdy so your cat feels comfortable and secure. A large door on the top can make it easier to place them inside and lift them out. It's also helpful if the top half detaches from the bottom half, as your cat can remain in the base of the carrier during the examination, and there is no need to tip or drag them out, which causes stress.
- Blankets inside the carrier. To improve your cat's comfort, place a blanket that smells like them inside the carrier, which they can also use to hide under.
- Familiarize your cat with the carrier. Remove the carrier's door and leave it out in your home at all times so your cat doesn't just associate it coming out with a potentially stressful event. Place blankets and toys in it, and give them treats and food while in the carrier to create a positive association. Now and again, place them in the carrier and let them come straight back out if they want to so they don't always associate being placed in the carrier with going to the vet.
- Cover the carrier. Some cats prefer the carrier completely or partially covered with a large towel to feel more hidden and help create a cozy, secure environment.
- Use pheromone sprays. Feliway Classic Spray contains calming cat pheromones that can be sprayed inside their carrier and on their blanket. Ideally, it should be used 20 minutes prior to traveling so the alcohol it contains has time to evaporate and you don't accidentally create an aversive smell.
- Play classical music. Soft, calming classical music, which is not too loud, can help to relax your cat during the car ride.
- Stay calm. Your cat can pick up on your emotions, so try to remain calm and relaxed during the trip.
- Reward your cat. Bring your cat's favorite treats to give during and after the consultation.
- Cat-friendly clinics. Many practices now have 'cat-friendly' accreditation, for example, they provide separate waiting areas for dogs and cats, and staff are trained in gentle feline handling techniques.
- Medication. Gabapentin has anti-anxiety effects and can be administered to a cat a couple of hours before their appointment to help them relax. Speak to your vet to see if this is a possible option.
- Home visits. Some owners find home visits preferable when possible, as their cat is more relaxed in their own environment.
How to reduce stress when administering medications:
- Create a calm environment. Choose a quiet room with no distractions, and keep the noise level to a minimum.
- Use treats. Offer your cat a treat before and after administering the medication to help create a positive association.
- Hide the medication in food. Use Pill Pockets, irresistible Churu Treats, or a small amount of wet food to hide the medication. Always check with your vet if giving the medication with food is okay.
- Crush the tablet. Tablets can be crushed using a Pill Crusher or between two metal spoons. They can then be mixed with a tasty treat or food, or a small amount of water and given slowly via a syringe. Always check with your vet if it's okay to crush the tablet.
- Wrap your cat in a towel. Sometimes snuggly wrapping your cat in a towel so only their head is exposed, and having someone else hold them, or holding them between your legs, prevents them from running away or pushing the medication away with their paws.
- Tilt your cat's head up. Gently tilting your cat's head up, so their nose is towards the ceiling will make it easier to open their mouth and place the pill towards the back of the throat.
- Different formulations. Check with your vet if different formulations are available, such as palatable (tasty) tablets, slow-release (so they can be administered less frequently), liquids (which you may find easier to give), more concentrated forms (so the volume is less), or transdermal (can be applied to the inside of the ear).
- Pill poppers. Soft-ended Pill Poppers can be used to gently place the tablet toward the back of your cat's throat.
- Empty gelatin capsules. If your cat receives multiple medications, you can combine them into one easy-to-give Gelatin Capsule, or if the tablet is bitter, place it in a gelatin capsule so they can't taste it.
- Prioritise medications. If your cat receives multiple medications and you are struggling, speak to your vet about which are the most important and if any can be discontinued.
- Pain. Check with your vet if your cat has dental or neck pain (due to arthritis), as this may cause them to resist being medicated. If a cat has arthritis, being restrained may be painful, and a gentle approach will be required.
- Seek professional help. If you still have difficulty administering medications to your cat, speak to your veterinarian or a veterinary nurse. They can provide additional advice and support to help you and your cat.
How Will I Know When It's Time to Euthanize an Arthritic Cat?
Considering euthanasia for a cat with arthritis can be an emotional and challenging decision. Your beloved feline friend may be experiencing continuous pain and discomfort, despite being on medication, or it may not be possible to medicate them because they find it too stressful. Additionally, since arthritis is typically a disease of older cats, they may have additional health concerns.
To help you know when it might be time, we need to consider your cat's quality of life, which involves reflecting on their well-being and how much joy they experience each day. However, it's also important to consider your own quality of life and well-being. We've compiled a list of thoughtful questions to guide you in this difficult decision-making process.
- Is your cat's arthritic pain not controlled, and are they always uncomfortable?
- Have they stopped doing everyday activities like walking, playing, and jumping?
- Are they experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety, for example, because of regular vet visits, daily medications, or another reason?
- Are they eating less and gradually losing weight?
- Are they not able to drink enough and frequently become dehydrated?
- Is their poo and pee abnormal, or do they sometimes not make it to the litter box in time?
- Do they often seem nauseous or vomit?
- Do they have any difficulties breathing?
- Do they wander and vocalize throughout the night?
- Have they become withdrawn and unwilling to interact, or interact only negatively, such as through aggression or fear?
- Have they stopped grooming or cleaning themselves?
- Do they have skin issues that make them constantly itchy or overgroom?
- Have finances been exhausted on diagnostics and treatment?
- Are you experiencing caregiver burdens, such as anxiety, stress, and fatigue, due to the emotional, time, and physical strains of caring for a loved one with a chronic illness?
If you answer 'yes' to any of these questions, then it's essential to determine whether these problems can be solved or not.
We strongly suggest you speak to your vet and let them know your concerns. Your vet may suggest euthanasia as an option, but even if they don't, you should let them know it has become a consideration for you, as it's important to have open and honest conversations. They should be able to offer guidance and a medical perspective based on their knowledge and experience. If you have a friend or family member that you usually talk problems over with, it's also worth reaching out to them.
Euthanasia does not mean you are giving up. It is an act of kindness to let our beautiful friend peacefully pass so they are no longer suffering. Owners can experience huge amounts of grief after their cat has passed, and you should consider reaching out to a counselor or bereavement helpline if you are struggling.
Additional Ways to Help Know When It's Time
More Bad Days Than Good
Use a calendar to record whether each day was good, bad, or neutral for your cat, which can help you visually track their well-being. If the proportion of bad days is increasing, it's time for an additional intervention (such as more pain relief) or to consider euthanasia.
They’re No Longer Able to Do the Things They Love
As arthritis progresses, your cat may be unable to do things they love, such as playing with toys, jumping on furniture, enjoying affection, or exploring outside. Make a list of activities your cat enjoys and monitor their ability to do them. If your cat's ability to participate in these activities declines, it may be time to consider euthanasia.
Where Can I Learn More About Feline Osteoarthritis?
For more information on arthritis causes, signs, diagnosis, pain assessment, and treatment, read The Complete Guide to Arthritis in Cats.
- Lascelles, B.D.X. et al. (2010) “Evaluation of a therapeutic diet for feline degenerative joint disease,” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 24(3), pp. 487–495.
- Corbee, R.J. et al. (2012) “The effect of dietary long-chain omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on owner’s perception of behaviour and locomotion in cats with naturally occurring osteoarthritis,” Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition [Preprint].
- Perez-Camargo G. (2004) "Cat nutrition: What is new in the old?" Compendium of Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian, (26):5–10.