Brachycephalic Airway Syndrome
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The French bulldog is now the most popular dog in the United States, according to the American Kennel Club (which defines popularity by the number of purebred dog registrations). This result is no surprise; Frenchies have been rising in the popularity ranks for several years. But these little dogs have a host of potential health problems, just like other animals bred to have flat faces and short noses.
Brachycephalic Head Shape
Short-headed (brachycephalic) animals like English bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, and Persian cats have a shortened upper jaw and nose. The lower jaw is typically not shortened, so when they close their mouths, their lower incisor teeth might stick out in front of the upper incisors.
Brachycephaly affects only the bones, not the soft tissues (skin, tongue, soft palate, and so forth), so brachycephalic animals have too much soft tissue for their face size. This is why brachycephalic animals have skin folds between their nose and eyes. They have the skin to cover a nose that just isn’t there.
In a brachycephalic animal, the soft tissues inside the mouth and throat are crammed into an upper jaw that’s too short to hold them. All of this excess tissue blocks the airway, causing a cascade of problems related to the increased effort of breathing.
The term brachycephalic airway syndrome describes problems caused by anatomic abnormalities that are common in brachycephalic animals. These abnormalities include narrowed nostrils, an elongated soft palate, and everted laryngeal saccules (tissue near the vocal cords that is pulled into the airway because of labored breathing over time). Brachycephalic animals might also have an enlarged tongue. Some have an abnormally narrow trachea, which increases the work of breathing and the risk of problems during anesthesia.
Brachycephalic animals are more likely than others to have heat stress. Their relatively shallow eye sockets and large eyelid openings increase their chance of developing corneal ulcers, dry eye, and other eye problems. Infections can develop between skin folds. Some brachycephalic animals have digestive tract problems like chronic vomiting, possibly related to gastric reflux caused by chronic labored breathing. They usually have crowded or malpositioned teeth. Natural birth is not possible for some brachycephalic dogs because the mom’s pelvis is too narrow for the puppies’ heads. Some breeds—including French bulldogs—usually require cesarean (surgical) delivery.
If you have a brachycephalic pet, watch for these signs of trouble:
Anatomic problems like narrowed nostrils, elongated soft palate, and everted laryngeal saccules can be corrected with surgery. You can see photos of these problems and more information about surgery on the American College of Veterinary Surgeons website: https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/brachycephalic-syndrome.
One “treatment” for brachycephalic airway syndrome is to stop breeding dogs for extreme face shape. If you’re thinking of getting a French bulldog or another brachycephalic pet, reward breeders who breed for good health: choose a dog with round (not slit-like) nostrils, minimal or no skin folds near the eyes, and the ability to run, play, and sleep while breathing freely without snorting or gagging.
Image source: Dan Blackburn on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Eyelid problems are common in dogs and cats. Some eyelid disorders cause damage to the eyeball itself and can affect vision. A pet with eye redness, eye drainage, eyelid swelling, an eyelid lump that is new or changing, or signs of eye discomfort (squinting, pawing at the eyes, rubbing the face) should see a veterinarian.
In dogs, most eyelid masses are benign tear gland tumors called meibomian gland adenomas. These masses are located along the lid margin and typically look like raised, bumpy, pink or dark brown lumps. Other types of benign tumors also occur in dogs and cats.
A chalazion is a firm lump caused by a blocked tear gland. This type of lump is near the lid margin under the skin, not right on the lid margin like a meibomian gland adenoma.
Benign eyelid masses can irritate the cornea (the clear structure at the front of the eye) and can enlarge over time. These masses are usually removed surgically. Removing an eyelid mass means removing part of the eyelid, so it’s best to do the procedure while the mass is still small.
Most eyelid masses in cats, and some in dogs, are malignant cancers. Many types of cancer affect the eyelids, just like the rest of the skin; some examples are squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and mast cell tumor.
