7 min read

5 Common Mobility Problems in Elderly Cats

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By Tim Falk

Published: 05/27/2022, edited: 06/18/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Overview

Have you noticed your fur-baby starting to slow down a bit as they grow older? Mobility problems are a common concern for elderly cats and can have a big impact on your pet’s quality of life. They cause pain and discomfort, and can make it much more difficult for your cat to live their life to the fullest.

To help you ensure that your cat stays comfortable and active in their senior years, let’s take a closer look at 5 common mobility problems in elderly cats and how they can be prevented and treated.

veterinarian in teal scrubs examining a white and gray cat

Arthritis

Arthritis is the most common cause of mobility issues in older cats. It’s a degenerative condition that causes pain and inflammation of your cat’s joints. As a result, an older cat with arthritis can find it increasingly difficult to move around.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for arthritis, but the good news is that there are plenty of steps you can take to manage your cat’s discomfort.

Symptoms

The symptoms of arthritis in cats include:

  • Difficulty getting up
  • Difficulty climbing or descending stairs
  • Difficulty jumping up or down
  • Lameness
  • Stiff gait
  • Stiff or sore joints
  • Reduced activity levels
  • Less time spent grooming
  • Increased irritability
  • Reluctance to be touched
  • A reduced muscle mass, especially over the back end

Causes

Several factors can contribute to the development of arthritis in cats, including:

  • Wear and tear on joints as a cat ages
  • Being overweight or obese (this places extra stress on your pet’s joints)
  • Conformation issues and previous injuries, such as hip dysplasia or bone fractures
  • Joint infections
  • Genetic predisposition to abnormal joint development (this affects breeds such as the Maine Coon and Scottish Fold)

Diagnosis

As arthritis is such a common problem in older pets, your vet will examine your cat for signs of arthritis as they age. You can also take your cat to the vet for a checkup if they show any symptoms of the condition as outlined above.

After a physical exam, your vet will typically conduct x-rays of the affected joints to confirm their diagnosis.

Treatment

Sadly, there's no known cure for arthritis in cats. Treatment is instead focused on managing the condition using a multi-pronged approach. Management options include:

  • Environmental changes. Taking steps such as providing comfortable bedding for your cat, keeping them warm in winter, and providing ramps to help them access high locations can all help improve your pet’s quality of life.

  • Dietary changes. Keeping your pet in a healthy weight range reduces the stress on their joints, so feeding a balanced diet designed to suit your cat’s life stage is a must. Dietary supplements that promote joint health or reduce inflammation may also be recommended.

  • Medications. Your vet may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and opioids to relieve pain and inflammation, though corticosteroids may be used instead in some cases.

There are a few other treatment options available, and your vet will help you put together a management plan tailored to suit your pet.

Average cost of treatment: $150–$1,000

obese black and white cat walking through the grass

Obesity

Obesity isn’t just a problem for people — it’s a serious issue for our pets, too. An estimated 60% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. Excess weight can lead to health issues like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and, of course, arthritis.

As a result, obesity is a common cause of mobility problems in elderly cats. Whether your cat struggles to get around because they’re carrying excess weight, or whether the extra strain on their joints causes the pain of arthritis, helping them lose weight can greatly improve their mobility and quality of life.

Symptoms

Is your cat obese? Check for these signs and symptoms:

  • No discernible waist when you look at your cat from above
  • Difficulty jumping
  • Difficulty climbing stairs
  • A bulge on either side at the base of the tail
  • Cannot feel your cat’s ribs or spine with the palm of your hands
  • Reduced activity levels 

Causes

There are lots of different reasons why cats gain weight. Just as for humans, diet and exercise are crucial factors to help your pet stay in a healthy weight range. 

However, other factors can also contribute to cat obesity, including: 

  • Age (activity level decreases as a cat grows older so they need less calories)
  • The side effects of medication
  • Decreased metabolic rate after neutering
  • Conditions such as arthritis that limit a cat’s ability to exercise

Diagnosis

Your vet will conduct a physical exam to determine whether your pet is overweight or obese. They will rely on a body condition scoring system scale (of either 1–5 or 1–9 depending on the scale used) to assess where your pet stands in relation to their ideal body weight.

In some cases, additional diagnostic tests may be required to assess whether your pet’s weight gain is caused by an underlying medical condition.

Treatment

Treating obesity is all about helping your cat return to a healthy weight range. Your vet will provide guidance on the ideal weight for your cat, and then provide tips on how you can help your fur-baby lose those excess pounds.

