Cats seem to be able to tolerate a lot of things without complaint. Recent research has highlighted the fact that many cats are living with changes in their bones and joints that may have a dog whining in discomfort. We know that cats are tough, but why is it that the same changes found in x-rays of dogs and cats seem to only cause lameness in the dogs?
Differences in Joint Structure between Cats and Dogs
Part of the explanation rests with the fact that cats are lightweight. A typical dog with joint dysfunction (with some exceptions) is heavier than a cat. Having a low body weight means that the support system of bones and muscles is not taxed as much during movement.
Another difference between the two species has to do with flexibility. Watch your cat groom, play, and sleep, and it will be apparent that she has superior flexibility to any dog on the block. This helps cats with musculoskeletal problems cope because they can bend around a problem area very nicely. The same difference can be seen when comparing a young child to a senior citizen: the flexibility of the musculoskeletal system is obviously different—the young child enjoys great elasticity.
An example of this difference between cats and dogs is the hips. The hip joints of cats are more lax (or less tightly seated) than those of dogs. Cat hips naturally "hang loose" compared with those of most dogs. Therefore, the normal indexes that we use to define whether a dog is affected by hip dysplasia can't be applied to cats. Hip dysplasia has been thought of as a canine problem historically, but recent studies have exposed the truth — cats are not exempt from this condition; it is just harder to diagnose them with it.
Veterinarians Might Not Identify Joint Problems in Cats
In fact, studies have shown that many disorders of bones and joints are significantly under-diagnosed in cats. This is partly because, if the owner does not observe problems at home, there is no complaint to bring to the attention of the veterinarian. Also, during a physical examination, cats are usually stoic and generally give nothing away, even if they are sore. Finally, there is a shortage of good research regarding musculoskeletal problems in cats, so the level of awareness among veterinarians about the true frequency of these problems may be low.
Cat Breeds Prone to Bone and Joint Problems
Some cat breeds seem to be predisposed to bone and joint problems. Examples include large-framed cats like the Maine Coon. Because their weight is, on average, about twice that of a typical cat, there is more strain on the musculoskeletal system of these cats. Not enough population studies have been done to accurately establish true prevalence, but preliminary findings are that the joints of large-framed cats are more likely to experience degenerative changes.
Small cats such as the Devon Rex and Abyssinian have also been found to have a high prevalence of hip dysplasia, displaced knee cap (luxating patella), and degenerative joint disease (DJD) in limited population studies. These cats usually look and act just fine, but x-rays show unrecognized changes. It may be that their low body weight saves them from developing lameness or showing obvious pain.
Many other conditions can affect the musculoskeletal system. Malformations (congenital or inherited), fractures, muscle enzyme defects, joint swellings due to infection/immune mechanisms, and traumatic dislocations are just some of these.
Treatment of Bone and Joint Disease in Cats
Cats with clinically significant muscle, bone, and joint problems may be managed with surgery, rest, physiotherapy, and specific treatment for infection and inflammation if these processes are identified as the source of the problem. Cats with chronic painful conditions such as osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease are not able to be medicated with some of the standard therapies we use in dogs and people because they do not metabolize these drugs the same way. Because of this, many drugs are toxic to cats including acetaminophen (Tylenol), carprofen (Rimadyl), and ibuprofen (Motrin). These drugs can be lethal to cats and should never be given at home.
Do not give your cat any medications without checking with your veterinarian first. Many medications are toxic to cats and may result in death.
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