The only way to know for sure if an eyelid lump is benign or malignant is to send it to a laboratory for analysis. If an eyelid mass is large or located near the inner corner of the eye, referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist is often the best option in case the patient needs reconstructive eyelid surgery.
The term cherry eye is an informal name for prolapse of the gland of the third eyelid. The third eyelid (nictitating membrane) is a pink structure at the inner corner of dogs’ and cats’ eyes. In animals with cherry eye, a tear gland protrudes out of its normal location behind the third eyelid; it looks like a smooth pink or red lump. Cherry eye is treated by surgically replacing the gland in its normal position. The prolapsed gland shouldn’t be removed entirely because it produces tears. Removal of the gland would put the animal at risk of dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca).
Eyelid swelling could be caused by an allergic reaction, a benign or cancerous mass, inflammation, or infection. Eyelid swelling due to an allergic reaction is sudden and often affects both eyes. Because eyelid swelling is sometimes the first sign of a more serious reaction called anaphylaxis, it always warrants a call or visit to a veterinary clinic. An animal that has swollen eyelids along with other concerning symptoms like vomiting or wheezing should be taken immediately to an emergency clinic.
Entropion (Rolled-in Eyelids)
In animals with entropion, one or more eyelids are rolled inward so eyelashes and hair rub on the cornea. Entropion can be genetic or breed associated, especially in animals with loose facial skin and animals that are brachycephalic (short faced). The condition can also be caused by scarring, other eyelid disorders, or excessive squinting from eye discomfort. The damage to the cornea is uncomfortable at best and can eventually impair vision. Entropion is corrected with surgery. Young animals with entropion can sometimes be treated with a simple tacking procedure to help the eyelids roll back out to the normal position as they grow.
Occasionally hairs similar to eyelashes grow in the wrong location, either along the eyelid margin (distichia) or inside the eyelid (ectopic cilia). These hairs can cause significant pain and corneal ulcers. They’re hard to see and are typically found only with magnification during an ophthalmic examination to find out why an animal has a corneal ulcer. If they’re causing discomfort, the hairs and their follicles need to be removed.
Inflamed eyelids are red and swollen, sometimes with oozy discharge and visible sores along the margins. The hair on the eyelid might be thin or missing. Eyelid inflammation has many possible causes, including immune-mediated disease, parasites (like mange mites), bacterial or fungal infections, and irritants. Diagnosis might require skin scrapings, cultures, and biopsy. Treatment depends on the underlying cause.
You can see photos of some of these conditions on the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists website: https://www.acvo.org/common-conditions1
Image source: Hermes Rivera on Unsplash
Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (Dry Eye)
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), or dry eye, is common in dogs and can also affect cats. KCS is caused by a problem with the quantity or quality of the tear film. The condition is uncomfortable and can cause blindness. For most patients, KCS is managed with lifelong eye medication.
Tears are produced by glands in the eyelids and third eyelid. The tear film contains water, mucus, and oil. Deficiencies in any of the components of the tear film compromise its functions: lubricating the cornea (the clear structure at the front of the eye), removing debris, and providing nutrition to the cornea.
Anything that affects the tear-producing glands can cause KCS. Brachycephalic (flat-faced) animals with protruding eyes that aren’t completely covered by the eyelids also develop KCS symptoms because of excessive water evaporation from the surface of the cornea. These are some of the causes of KCS:
Animals with KCS typically have thick, sticky eye discharge. The discharge is thick because the watery part of the tear film is decreased or absent, so the tear film that remains is made mostly of mucus and oil. Either 1 or both eyes are affected, depending on the cause of the KCS.
Tear film deficiencies increase the risk for corneal ulcers, long-term damage to the cornea, and impaired healing of the cornea. These are signs of KCS and the resulting corneal damage:
The tear film quantity is measured with the Schirmer tear test, in which a sterile paper strip with measurement markings is placed inside the lower eyelid for 1 minute. The distance that the tear film is absorbed along the strip shows whether the animal has low tear production. Veterinary ophthalmologists use other tests to find out whether a patient has a problem with tear film quality.
