Degenerative Joint Disease – a feline problem

Feline degenerative joint disease (DJD) is very common. The process leads to a lack of cartilage in the joint which usually causes chronic pain and leads to a reduced quality of life. Cats with degenerative joint disease often have pain in their lumbar spine, elbows, stifles, hips, shoulders and hocks. Whilst it tends to affect older animals (9 out of 10 senior cats show signs of DJD), it’s also possible to diagnose it in younger patients as well.

Posted: 14 January 2020

Degenerative Joint Disease – a feline problem


We recognise this condition when there is progressive and permanent long-term deterioration and damage to the cartilage found in joints.

What are the signs of DJD?

Unlike dogs, cats don’t overtly limp when lame. However, they do have other recognisable problems arising from chronic pain. Look for signs such as;

  • Irritability – a normally happy cat may become aggressive when handled. Some family pets may start to resent each other’s company.
  • Difficulty grooming – you might see clumps of matted fur or dry, flaky scurf on the back.
  • Swollen or painful joints – check for joint effusions and reduced movement when the joints are flexed and extended.
  • Problems getting in and out of the litter tray – some cats may end up house soiling on carpets and behind the furniture.
  • Reluctance or difficulty jumping onto furniture – owners may notice their pet no longer jumps up onto their favourite raised cat bed.
  • Reduced range of movement in and around the house – some will show difficulty or hesitancy going up or down stairs.
  • Stiffness – walking may look odd, with a stiff-legged gait.
  • Less active and playful – cats with DJD may become withdrawn and hide away.
  • Over grooming – this is usually seen where a cat will constantly lick the skin overlying a painful joint, causing hair loss or skin inflammation.

What are the causes of DJD?

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

  • Abnormal wear – particularly on the joints and cartilage.
  • Patella luxation – this is often reported in the Abyssinian and Devon Rex.
  • Hip dysplasia – congenital disease affecting some breeds such as the Maine Coon, Persian and Siamese.
  • Obesity – whilst there is no evidence that obesity alone will cause DJD, the additional stresses and forces within a joint which is already degenerating will be probably accelerate the condition.
  • Pituitary tumour – acromegaly resulting from excess growth hormone produced from a pituitary tumour can lead to DJD.

How do we diagnose the condition?

A diagnosis of DJD is usually made based on an assessment of the history and the clinical signs. Typically, we would use radiography, blood tests and joint aspirates to help differentiate the chronic form of DJD from other causes of arthritis, such as infections and immune diseases.

Treating feline DJD

Medical management of DJD is aimed at controlling the signs and symptoms. It’s most important to understand and accept that this disease cannot be cured.

A multimodal approach is preferred using a combination of treatments that improve comfort and quality of life.

  1. Weight management - overweight cats are more likely to show signs of lameness or pain associated with arthritis. Weight loss will usually make them more comfortable.
  2. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs - meloxicam and carprofen are effective for treatment of acute pain. The main worry with cats is the potential for dangerous side effects, especially if the animal is older and has an undiagnosed or underlying renal problem.
  3. Other analgesics - medications such as gabapentin, amantadine and tramadol are increasingly being used to manage chronic pain associated with DJD in cats.
  4. Environmental modifications – this is a practical way to help animals with DJD in their own home. You could suggest using steps and ramps as well as providing soft bedding around the home. Don’t forget to suggest litter trays with lower sides so the cat can get in and out with ease.
  5. Surgery – this is occasionally offered. Surgical options include joint replacement and arthrodesis and the removal of fragments of bone or cartilage.
  6. Physiotherapy and massage – this is frequently suggested to help increase joint mobility. Laser therapy and ultrasound are also used.
  7. Supplements – many of our clients are aware of the potential benefits of using supplements, especially those containing glucosamine and chondroitin. Although the evidence on glucosamine remains contradictory, there are certainly instances where we might recommend them. The truth is there may be some value and certainly little risk. Some commercially prepared foods also contain these supplements, thereby ensuring a continuous daily dose. For example, at Burgess Pet Care we produce Mature Cat with Turkey and Cranberry and Mature Dog with Chicken, both with added Glucosamine.
  8. Diets - a food rich in omega fatty acids is often recommended for decreasing inflammation.
  9. Thermotherapy – cold packs and heat pads can also be used for short-term relief of the problems associated with DJD.

Two popular Burgess products containing Glucosamine

A. Mature Dog Chicken with Glucosamine >

B. Mature Cat with Turkey & Cranberry with Glucosamine >