What Can I Give My Cat For Arthritis?

Updated April 8, 2023

The poor kitties. Arthritis in cats is a disease that manages to be severe, unseen, unresearched and very common all at the same time.

How common is it? Numbers vary but one study found it in 90% of cats over 12 and another in 82% over 14. Even if only half of these need treatment, we aren’t seeing anything like that in our clinics. Why?

  1. Most owners don’t recognise it: I’ll show you later what to look for but it’s not obvious
  2. Vets are even worse at spotting it: one study found our odds no better than a coin toss
  3. Very little research has been done: only three treatments have been studied
  4. Fear of side effects stops vets treating cats adequately: more on this later

Let’s start with a spotter’s guide to this most tricky of diagnoses.

Symptoms Of Arthritis In Cats

Signs are mostly vague and behavioural and can be just one of the following:

  • Reduced jumping height or ability
  • Reluctance to use stairs
  • More time spent resting
  • Objection to handling
  • Reduced interaction with people
  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in litter box use
  • Less play or hunting
  • Changes in resting areas
  • A poorly groomed coat
  • Posture change

Strikingly, what we almost never see are limping or crying out.

If you feel your cat is showing some of these signs, see your vet, but don’t feel too guilty. Instead, read how I lived with my cat for years before I realised she was in pain.

Diagnosis Of Feline Arthritis

Now it’s going to get controversial and personal. I’ll start by telling you how I won’t decide if a cat has arthritis.

I won’t trust my ability to find it by examination. Studies show that this is a poor way to identify arthritis in cats. Of course, if I do find it that’s fine.

I won’t necessarily schedule X-rays. Studies also show a poor correlation between radiographic changes and actual pain.

What I will do is ask you about your cat’s lifestyle. It’s the little clues at home that tell us the most. Especially how they jump up compared with five years ago.

Then, if I suspect that your cat is in pain, I’ll recommend a short treatment trial. It’s possibly the only way to ask a cat how they feel. If they get better, you actually know something better than if they have arthritis. You know how to help.

But treatment trials come with a strong warning…

Beware The Placebo Effect

Visit our page on knowing which pet medications work and you’ll see a study on arthritis treatment in cats. It showed that cat owners were unable to tell the difference between real effects and ‘caregiver placebo’ effects during a treatment trial.

If we don’t recognise the problem, many cats will end up on unnecessary drugs. There are two ways to combat this unconscious bias:

  1. One answer is found in the study: the placebo effect didn’t occur in reverse. Owners were correctly able to identify affected cats worsening when the trial ended.
  2. The other answer is simple: by warning you about a bias, you can fight it. If you read how I tested my cat, I didn’t tell the family so I could ask if they saw anything. Which they  certainly did!

Cat Arthritis Treatments

I’ll do my best to be as open-minded as I can but I’m also going to be blunt about where the evidence doesn’t sit. Using an ineffective treatment is not just useless, it takes the place  of something else that might actually work.

Arthritis Supplements & Home Remedies

There are many natural options for pain in cats but none have been proven to work. Based on our knowledge of arthritis in dogs (far better studied) it’s likely that fish oil and green lipped mussel products have some benefit. However, as safe as they are, that benefit is likely to be insufficient on its own.

Cat Arthritis Injections

Cartrophen, Zydax, Synovan, and Arthropen are all brands of pentosan polysulfate sodium. It’s only registered for dogs but most vets agree that it is also effective in cats. Although ‘off label’ it appears almost completely free of side effects.

Four injections are given at weekly intervals.

Monoclonal Antibody Treatment

The newest treatment is frunevetmab, a feline antibody directed at nerve growth factor. In a reasonable proportion of cats it can alleviate signs of arthritis with minimal side effects. It is given as a monthly injection and sold in Australia under the brand name Solensia.

Read more about the efficacy and safety of Solensia here.

Cat Anti Inflammatory Drugs

The biggest mistake I see is cat owners and vets worrying so much about non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) side effects that they won’t use them. Once your cat needs pain relief, these drugs are lifesavers and nearly always very safe if closely monitored.  Over my career, the only time I’ve seen a problem has been when an owner got the decimal place wrong and was giving 10 times too much! Note that paracetamol is extremely dangerous to cats.

There are only two cat NSAIDs to choose from in Australia. We use mostly meloxicam for its combination of efficacy, safety, price and ease of use. Robenacoxib is a palatable tablet that may be more effective and is a realistic second option for us.

When side effects occur they are mainly vomiting and diarrhoea due to gastrointestinal ulcers. If this happens, a pause or change in medication is required. Liver or kidney damage can occur but should be rare if blood testing is performed before, and then again shortly after starting. We even find that cats with existing kidney disease can safely go on meloxicam as long as they are closely monitored.