Animals with KCS are treated with a combination of eye medications, most of which need to be applied 2 or 3 times a day. Medications include tear stimulants that reduce immune-mediated inflammation, tear replacements to lubricate the eye, and other medications to treat corneal damage. KCS can be managed but not cured, so medical treatment needs to continue for the rest of the animal’s life.
For animals whose KCS doesn’t respond to eye medication, a few surgical options are available. The most common of these is parotid duct transposition, which involves rerouting a salivary duct from the mouth to the inside of the lower eyelid so the animal basically drools onto the eye. This procedure is performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Image source: Jennifer Shishmanian on Unsplash
Anesthesia for Dental Procedures
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Dogs and cats need regular dental care, including thorough oral exams and dental cleanings. These procedures are best done under general anesthesia, but some pets don’t receive the dental care they need because their owners are worried about the safety of anesthesia. Most animals handle anesthesia well, though, and the risk is greatly reduced with preanesthetic testing, safe anesthetic drugs, and monitoring during the procedure.
Reasons for Dental Anesthesia
General anesthesia during a dental procedure allows for better medical care, reduces an animal’s stress and pain, and makes the procedure safer for everyone.
Before an animal undergoes anesthesia, the benefits of the procedure are weighed against the possible risks. Although general anesthesia is safe overall, its risks range from minor drug effects that can be anticipated and managed to potentially fatal complications, which are rare.
Animals receive a thorough physical exam before anesthesia and might also have preanesthetic laboratory tests. Preanesthetic tests are especially important for senior animals—the age group most often having dental procedures—because liver, kidney, and heart function all affect anesthesia risk.
During the procedure, vital signs like heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation, and blood pressure are monitored. The patient’s level of anesthesia is also monitored and can be adjusted as needed.
If your pet will be having anesthesia, tell the veterinarian all of the medications and supplements your pet is getting at home. Your veterinarian will also need to know if your pet has ever had problems with anesthesia in the past. If your pet has been to more than one clinic, be sure the anesthetizing veterinarian has your pet’s complete medical records and knows of any history of breathing trouble, heart conditions, seizures, or other medical problems.
Problems With Anesthesia-Free Dental Scaling
Some places offer dental scaling without anesthesia, but this procedure isn’t in an animal’s best interest.
Photo by mahyar mirghasemi on Unsplash
Conjunctivitis in Dogs and Cats
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The conjunctiva is a thin membrane that covers the insides of the eyelids and the white part of the eye. Inflammation of the conjunctiva, or conjunctivitis, makes the eye look red. Conjunctivitis is sometimes called pinkeye. This name is a bit misleading, though, because lots of other eye disorders—some very serious—also cause redness of the eye.
The conjunctiva is a mucous membrane, like the membranes lining the nose and mouth. It protects the eye, helps lubricate the surface of the eye with tears, aids in eye movement, and is part of the system that heals damage to the cornea.
Conjunctivitis has many possible causes in dogs and cats:
Signs include eye redness, squinting, blinking more than usual, and eye discharge. The discharge can be watery and clear or it can be cloudy, yellow, or greenish. The tissues around the white of the eye and the insides of the lids might look puffy. The animal might rub or paw at the eye because of itching or discomfort.
Conjunctivitis can’t be diagnosed just by the appearance of the eye. Redness and discharge are part of the eye’s response to any abnormality, so other problems need to be ruled out before conjunctivitis can be diagnosed. Diagnosis includes a general physical examination, an eye examination with an ophthalmoscope, and a corneal stain to identify ulcers or other damage to the cornea. Other tests include measuring tear production, measuring eye pressure (to rule out glaucoma), and sometimes swabbing or scraping the conjunctiva to obtain samples for laboratory analysis.
