Tips for a lethargic cat

Updated: March 2, 2015 – 4:59 pm

Dear Dr. Mirodone,

My cat Jazz has been having difficulty jumping lately and doesn’t want to walk down the stairs to his litter box.  I think he might have arthritis.  Is there something that can be done be for him, or is he just getting old?

Thank you,


Dear Lillian,

Arthritis is a very common condition in cats.  In fact, research shows that 90 percent of cats over 12 years of age suffer from some degree of arthritis! 

Arthritis is a chronic degenerative disease of the joint in which the cartilage of the joint is damaged. Cartilage covers the ends of bones and helps cushion the joint and allows it to glide smoothly. When cartilage is damaged, a series of inflammatory changes occurs, eventually leading to destruction of cartilage and the underlying bone. Cartilage contains no nerves, so if your pet is showing any signs of pain, the source of it is the underlying bone.

Signs of arthritis include: reduced jumping, more matting over the back (because it is more difficult to bend to reach the lower back), resistance to being brushed (because it hurts to press on a sore back or legs), irritability, lameness and sometimes inappropriate urination (because getting to and from the litter box is more difficult). 

As the occurrence of these symptoms is gradual, and usually happens in senior cats, pet owners naturally think that their kitty is simply getting old.  Many times it is not until advanced symptoms, such as limping, or other signs of debilitation occur, that owners seek help from their veterinarian. Your veterinarian can often diagnose arthritis based on a physical exam and radiographs of the suspected joints. 

Arthritis is almost always painful, and once established, it does not go away.  In fact, it usually gets worse over time. Chronic pain, even mild, will affect your cat’s disposition and quality of life. Fortunately, with the advances in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, there are many options for treatment. In more advanced cases a combination of the following therapies will be employed.

Environmental changes are often needed to accommodate cats with reduced mobility. Some tips include: low profile litter boxes, placement of steps to ease the cat’s access to his favorite spots, moving the litter box from the basement to the floor where the cat spends most of her time, and heating disks or pads (when supervised).

Weight control is extremely important. Overweight cats are predisposed to arthritic changes and simply getting them to a good weight may greatly reduce the severity of their clinical signs. Cats that do not have kidney disease will often benefit from a switch to a high protein, low carbohydrate diet.  It is easier to make a low carbohydrate canned diet then a dry food, so many veterinary nutritionists recommend canned food exclusively for cats.  For cats that will only eat dry food, you could consider Young Again, a Minnesota Company that makes high protein dry cat foods.  

There are many options for medications when weight loss is not enough. Nutritional supplements such as Glucosamine and omega fatty acids can be very helpful. Dasequin is the brand name of a joint supplement for cats that you can sprinkle on their food.  At Westgate Pet Clinic, we have found that cats respond well to injectable glycosaminoglycan (Adequan).  These injections are given in the muscle or under the skin and are administered as an initial series of 6 shots and then every four to eight weeks as maintenance.  Most cats will start to show improved mobility after just a couple of injections.  Acupuncture is also very helpful for cats with arthritis and they tolerate the acupuncture treatment quite well.   

For cats that are still having pain and mobility issues from arthritis, your veterinarian may prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (like Onsior), a medication for chronic pain called Gabapentin, or opioids in severe cases.

Despite the progressive nature of arthritis, many things can be done to ensure that you kitty will live a long and comfortable life!

Dr. Olivia Mirodone is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. This column rotates among vets at Westgate. Email your pet questions to [email protected].