Prednisolone and other cortisone drugs are also anti-inflammatory but should definitely be avoided unless there’s no alternative. They do not work well and cause serious side effects at the doses that are needed.

Pain Relief in Cats With Kidney Disease

A common concern is the cat with concurrent arthritis and kidney problems. Will an NSAID cause further kidney damage? Recent studies* have given us cause for optimism. These drugs appear safe provided:

  • Kidney disease is stable, as seen by regular checkups & blood testing
  • Hydration is always good, as seen by regular drinking & good appetite
  • The lowest effective dose is used

However, owners should always be prepared for unforeseen effects, and discuss the risk versus benefit of such drugs with their vet in their specific case.

Other Pain Relief Drugs

Tramadol and gabapentin are also used as second-line pain treatments. Of the two, I rarely use tramadol due to its unpleasant taste and poor results. Gabapentin, on the other hand, is much easier to give and seems to help.

Neither is likely to work as well as an anti-inflammatory but they sometimes they’re the best we have. It’s important to state that there is no evidence for their efficacy, they are unregistered in cats and they only come as tablets or capsules unless reformulated via compounding.

Buprenorphine is an opioid that appears very safe and effective for all types of pain in cats. The problem is that it only comes as an injection with very strict legal controls. We do give syringes out for oral dosing but reserve it for special needs.

If used carefully, the only common side effects of all three drugs are mild sedation when given at higher doses.

Other Remedies

Lastly, we should never overlook other ways of treating arthritis. First among these is weight loss. For advice on weight loss in cats click here.

Second in importance are the home care ways to assist cats in pain. Keeping old cats warm via bed warmers or extra rugs seems to help a little. Their litter, food, water and bedding need to be moved to where they can be accessed easily.

I know a cat owner who put her mattress on the floor so her cat could still get on and off the bed. That’s platinum-class cat care right there!

Arthritic cats often stop using scratching poles and so the outer layers of nail build up. This will eventually cause a painful ingrown nail if it isn’t recognised. They may also often need help grooming their back and sides to prevent a matted coat.

Good luck. If you think that there isn’t much available for cats, wait until you see arthritis in rabbits!

* Monteiro, B., Steagall, P. V. M., Lascelles, B. D. X., Robertson, S., Murrell, J. C., Kronen, P. W., … & Yamashita**, K. (2019). Long‐term use of non‐steroidal anti‐inflammatory drugs in cats with chronic kidney disease: from controversy to optimism. Journal of Small Animal Practice60(8), 459-462.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

9 Replies to “What Can I Give My Cat For Arthritis?”

  1. There is a Facebook group called Solensia Killed My Cat. It’s worth taking a look at. I just joined the group because I do my research. I hope you will allow this comment so that others can learn from it. Thank you.

    1. Hi Anne. I’ll definitely allow this comment just to point out that every new product has “[insert new product] killed my [insert species]” webpages and Facebook groups. I strongly believe it’s more about the nature of the internet than the nature of these products, unless they are all doing it! My opinion is that many animals are deprived of effective remedies through scare campaigns.

  2. My cat is 22 and has very bad arthritis for a number of years. She was on medication and it helped but recently it has got much much worse. A friend has suggested trying Solensia as it helped her 12 year old cat. Our vet and ourselves think our wonderful Juno is near the end of life. Should we suggest using Solensia?

  3. My first cat had arthritis from the age of 11, and lived half of her life with it.
    When it was cold, she even cried because of pain.
    Unfortunately there aren’t much decent cure to give cat reliefs.

    We found she had arthritis only when she was 14 years old (overweight and with folded ears, a great combination).

  4. My 16 year old cat has been on Tramadol Transdermal for at least 12 months and six monthly injections x 4 of something else. She has recently got worse with her hissing whenever we try to pick her up. She is obviously in a lot of pain. What would you suggest the next move to be?

    1. Hi Pat. The injections will be pentosan polysulfate. My next move would be either meloxicam or gabapentin, but ask your vet for local advice.

  5. My cat is acting really strange.He has arthritis and is nearly 12 years old.
    For the last 2 weeks he’s been over pruning him self all the time and now he hardly eats..I have tried everything including different foods and biscuits and this Rose hip powder.The vets give him arthertis injection once a fortnight but not anti inflammatory why I don’t know.?
    He’s had full blood test and all ok just his protein is low and needs to eat other wise his body mass will break down.
    Can you give me a reason why he’s not eatting..Getting worried.Do you think he needs an ultra sound,??

    1. Hi Yvonne. I have never seen a cat stop eating from arthritis so I would worry that there’s another cause waiting to be found. You’ve done everything right- it can just be very hard sometimes to see the problem. I would take him back for another look, or more testing.

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