How Long Can a Cat Live With Arthritis?

How Long Can a Cat Live With Arthritis?

When your cat is diagnosed with arthritis, you’re bound to have questions. Besides trying to figure out how cats get arthritis and how to treat arthritis in cats, you’re probably also wondering, “how long can a cat live with arthritis?” 

You aren’t alone. Arthritis is extremely common in senior cats, with some studies suggesting there’s X-ray evidence of it in over 90 percent of older cats, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding their symptoms [1].

Although feline osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that will continue to worsen, cats with arthritis can live for a long time as long as their pain is managed. Let’s take a closer look at just how long this might be, as well as some of the treatment options open to your feline family member.

How Long Can a Cat Live with Arthritis?

Arthritis is not a life-limiting disease in itself, but it is painful. When we can manage their pain, cats with arthritis can live a normal life. But at some point, the pain becomes too much for the medications, and we need to consider euthanasia to protect their welfare. This is called a quality-of-life decision, and it’s something that every pet owner needs to be prepared to do. 

It’s very hard to predict how long a cat can live with arthritis, as it depends on individual factors like how well they tolerate being given medication, whether they have other diseases, and how old they are when they start showing signs of arthritis. 

According to a recent study in the U.S., cat life expectancy at birth is around 12 years, with some cats living into their 20s [2]. Since the chance of getting arthritis increases with age (and peaks at around 10 years), it’s quite likely that your cat is coming toward the end of their life when they’re diagnosed with arthritis anyway [3]. At that point, the chance of them getting other diseases – like kidney disease or some types of cancer – is higher too. 

Young cats with severe arthritis may only live for a year or two. Older cats with mild signs of arthritis might live for several years, unless they get another condition that complicates treatment or causes them more problems than the arthritis itself.

Cat Arthritis Treatment Options

The most important aspect of care for an arthritic cat is pain relief. Arthritis is known to be painful, and it’s usually this pain that results in cats with arthritis being euthanized. That means that the better the pain relief, and the better your cat tolerates it, the longer they’re likely to live. 

Since every cat’s arthritis is different, and every cat has a unique personality, the treatment options vary. Some treatments can have adverse effects, and while these should be monitored, they shouldn’t be a reason not to give the medication, as pain relief is so important when dealing with cat arthritis. Your veterinarian will help you determine which arthritis treatment for cats is the best for your kitty.

These are some of the most common cat arthritis medicines you might be offered:

NSAIDs

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are the mainstay of therapy for cat arthritis. They are usually well tolerated, with liquid and tablet forms available for daily dosing at home and several different drug options if your cat dislikes one. 

Your veterinarian may recommend against these drugs if your cat’s kidneys aren’t working properly, as using these drugs may cause further kidney problems and decrease life expectancy further. However, they may also recommend you cautiously continue, especially if there aren’t many other arthritis treatment options available to your cat. Vets will often say “quality of life over quantity of life” in these circumstances. In other words, the NSAIDs may reduce the life expectancy in these cats, but at least they’ll be pain-free.

Gabapentin

Gabapentin is well tolerated in cats and can be chosen for its pain-relieving properties. It’s not usually the first medication veterinarians will reach for, but it’s often used as an adjunct when NSAIDs are no longer sufficient on their own.

Opioids

Opioids are difficult to give long-term to cats, as they don’t often come in oral forms and are expensive. Your veterinarian may recommend a short course of opioids as very strong pain relief while waiting for other drugs to take effect. They may also be used in late stages to keep very arthritic cats comfortable.

Frunevetmab

While not widely available yet, this brand-new drug has changed how vets treat arthritis in cats. Given by injection, Frunevetmab is a monoclonal antibody, which means it’s actually a modified part of the immune system. Instead of attacking foreign objects or viruses, Frunevetmab blocks pain receptors to help cats with arthritis feel more comfortable, which has been life-changing in many cases.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and have proven benefits for pets with arthritis. EFAs can slow the progression of arthritis and should be used as soon as it’s suspected to get the full benefit. As they are not a drug, they can safely be given to most pets, with gastrointestinal upset being the most common side effect. EFAs are often found in cat joint supplements, or included in special “arthritis diets.”

How to Help Cats with Arthritis

There are also lots of things you can do at home to help a cat with arthritis live as comfortably as possible for as long as possible. 

Physical Therapy

It’s unlikely that your cat will be happy traveling to a physiotherapist on a regular basis, but learning some skills to keep their muscles in tip-top condition at home can help provide more comfort for a cat with arthritis. You can train your cat to do exercises at home using treats or food, which can help strengthen their muscles. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation for a cat physiotherapist.

