Arthritis in Cats and Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common conditions of the joints that affects both dogs and cats. Up to a quarter of dogs may develop arthritis during their lifetime, and veterinarians believe it may be more prevalent in cats than previously thought. While the disease is most often found in senior pets, it can affect dogs and cats of all ages.

In This Article

Osteoarthritis causes changes to joint tissues, including loss of cartilage, thickening of joint capsules, and changes to the surrounding bone. In healthy joints, cartilage protects the bones from one other, but in arthritic joints, the loss of cartilage results in the bones rubbing against each other, causing pain and inflammation. It’s a degenerative disease, meaning it gets worse over time.

The joints usually affected in both cats and dogs are the elbow, ankle, knee, and hip. Understanding the causes, symptoms, treatment options, and preventative measures will help you keep your pet comfortable and active.

Signs & Symptoms of Osteoarthritis in Cats and Dogs

Symptoms of osteoarthritis in cats and dogs may vary depending on the joint affected and the degree of degeneration, but often include:

  • Decreased activity

  • Reluctance to exercise or play

  • Stiffness

  • Lameness or favoring one leg

  • Changes to stance or gait (such as a hunched appearance or “bunny hopping”)

  • Inability or reluctance to jump or climb stairs

  • Behavioral changes (including aggression)

  • Signs of pain, such as whimpering or flinching

Veterinarians suspect that osteoarthritis is underdiagnosed in cats, as the symptoms can be less obvious in felines than in canines. If your cat has osteoarthritis, you may notice stiffness or lameness, but in many cases the only signs are changes in activity levels and a reluctance to jump up or down.

Like cats, dogs with osteoarthritis may show lameness and stiffness, especially after periods of rest. After being up and about for a period of time, they may appear to ‘work out of it’ or loosen up, during the earlier stages of disease. Your dog might also exhibit a reluctance to exercise or play, and may no longer readily jump up or down from furniture or climb stairs.

Osteoarthritis is painful. Both cats and dogs may show behavioral changes and even aggression, especially when the affected joint is manipulated by the owner or veterinarian.

How Did My Dog or Cat Get Osteoarthritis?

Dogs and cats develop arthritis through several processes.

Common causes of arthritis include:

  • Age-associated wear and tear

  • Injury

  • Genetics

  • Secondary to developmental orthopedic disease

  • Obesity and lack of exercise

The primary cause of osteoarthritis in cats is often not identifiable. Unfortunately, feline osteoarthritis is less understood than the disease is in dogs. However, primary problems with the joint itself, like an abnormal shape, injury to a joint or skeletal structure, and the wear and tear of daily life are the most probable causes of osteoarthritis in cats.

In dogs, while age and wear and tear are possible causes, most cases occur as a secondary condition to developmental orthopedic diseases like hip and elbow dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament disease, and kneecap dislocation (luxating patella). Large breed dogs are predisposed to these conditions, which unfortunately means they are also predisposed to developing osteoarthritis. Obesity, diet, and exercise can also play a role.

Diagnosing Osteoarthritis in Dogs and Cats

Osteoarthritis in dogs and cats is diagnosed through a combination of clinical signs and diagnostics. Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, palpating limbs and joints to check for any pain responses, and will feel for thickening of joint capsules, muscle atrophy, or accumulation of joint fluid.

In addition to physical exam findings, your veterinarian may suggest radiographs (X-rays) to check for changes to bone structure, which can be useful for diagnosing primary causes. Radiographs only reveal limited information about changes to soft tissue, however, so your veterinarian may also recommend an MRI or CT scan, especially if other conditions are suspected. Arthritis in cats can be more challenging to diagnose, as their symptoms can be much more subtle.

Treating, Recovery and Management of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a disease that requires life-long management, and we recommend a ‘multi-modal’ approach, combining several different therapies and lifestyle changes, including:

  • Weight management

  • Lifestyle modifications

  • Medical and/or surgical interventions

  • Alternative therapies

While it cannot be cured, many cases of arthritis can be effectively managed to minimize your pet’s pain and inflammation, slow the progression of the disease and help to maximize their quality of life during their remaining years.

Weight Management

Firstly, for both dogs and cats, veterinarians often recommend making adjustments to your pet’s diet and lifestyle that can improve their quality of life, beginning with appropriate weight management. If your pet is overweight or obese, this puts added pressure on their joints, so you should speak with your veterinarian about the best way to help them lose weight with diet and low-impact exercise.

Lifestyle Changes

You may also need to make some lifestyle changes to accommodate your pet’s reduced mobility and minimize their pain. Limit or avoid high impact activities like running or jumping, and replace them with leashed walks for dogs and quiet play time with cats. You should consider investing in home modifications such as ramps or small staircases to help your pet get to their favorite spots, and for dogs, in and out of the car. Smaller pets should be carried up and down stairs and lifted up and down from beds and couches.