Conjunctivitis is treated with topical medication (eye drops or eye ointment); oral medication is sometimes also used. The type of medication depends on the cause of the conjunctivitis. Antibiotics are usually part of the treatment, either to eliminate a primary bacterial infection or to prevent a secondary bacterial infection. Cats with known or suspected herpesvirus conjunctivitis sometimes need antiviral medication.
Eye medications used to treat conjunctivitis often contain a steroid (such as dexamethasone or hydrocortisone) to reduce inflammation. However, steroids interfere with corneal healing, so before a steroid-containing medication is used, the cornea must be stained and examined with an ophthalmoscope to be sure there is no corneal ulcer or scratch.
If your pet has eye medication from an earlier episode of conjunctivitis, don’t use it to treat a new episode of eye redness unless your veterinarian has instructed you to. And never use any over-the-counter (nonprescription) eye product in an animal without first consulting your veterinarian.
Photo by Antonio Lapa on Unsplash
How to Pet a Cat
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Aggression related to being petted is very common in cats. Cats with this type of aggression suddenly scratch, growl, or bite while they’re being petted.
The most likely explanations for petting-related aggression are that the cat is overstimulated, has a low tolerance for being touched, or is trying to exert some control over the interaction. It’s also possible that the cat has a medical problem (for example, pain caused by arthritis or dental disease). Any type of aggression, especially if it’s a new behavior, warrants an examination by a veterinarian.
The people most at risk of injury are children and others who don’t know the signs that a cat is uncomfortable with an interaction. Tolerance to petting varies from cat to cat, and the same cat’s tolerance can change according to the circumstances.
To help people understand the best way to interact with cats, a team of researchers in the United Kingdom developed a set of guidelines that they describe with the acronym CAT (for choice, attention, and touch). The team found that cats showed less aggression when people followed the CAT guidelines during interactions.
The gist of the CAT guidelines is that we should handle cats the way they want to be handled and leave them alone when they want to be left alone. Makes sense, right? However, in another study, the same team found that some people who had lots of cat-owning experience and rated their own cat knowledge as high interacted in ways the cats did not want.
The following is a summary of the CAT guidelines, or how to pet a cat.
C: Give the cat choice and control.
A: Pay attention to the cat’s body language.
These are signs that a cat might not want to be petted any longer:
T: Touch the cat only where the cat wants to be touched.
To read more about cat-friendly petting and how humans interact with cats, check out these 2 articles:
1. Haywood C, Ripari L, Puzzo J, Foreman-Worsley R, Finka LR. Providing humans with practical, best practice handling guidelines during human-cat interactions increases cats' affiliative behaviour and reduces aggression and signs of conflict. Front Vet Sci. 2021;8:714143. doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.714143
2. Finka LR, Ripari L, Quinlan L, et al. Investigation of humans individual differences as predictors of their animal interaction styles, focused on the domestic cat. Sci Rep. 2022;12(1):12128. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-15194-7
Photo by Ilze on Unsplash
Winter Holiday Plants
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Some decorative winter holiday plants pose risks to pets. Other plants that aren’t actually toxic can still cause upset stomach if an animal swallows them.
If you think your pet might have swallowed or been exposed to a toxic plant, contact your veterinarian, an animal emergency clinic, or a 24-hour animal poison control hotline (a fee may apply):
Amaryllis (Amaryllis species)
Ingestion of amaryllis leaves, stems, or bulbs can cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, belly pain, lethargy, and a drop in blood pressure.
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera species)
Christmas cactus isn’t toxic. However, an animal that swallows part of one might vomit or have diarrhea.
Christmas rose, hellebore (Helleborus niger)
Hellebores contain cardiac glycosides, compounds that affect heart function. Ingestion of any part of the plant can cause drooling, belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy.
The Christmas trees most commonly grown in North Carolina (firs, pines, cedars, and cypress) aren’t toxic, although like other non-food plants they could cause vomiting or intestinal blockage if an animal swallowed enough of one. The risks to pets are from trees falling, ornaments breaking, exposure to electrical cords, and possibly exposure to preservatives (which are not very toxic but can cause mild vomiting, according to ASPCA Animal Poison Control).