Environmental Changes

You can also change some things at home to make your cat’s life more comfortable. Keep food and water easily accessible, so your kitty doesn’t have to jump to get there. If they have a favorite high-up spot, try giving them steps or a ramp to reach it, rather than forcing them to jump. You might want to invest in a litter tray with lower sides, or a low access area, so your cat doesn’t have to move so much to get in. A warm bed will be especially welcome, as will any extra padding you can give them. 

Handling

When it comes to how to carry a cat with arthritis, it’s important to be gentle. As you’re handling, petting, or carrying them, be mindful that they may be sore. Try not to move joints if you can help it, and be careful where you squeeze. Cats with painful osteoarthritis can be grumpy, which means they may be more likely to lash out than usual.

Weight Loss

If your cat is overweight, helping them get to a more comfortable weight can be beneficial. Not only will this reduce the dose of drugs they need, it will also reduce the pressure on their joints and may mean they can (temporarily) come off drugs altogether. Talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s ideal weight and how to reach it safely.

Monitoring

You also need to keep a close eye on your cat’s symptoms and response to treatment. Best sure to do this regularly and frequently, as well as whenever there has been a change in medication. While you can just observe your cat, sometimes it’s hard to be objective about how they’re doing, especially since cats hide signs of pain so well. Questionnaires like the Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Index can be a good way to make sure you’re assessing your cat properly and in the same manner each time.

Understanding the Stages of Cat Arthritis

Although vets don’t tend to formally ‘stage’ cat arthritis by giving it a grade like they might for a heart murmur, feline arthritis can be thought of in a few stages:

  • At risk
  • Preclinical
  • Clinical

At Risk

“At risk” cats are those who have had a previous joint injury or are overweight – these cats are very likely to have joint problems and owners might want to start joint supplements at an early age. This stage of arthritis doesn’t have any major impact on life expectancy.

Preclinical

“Preclinical” cats are those who have evidence of arthritis on their X-rays, but that don’t have obvious symptoms. This is the majority of cats, as they’re masters at hiding signs of pain. Unfortunately, it’s not possible at this stage to tell how much pain cats are in and how quickly they will become worse.

Clinical

Cats with “clinical” arthritis are showing signs of pain; this suggests severe arthritis, and it’s time to start treatment or consider euthanasia. Cats showing signs of pain have a limited life expectancy – they’ll need to start daily medications, and you’ll have to regularly assess their quality of life. The real telling point will be once they’ve started medication. If they drastically improve, they’re likely to cope for longer than if the drugs make little difference.

Talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s arthritis as soon as you notice signs, such as your elderly cat struggling to walk or jump. Cats are excellent at hiding signs of pain, which means that cats with symptoms usually have bad arthritis. This doesn’t mean it isn’t manageable, though! Some cat parents may worry that the vet will tell them to euthanize their pet, but that’s not going to happen unless you’ve tried all of the treatment options and they aren’t working, or you refuse to treat your cat.

Cat Euthanasia: How to Tell When it’s Time 

Most arthritic cats will be euthanized due to another disease process, or due to the pain being too severe for the treatments available. Once your cat is showing signs of arthritis, you need to watch their quality of life and be prepared to make a decision when they appear to be suffering.

It’s often hard to tell whether cats are in pain, and this can make it difficult to know when to euthanize a cat with arthritis. Your veterinarian will be able to talk through your cat’s symptoms at any stage of your arthritis journey and help you assess whether your cat still has quality of life. They might suggest you think about:

  • Whether your cat can still do things they enjoy
  • Whether your cat is limping, yowling, or showing other signs of severe pain
  • Whether there are more good days than bad days

Remember, your veterinarian won’t force you to euthanize your cat, and they won’t automatically recommend euthanasia just because your cat is old. The sooner you reach out to them, the more help they can give you to make your cat comfortable until you know it’s time.

Feline arthritis is incredibly common, but most cats hide the signs of pain until it’s severe. Talking to your vet at the earliest opportunity can help reduce your cat’s pain and slow down the progression of arthritis, allowing them to live a happy life for longer.

References

  1. Lascelles, B Duncan X et al. “Cross-sectional study of the prevalence of radiographic degenerative joint disease in domesticated cats.” Veterinary surgery : VS vol. 39,5 (2010): 535-44. doi:10.1111/j.1532-950X.2010.00708.x
  2. Montoya, Mathieu et al. “Life expectancy tables for dogs and cats derived from clinical data.” Frontiers in veterinary science vol. 10 1082102. 21 Feb. 2023, doi:10.3389/fvets.2023.1082102
  3. Clarke, S P et al. “Prevalence of radiographic signs of degenerative joint disease in a hospital population of cats.” The Veterinary record vol. 157,25 (2005): 793-9. doi:10.1136/vr.157.25.793

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