Investing in a thick, therapeutic pet bed, such as the Petfusion memory foam bed, may provide additional comfort for your pet while they are resting. Arthritic cats should be fed on the floor, as opposed to on the counter, and you should avoid litter boxes that have a large step or require your cat to jump into them; look for a litter box with a low lip that’s easy to navigate.


Pain relieving medications are an important strategy in helping a pet remain mobile and maintaining a good quality of life. Your veterinarian may prescribe several different medications to help manage your pet’s discomfort. When diagnosed early, AdequanⓇ injections (a FDA-approved disease-modifying osteoarthritis drug), can be prescribed to help reduce the loss of protective cartilage in the joints. Other medications may be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of pain/discomfort, the most common of which includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). Other medications, like gabapentin, tramadol, amantadine, and acetaminophen may also be prescribed, along with cortisone injections.

As with most long-term use of medications, regular blood work should be performed to ensure your pets kidney and liver function is normal, as many of these drugs are processed by these vital organs and dose reductions or changes may be required in pets who suffer from decreased kidney or liver function.


There are a number of supplements that are useful for pets with arthritis, including omega fatty acids and glucosamine/chondroitin. Omega fatty acids (particularly, omega 3’s from wild-caught cod/salmon) have anti-inflammatory properties and have been proven to help decrease the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis, and may also help to slow the progression of the disease. These can be administered in supplement form, or for larger dogs, a prescription joint diet such as Hills j/d may be more suitable (as they would require a large amount of supplements to reach the required dosage). Glucosamine/chondroitin can help with the pain of arthritis given over time.

It’s important to note that these nutriceuticals are not regulated by the FDA, therefore safety and efficacy can vary greatly amongst brands. At Small Door, we recommend the following brands, both for their excellent levels of quality control, in addition to appropriate levels of omega 3 concentrations:

Surgical Interventions

In cases where osteoarthritis is secondary to a serious condition or injury such as a cranial cruciate ligament rupture, surgery is often the best course of treatment, helping to reduce the severity of arthritis progression in the future. As well as treating the underlying condition, in some cases, surgery may be able to remove some of the painful joint components, or even replace the joint entirely.

Rehabilitation and Alternative Therapies

Your veterinarian may refer you to an animal rehabilitation specialist for treatment to improve joint mobility, increase muscle mass, and improve exercise endurance. This is more commonly prescribed in dogs than cats. Rehabilitation may include specific exercises to help improve your pet’s range of motion, therapeutic exercises, aqua-therapy (underwater treadmill, swimming), massage, acupuncture, or LASER therapy, amongst others.

CBD oil has also been shown to help relieve pain in dogs suffering from arthritis, and can be a good addition to your dog’s treatment plan, if they do not have any contraindications. However, when it comes to cats, we do not recommend CBD. There is currently very limited research on the safety of CBD for cats, and they are a sensitive species who often have difficulty processing drugs that are safe in humans and dogs.

If you’re considering CBD products for your dog, again, it’s important to note that not all CBD products are created equal, and there is no regulation or set quality control measures across the industry. ElleVet CBD products are heavily involved with leading veterinary research institutions studying the safety and efficacy of CBD in pets, and undergo rigorous quality control processes.

Is there a Cure for Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a chronic, degenerative joint condition. There is no cure for arthritis in dogs and cats. The disease will progress with time, but with management, many pets can live comfortably for years after diagnosis.

Is Osteoarthritis Contagious For Humans or Other Pets?

Osteoarthritis is not contagious for humans or other pets. However, if the suspected cause could be hereditary, such as a bone or joint abnormality, you should avoid breeding your pet.

What is the Cost for Treating Osteoarthritis?

The cost for treating osteoarthritis will vary widely depending on the cause and severity of the disease, as well as the proposed treatment plan. Cases where surgical correction is required to treat the underlying cause, like hip dysplasia, can cost many thousands of dollars. In other cases, expect to pay for medications and supplements, veterinary visits, any modifications for the home, like more comfortable beds or ramps, and any alternative therapies like acupuncture and laser treatments.

Preventing Osteoarthritis in Cats and Dogs

Osteoarthritis in cats and dogs is not always preventable, but there are things you can do to reduce your pet’s risk of developing the condition. Proper nutrition and exercise are important for development as well as life-long health, and can reduce the risk factors that lead to osteoarthritis.

Large breeds of dogs are particularly susceptible to the development of arthritis as they age, as are smaller breeds with luxating patellas, or joint deformities. If you have a large breed of puppy, you should ensure you feed them a diet specifically designed for large/giant breeds to promote slow bone growth. In addition, the early administration of the correct dose of omega fatty acids can help preserve joint health.

Knowing the early warning signs, like changes in activity levels, can help you catch arthritis early and slow the progression of the disease.

Is There a Vaccine for Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a joint condition and is not caused by a virus or bacteria, so there is no vaccine.

Summary of Osteoarthritis in Cats and Dogs

Osteoarthritis is a common, chronic condition in both cats and dogs. Understanding the symptoms, treatment options, and management strategies will help you keep your pet comfortable as they age. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, however, with the right care, you and your veterinarian can keep your pet active well into their senior years.

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