Norfolk Island pines and rosemary plants are often sold as potted miniature holiday trees. These two plants aren’t toxic to cats and dogs. However, a miniature tree made of mixed greenery would be a serious danger if it contained yew.
Cyclamen (Cyclamen species)
Ingestion of cyclamen, a flowering houseplant, can cause drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea. Swallowing a large amount of cyclamen tubers can lead to heart rhythm abnormalities, seizures, and death.
Delphinium, larkspur (Delphinium species)
Blue delphinium flowers are included in some Hanukkah floral arrangements. Toxic compounds in delphinium block a neurotransmitter that’s required for muscle function. Ingestion can cause digestive system problems (vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation), belly pain, drooling, weakness, abnormal heart rhythm, tremors, seizures, and paralysis. The most severe effects—heart or lung failure and death—are most likely to happen in grazing animals that ingest large amounts of the plant.
Holly, winterberry, Christmas holly, English holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Ingestion of English holly and similar plants in the genus Ilex can cause vomiting and diarrhea. The pointed leaves can injure the inside of the mouth, leading to drooling and other signs of mouth discomfort.
Lily (Lilium species, Hemerocallis species)
Lilies of various types are common in floral arrangements, including arrangements for winter holidays. Some lilies are so toxic to cats that they shouldn’t be brought at all into a house with cats. The most dangerous lilies are Lilium species (Easter lily, Japanese lily, Asiatic hybrid lilies, stargazer lily, Casablanca lily, and tiger lily) and Hemerocallis species (daylily). Ingestion of a tiny amount of plant material—even licking pollen from a paw—can cause kidney injury in cats. Calla lilies, peace lilies, lily of the valley, and Peruvian lilies are not Lilium and Hemerocallis species; these plants don’t damage the kidneys but can cause stomach upset and other problems.
Mistletoe (Phoradendron species, Viscum album)
Mistletoe ingestion can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain in animals. Swallowing large amounts can cause low heart rate, a drop in blood pressure, uncoordinated gait, and seizures. American mistletoe (Phoradendron species) is less toxic than European mistletoe (Viscum album).
Paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus)
Paperwhites and other Narcissus species (like jonquils and daffodils) cause severe vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. Swallowing a large amount can lead to breathing and heart rhythm abnormalities. The most toxic part of the plant is the bulb.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
Poinsettias are not as toxic as some have been led to believe, according to ASPCA Animal Poison Control. The thick, milky sap is an irritant that can cause drooling and vomiting if ingested. The sap can also irritate the skin and eyes on contact.
Yew (Taxus species)
Plants in the genus Taxus are highly toxic to all animals, including dogs, cats, horses, and people. Yew branches and berries are sometimes used to make holiday wreaths and other decorations. Be very careful displaying and disposing of items that might contain yew; be sure pets and wildlife can’t access them. Yew ingestion causes vomiting, muscle tremors, difficulty breathing, heart failure, seizures, and death.
Public domain photo of yew (Taxus baccata) by MM on Wikimedia Commons
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Corneal ulcers are common causes of eye redness in dogs and cats. A corneal ulcer is an area of damage to the surface of the cornea, the clear structure at the front of the eye. These ulcers are painful but usually heal readily with treatment. Sometimes corneal ulcers develop complications that require surgery or other interventions.
Anything that scratches, hits, or irritates the surface of the eye can cause a corneal ulcer. Animals with low tear production are at increased risk for corneal ulcers because they have a low volume of tears to wash away irritants. These are some of the things that cause corneal ulcers:
Some animals have a defect of the corneal epithelium—the surface layer of corneal cells—that increases the risk of ulcers and keeps ulcers from healing. These slow-healing ulcers are called indolent ulcers. Corneal ulcers can become infected, threatening the animal’s vision. Deep corneal ulcers and wounds can penetrate all the way through the cornea and rupture the eye.