The right diet is essential, so you may need to reduce your cat’s portion sizes or perhaps switch them to a weight-loss formula. Regular activity is also important, so providing environmental enrichment that encourages your cat to exercise, such as interactive toys and climbing frames, can help too.

In other cases, you may need to address an underlying health issue — for example, relieve your cat’s arthritis pain — to help them get back in shape.

Average cost of treatment: $200–$2,000

gray and white cat walking along a wall

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia may be more commonly associated with dogs, but this orthopedic condition can also cause major issues for cats. Caused by the abnormal development of the hip joint which means the ball and socket don’t align properly, hip dysplasia leads to pain and a loss of mobility for cats.

Symptoms

The symptoms of hip dysplasia include:

  • Reluctance to run, jump, or climb
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Lameness
  • Limping
  • Lethargy
  • Pain in the hip area when touched
  • Licking or chewing hip area
  • Muscle atrophy

Causes

It’s thought that there’s a genetic component to hip dysplasia, with some breeds more susceptible to developing the condition. These include:

  • Maine Coons
  • Persians
  • Himalayans

However, other factors, like obesity and prior injury, may also contribute to the development of hip dysplasia.

Diagnosis

If you notice any symptoms of hip dysplasia, get your cat to the vet for a checkup. The vet will perform a physical exam and ask you for details about the symptoms you’ve noticed, when they developed, and whether they have worsened at all. X-rays will then be taken to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

The treatment of hip dysplasia in cats varies depending on the severity of the condition. In some cases, treatment may involve:

  • weight control
  • pain medication
  • joint supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin
  • encouraging your cat to exercise to maintain strong hip muscles
  • physiotherapy

In severe cases, surgery may be required. The most common surgical option is to remove the femoral head, but a total hip replacement may also be considered.

Average cost of treatment: $200–$2,500

person with pink nails trimming a cat's claws

Overgrown claws

Several claw and nail disorders can affect a cat’s mobility, but a common issue that affects older felines is known as onychauxis. This condition causes thick and overgrown claws in cats, which can grow into the paw pad and lead to pain, infections, and other health issues.

Symptoms

The symptoms of onychauxis include:

  • Thick nails
  • Curled-over nails
  • Pain around paw pad
  • Licking affected paw

Causes

There are a few factors that contribute to overgrown claws in older cats, including:

  • Reduced exercise levels
  • Reduced grooming
  • Reduced scratching (on posts and walls) due to arthritis
  • Trauma
  • Hyperthyroidism

Diagnosis

In many cases, your vet can diagnose overgrown claws and related issues by physically examining your cat’s claws and paw pads. They will then be able to determine the best course of action to trim overgrown nails and treat any resulting pain or infections.

Treatment

The treatment of this cat health issue is generally relatively straightforward. Your vet will clip any overgrown nails, plus clean any wounds the nail may have caused to your pet's paw pad. They may also prescribe antibiotics to treat any resulting infection.

Average cost of treatment: $200–$1,000

veterinarian wearing blue scrubs and gloves touching the paw of a gray cat

Ruptured cranial cruciate ligament

The cranial cruciate ligament plays a crucial role in supporting your cat’s knee, and it’s essentially a cat’s version of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in humans. So when your cat suffers a ruptured cranial cruciate ligament (CCL), it’s not only painful, but it can also lead to severe mobility issues for your fur-baby.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a ruptured CCL in cats include:

  • Limping
  • Reluctance to jump or move
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Swollen knee joint
  • Lameness 
  • Pain if affected area is touched 

Causes

A ruptured CCL is caused by a full or partial tear of the ligament. It’s typically caused by trauma, such as:

  • Falling from a height
  • Getting hit by a car
  • A leg becoming trapped

Being overweight or obese will also increase your cat’s chances of suffering this injury.

Diagnosis

The first step to diagnosing a ruptured CCL is a physical exam. Your vet will check the affected knee for swelling and pain, and also assess the range of motion and your cat’s gait.

By performing what’s known as a drawer test, which involves pulling the lower part of the leg forward, they’ll be able to determine whether a ruptured CCL is the likely cause of your pet’s symptoms. 

They may then further assess the status of your pet’s knee joint using x-rays or MRI scans.

Treatment

In severe cases, surgery is the best option for treating a ruptured CCL. This involves using a replacement ligament to stabilize and support the joint.

However, if your cat has only suffered a partial tear, or if they’re not a suitable candidate for surgery (due to underlying medical issues, for example), treatment may instead involve medication to alleviate pain and inflammation in the knee joint, and limiting your cat’s activity to allow surrounding tissues to heal.

Average cost of treatment: $500–$2,500




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