There's hope for easing those old bones and joints

By a specialist veterinarian in Cape Town (who cannot be named for professional reasons)

Painful joints in your cat may be seen from specific lameness of one or more limbs or the symptoms may be more subtle: the cat may be reluctant to jump up on to usual surfaces such as a bed, may be reluctant to walk, or may walk with an altered gait. The cat may appear irritable and may object to being picked up or stroked.

These symptoms can be confused with other disorders such as back pain, abdominal pain or conditions of weakness. In certain conditions, the lameness may vary from day to day or it may alternate between different joints. Often, the affected joint may be swollen or warm, but this depends on the cause and severity of the condition. Joint diseases can also affect a single joint or a number of them, depending on the cause.

The term arthritis actually refers to inflammation of a joint. Not all painful joint conditions are inflammatory in nature although (for example, an old injury), and those conditions are rather called arthrosis, a term which refers to chronic damage of the normal cartilage of the joint.

A joint is a complex mechanism of bone, covered in cartilage, held together by ligaments and a joint capsule, lubricated by joint fluid and flexed by the muscles. Any or all of these structures can be damaged by injury or disease. If ligaments are damaged, they may repair themselves if the joint is stabilised, or they may have to be surgically repaired.

If the bone is fractured, it usually will need surgical repair. If the cartilage is damaged, the body normally has to do the repair work, supported by rest and sometimes medication or bandaging.

When the cartilage is damaged, the lubricant (joint fluid) often also changes to a less-effective, watery form. After injury, the cartilage heals slowly and damage may be permanent. The cartilage may also change its nature to a different or less-effective type of cartilage.

The treatment of joint disorders is often not easy. The cause of the painful joint usually has to be determined to allow your veterinarian to accurately prescribe medication.

This may be done by taking the history (what happened, was there an observed injury, how long has the lameness been present, is only one limb affected?), by manipulation of the joint, by taking X-rays or by microscopic analysis of joint fluid removed with a needle.

Sometimes, surgical exploration and biopsies have to be performed to find the cause of a persistently painful joint. Even blood tests may occasionally need to be performed. If infections play a role, antibiotics will be used. If the cause was an injury, rest and anti-inflammatory drugs or dressings may be used.

Certain join conditions (those where the immune system affects the joint) need to be treated with cortisone and other, even-more powerful, drugs.

The owner of the cat must never give painkillers not prescribed by the veterinarian. The common human painkiller, paracetemol, present in most human headache formulations, is absolutely deadly to cats. Even aspirin can be deadly and must be given in very small amounts, as directed by your veterinarian. Specific veterinary painkillers, safe for use in cats, will be prescribed or administered by your veterinarian. Certain joint problems may also respond well to a new class of medication, called chondroprotectives ('cartilage protectants'), which actively protect and repair the cartilage of the joint.

These new-concept medications, containing glycosaminoglycans, are available in pure form, in injectable format, or capsules and offer possibilities of repair and recovery not previously possible.

Glycosaminoglycans are also contained in certain natural products such as the extract from the green-lipped mussel, distributed by Compass. Your veterinarian will advise you when these products will be of benefit and which formulation to use. Finally, never allow your cat to become overweight as this puts extra strain on joints and will hinder effective recovery following injury.