Eye medications that contain steroids (commonly used to treat conjunctivitis and other inflammatory eye conditions) prevent corneal ulcers from healing properly. Steroid-containing eye medications can also increase the risk of corneal infection.
The signs of eye discomfort are the same whether they are caused by a corneal ulcer or by another eye disorder. Typical signs are squinting, redness of the white part of the eye, and clear or cloudy eye drainage. The animal might rub the eye, and the cornea might look cloudy. Deep ulcers are sometimes visible without an ophthalmoscope and look like a dent or divot in the cornea. Superficial ulcers are usually not visible to the naked eye.
An animal with any of these signs should see a veterinarian right away. Although uncomplicated corneal ulcers are relatively minor, they are painful. Some of the conditions that cause the same signs are medical emergencies that require immediate treatment to save the eye.
Corneal ulcers are diagnosed with fluorescein dye applied to the eye. This green dye shows areas where the normal corneal epithelium is disrupted or missing. The eye is also examined under magnification to assess the depth and size of the ulcer, detect complications, and find the cause.
An uncomplicated ulcer is treated with eye medication to prevent infection and relieve pain. The animal might be fitted with a protective collar (the lampshade type) to prevent eye rubbing. The cause of the ulcer is also treated, if possible. The eye is rechecked with fluorescein dye after a few days to be sure the ulcer has fully healed.
Complicated ulcers are treated according to their cause and severity. Indolent ulcers are treated with a procedure to remove loose corneal epithelium. This procedure can often be performed in an awake animal with drops to numb the eye. Some indolent ulcers need a more extensive procedure with the animal under general anesthesia. Deep ulcers and wounds that might rupture the eye need surgical treatment by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Image source: https://pixy.org/6427021/
Safe Autumn Treats for Dogs and Cats
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Dogs and cats can’t have pumpkin spice lattes or Halloween candy, but not all foods that we associate with fall are off the menu for our pets.
If you’d like to give treats to your pets, keep these precautions in mind:
Homemade and store-bought pet treats
Many recipes for homemade dog and cat treats are available. Making your own pet treats can be a fun family project and a great outlet for creativity. Kids might be surprised that their dog is so enthusiastic about a baked dog biscuit that tastes like cardboard to them. It’s a good reminder that pets don’t need the sugar, salt, and flavorings that humans prefer.
Pet food manufacturers know a marketing opportunity when they see one, so you can also find themed seasonal treats for sale. Store-bought pet treats are fine as long as they don’t contain a problem ingredient (always check labels).
Plain cooked or canned pumpkin is safe, and dogs and cats tend to like it. If you use canned pumpkin, be sure to get plain pumpkin and not pumpkin pie filling. The sugar and spices in pie filling can cause problems. Likewise, don’t give a pet a piece of pumpkin pie—and especially not sugar-free pie, which might contain xylitol.
White potatoes and sweet potatoes
Most dogs love potatoes of any type. Skip the butter, salt, and toppings, though: no loaded baked potatoes or sweet potato casserole for pets.
Other vegetables and fruits
Many vegetables and fruits (not grapes!) are safe, tasty, low-calorie treats for pets. As always, stick with plain, unseasoned items for animals. Avoid casseroles, which might contain problem ingredients like onion and fat. To avoid a choking risk, cut raw vegetables and fruits into small pieces and remove seeds, cores, and thick peels. These are some good options:
A bite of cooked lean poultry meat is safe for dogs and cats. Avoid giving pets skin, fat, bones, pan drippings, raw meat, or meat seasoned with onion.
Is popcorn a fall food? I think it depends on which Thanksgiving cartoons you watch. As with other foods, don’t add butter, salt, or seasonings to popcorn pieces you toss to your pets. Air-popped popcorn doesn’t have added fat, so it’s safer than oil-popped or microwaved popcorn for animals like schnauzers that have an increased risk for pancreatitis.
