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Osteoarthritis or Degenerative Joint Disease in cats

Degenerative joint disease is characterised by the loss of the smooth cartilage that covers and protects the end of the bones in a moveable joint.

The cartilage has no nerves so when it touches the cartilage of another bone, there is no pain. When the cartilage wears away, the bone is exposed.

The bone does have nerves so when the two bone ends in a joint touch each other it results in pain and inflammation. In degenerative joint disease we also see new bone growth form on the bone that is close to the joint. This adds to the pain.

Degenerative joint disease is progressive, meaning it continues to get worse.

Certainly any cat that is born with a joint problem is going to be more prone to developing degenerative joint disease. Cats who have had injury to a joint such as a fracture involving the joint will be more likely to develop degenerative joint disease.


The symptoms of degenerative joint disease will vary as to which joints are involved, the age of the cat and the severity of the disease.

In general, the first symptoms may be lameness in the affected limb. There may be muscle atrophy (reduction in the size of the muscle) in the affected limb because the cat is using it less, or at least putting less weight on it.

Many times the cat may find it difficult to get up after lying down and appears stiff. Cats may be unable to jump up onto a chair or windowsill. Many cats find it difficult to go up or down stairs.

Depending upon the amount of pain the cat is experiencing, there may be changes in appetite and behaviour .

The joints are generally not swollen and the pain is the dull aching type, so cats do not often cry out in pain. Some cats will lick or bite at the area that is painful. Some will seek out warmth or soft places to sleep.

Treatment and Management

Degenerative joint disease can be treated medically and surgically. Treatments that your vet may advise include a combination of a special diet containing specific fatty acids to help reduce inflammation in the joints, glucosamine/chondritin supplements (neutraceuticals) and pain killers.

Never give your cat any medications or supplements that were not prescribed by your veterinary surgeon as they may be dangerous to cats. Others means of support are:

  • Provide comfortable bedding in warm places
  • Provide shallow litter trays that are easier to get in and out of
  • Avoid using ‘heavy’ litter material
  • Clip claws regularly to prevent overgrowth
  • Spend more time grooming the cat
  • Help to reduce the need for jumping e.g. provide steps and cushions to the cat’s favourite places
  • Avoid obesity as this places strain on affected joints

Degenerative joint disease is progressive - it will continue to worsen. There are ways we can medically treat the disease to slow down the progression and many cats respond well and can live comfortably for years.