Degenerative joint disease – cats suffer as well

Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a condition which results in progressive and long-term deterioration and damage of cartilage within joints. We’re all used to seeing it in dogs as they get old, but how often do we recognise it in cats? The reality is that they too suffer from this painful condition, so it’s important to look out for this with any ageing feline. Indeed, all mammals can develop this medical problem, including rabbits.

Posted: 12 August 2019

Degenerative joint disease – cats suffer as well

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What are the signs of DJD?

Cats tend not to show overt signs of lameness such as limping. They do however have other recognisable problems arising from chronic pain, so be on the lookout for;

  • Irritability – some cats will be a bit grumpier and their owners may notice them growling, hissing or holding their heads low with their ears held back.
  • Stiff-legged gait – always ask if the cat is able to walk up and down stairs. Cats with DJD will hesitate or maybe rest as they take one step at a time to climb.
  • Difficulty grooming – look for matted clumps of hair around the back legs and tail.
  • Swollen or painful joints – these can often be detected in a routine consultation. Joint effusions may be palpable, so touch, feel and compare opposite joints.
  • Problems getting in and out of the litter tray – accidents may be reported in and around the litter tray.
  • Reluctance or difficulty jumping onto furniture – some owners may comment that they’ve noticed their cat no longer sleeping in the usual preferred place, but on the floor instead.

What are the causes of DJD?

We usually don’t find a primary cause of DJD, but there can be a variety of secondary triggers, such as;

  • Abnormal wear – particularly on the joints and cartilage.
  • Obesity – a cat carrying an excessive amount of weight may be more prone to mobility problems.
  • Dislocation of the patella – this is often acquired after a road traffic accident or fall. You might also see it more frequently in Abyssinian and Devon Rex breeds.
  • Hip dysplasia – this has been reported in the Maine Coon, Persian and Siamese breeds.

How do we diagnose the condition?

This condition is usually confirmed from an assessment of the history together with the clinical signs. Ask lots of questions and have a good feel of the joints, checking for range of movement, pain, muscle atrophy, swellings, effusions and crepitus. Radiography and joint aspirates may be taken to help differentiate the chronic form of DJD from other causes of arthritis, such as infections and immune diseases.

7 ways to treat feline degenerative joint disease

It’s most important to ensure that your client understands and accepts that this disease cannot be cured. Fortunately though, there are some effective medical approaches to the management of DJD aimed at controlling the signs and symptoms of the disease.

1. Analgesics - we are lucky to be able to prescribe a range of helpful analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs. The most commonly used drugs are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). To minimise the risk of side-effects, the drug should be selected with care, using the lowest effective dose for each individual patient.

  • Meloxicam is efficient in managing arthritis in cats, and when used appropriately, side-effects are rare.

Other commonly used analgesics include;

  • Buprenorphine - 25-40 times more potent than morphine and longer lasting
  • Tramadol – beware of some side effects such as constipation, drowsiness, hallucinations, nausea and vomiting
  • Gabapentin - frequently prescribed for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal pain 

When selecting a treatment plan, make sure you prescribe according to the rules of the cascade.

2. Surgery - sometimes you may recommend surgery to alleviate some of the signs of DJD. This may include the removal of fragments of bone or cartilage or the repair of a traumatically induced patella luxation.

3. Physiotherapy and massage – this is used widely these days to help increase joint mobility. If your patient is suffering from chronic joint pain, it may be worth referring to a veterinary physiotherapist. Find out more from the National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists.

4. Supplements – many owners are very aware of the potential benefits of using supplements and nutraceuticals containing glucosamine and chondroitin. Whilst there is no conclusive proof they work, there are certainly instances where you might recommend them. There are a wide range of preparations available, some which are considered better than others. Some of the more popular preparations are;

5. Diets - a food rich in omega fatty acids is sometimes recommended for decreasing inflammation. At Burgess Pet Care we stock some excellent balanced diets, all containing omega oils and made using only the highest quality ingredients. Find out more here.

6. Acupuncture - anecdotal reports suggest it can be a useful adjunctive therapy for some cats. More information can be found from the ABVA.

7. Thermotherapy – cold packs and heat pads can also be used for short-term relief of the problems associated with DJD.

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