Photo by Amy Starr on Unsplash
Osteoarthritis in Cats
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Osteoarthritis is very common in cats but often goes undetected. In most cats, joint pain doesn’t cause obvious signs like limping. Instead, it causes changes in mobility and behavior that can be misinterpreted as normal aging. Cat owners’ recognition of these changes is the first step in diagnosing and relieving joint pain.
Osteoarthritis is a chronic disease in which the protective cartilage in a joint wears down. Eventually the bones and other structures in the joint deteriorate, causing pain that worsens over time. Degenerative joint diseases like osteoarthritis can be caused by trauma or by problems with the structure of a joint, but often the cause is not known.
Senior cats are by far the most likely to develop osteoarthritis. Younger cats can be affected too. Osteoarthritis in cats most often involves the hips, elbows, knees, and hocks. Cats can also develop degenerative joint disease in the spine. Various studies have shown that between about 60% and 90% of cats have evidence of degenerative joint disease on radiographs (x-ray images).[1-3] Not all of these cats have pain, though, at least not at first.
In cats, signs of joint pain are subtle. Cats tend to hide signs of pain. Osteoarthritis often affects joints on both sides of cats’ bodies, so they don’t develop lameness—it’s hard to limp with both front legs or both rear legs at the same time. Signs of osteoarthritis in cats reflect their limited mobility, reduced activities of daily living, and general grumpiness caused by chronic pain:
The most important diagnostic tool is cat owners’ observations of signs of joint pain at home. Treatment is often started just on the basis of behavior changes consistent with pain. Cat owners can use questionnaires like the Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Index (https://painfreecats.org/) to record and score their cats’ signs of pain. These assessment tools help veterinarians diagnose joint pain and are also very useful to track changes over time and monitor response to treatment.
Cats with signs of pain should receive a physical examination to be sure the signs are caused by joint or back pain and not by something else. A full orthopedic examination of a cat is challenging (sort of like examining an uncooperative bowl of jello that doesn’t tell you when it hurts and won’t trot on leash), but sometimes an examination reveals joint thickening or other physical changes of osteoarthritis. Radiographs can show evidence of degenerative joint disease but aren’t always needed. The decision to use imaging depends on the individual cat.
Never give a cat pain medication, including nonprescription over-the-counter remedies, without consulting a veterinarian. Some medications that are safe for people and dogs are very dangerous for cats.
In cats, joint pain is managed with a combination of nondrug and drug treatments. A multimodal approach (using several strategies) tailored to each cat’s pain level and living conditions is the best way to help relieve chronic pain in cats.
Nondrug treatments include weight management, adjunctive therapies like acupuncture, dietary supplements such as glucosamine, and environmental modifications like ramps, steps, soft bedding, and litter boxes with low sides. Drug options are more limited for cats than they are for dogs, but a number of drugs are available. A new injectable treatment for osteoarthritis pain avoids the need to give a cat a pill by mouth.
1. Lascelles BD, Henry JB 3rd, Brown J, et al. Cross-sectional study of the prevalence of radiographic degenerative joint disease in domesticated cats. Vet Surg. 2010;39(5):535-544. doi:10.1111/j.1532-950X.2010.00708.x
2. Slingerland LI, Hazewinkel HA, Meij BP, Picavet P, Voorhout G. Cross-sectional study of the prevalence and clinical features of osteoarthritis in 100 cats. Vet J. 2011;187(3):304-309. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.12.014
3. Gruen ME, Myers JAE, Lascelles BDX. Efficacy and safety of an anti-nerve growth factor antibody (frunevetmab) for the treatment of degenerative joint disease-associated chronic pain in cats: a multisite pilot field study. Front Vet Sci. 2021;8:610028. doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.610028
4. Bennett D, Zainal Ariffin SM, Johnston P. Osteoarthritis in the cat: 1. How common is it and how easy to recognise? J Feline Med Surg. 2012;14(1):65-75. doi:10.1177/1098612X11432828
Image source: https://pixy.org/6310117
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.