Degenerative joint disease (also called osteoarthritis) is the number one cause of chronic pain in the dog and cat. The condition itself is the result of long term stresses and instability of a joint, either as a result of old injury or of natural development of the joint in that individual. While surgery may be able to help in some situations, sometimes the degeneration of the joint cannot be reversed, and treatment focuses on preventing progression of damage.

At Friendship Hospital for Animals, we make improving your cat's comfort a top priority!

Our doctors and staff are trained in the latest methods for pain relief and arthritis management, and particularly for the unique needs of cats. Many times, medications from different classes are combined for an enhanced effect, and further combination with non-drug therapies can also help to alleviate symptoms and slow disease progression.

Some of the methods that may be employed alone or in combination to treat degenerative joint disease include:

Lifestyle Changes

Weight Control

As joints age, they become less and less able to handle the load of the body. This is also true in diseased joints of any age. It is crucial for your pet to maintain a lean physique to help to decrease the strain on their joints. We can help make a plan for your cat's weight loss, which may include controlled exercise, decreased food ration, prescription weight loss food, or changing normal treats to healthy low-calorie alternatives like carrots, pumpkin, or green beans.

Controlled Exercise

Gentle, controlled exercise is good for cats with arthritis! Exercise helps to keep cats lean, maintain supportive muscle structure, and help lubricate joint cartilage with healthy joint fluid. Keep things slow and easy and let your cat determine their own pace. Use treats or toys to encourage slow walks throughout the house or up and down a few stairs. Add things like ramps, stairs, or stepping blocks that allow your cat to access hiding, feeding, and sleeping areas. Avoid exercise that is high-impact in nature, like fetch, chase, or jumping.

Nutritional Supplementation

Glucosamine/Chondroitin Sulfate

These products cartilage components that are taken orally to provide the necessary building blocks needed to repair damaged cartilage. These products may have some anti-inflammatory properties separate from their structural uses.

These products take time to build up in your cat's system, so 1-2 months may be needed to see a positive effect. Most of these products are available as a tasty chewable treat or a fish-flavored powder to be sprinkled on the food.

Because these substances are classified by the FDA as nutraceuticals (nutrients with medicinal properties) rather than drugs, the usual rigorous testing needed for drug approval has not been required. At Friendship, we carry products like Cosequin and Dasuquin from a company who underwent voluntary testing for formula consistency and feel very confident in their effectiveness compared to over-the-counter products.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Certain fatty acids found naturally in some foods (like fish) have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. Previously, the benefits of these fatty acids have been noted in skin disease, but new research has shown that they can be beneficial in reducing inflammation and improving comfort in joint disease as well. Fatty acid supplements in capsule or liquid form (3V Caps) are added to the food, and are a great way to help support joint health in arthritic cats. Side effects are very rare and may include stomach upset or weight gain.

Adjunctive Non-Drug Therapy


Acupuncture has been recognized for many centuries to be an effective and safe means of controlling pain and decreasing inflammation, particularly in degenerative joint disease. Acupuncture can help to decrease muscle spasm, improve circulation to joints, and provide comfort by the release of endorphins, the body's natural morphine. Therapy is usually initiated weekly for 3-6 weeks, then tapered as needed for each individual cat. Click here to learn more!

Massage and physical therapy

These are two other ways to help relieve the pain of arthritis, improve muscle strength and comfort, and optimize joint function. Please ask a team member for referral information to certified providers of these services.

Drug Therapy

There are currently no FDA-approved medications for pain in cats. These drugs (along with many others we use in veterinary medicine) are used in an “off-label” manner, but have shown benefit in many cats.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been historically used in the treatment of feline arthritis; however, due to some potential serious side effects, they are no longer recommended for chronic pain management in cats. Metacam (meloxicam) can be used for a single post-operative dose in the appropriate patient, but it is not recommended for use outside of this realm.

What about human NSAIDs?

Over-the-counter pain relievers like Aspirin, Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), and Aleve (naproxen) can be harmful or even fatal if used in cats, and is not recommended.


Buprenex is a morphine-like drug that is syringed onto the gums and provides systemic pain relief. The most common side effect is sedation. Buprenex is usually used as a “rescue” for bad days rather than a daily medication due to its high cost. Buprenex is a controlled drug and should be kept away from children.


Adequan is a polysulfated glycosaminoglycan, which is also a cartilage component. Adequan has numerous beneficial effects for the arthritis patient including the inhibition of harmful enzymes involving joint cartilage destruction, stimulation of cartilage repair, and increase in joint lubrication and mobility.

Adequan is given as an injection and therefore is able to reach all joints, but it seems to have a special affinity for damaged joints. The injection may be given here at Friendship, or we can also teach you how to give it at home. Adequan is given in an initial series of one injection twice weekly for four weeks, then tapered to the longest effective dosage interval. Adequan should be avoided in cats with blood clotting abnormalities.


Gabapentin has previously been used as an anti-seizure medication, but has now been recognized as an effective medication in chronic pain. Gabapentin is thought to help decrease the “wind-up” phenomenon noted in chronic pain, where the presence of pain amplifies the pain sensation pathways, leading to excessive perception of pain (hyperaesthesia) and pain in areas that are normally non-painful (allodynia).

Gabapentin can be used along with NSAIDs, as well as Tramadol and nutriceuticals. It should not be used in cats with advanced kidney failure. Sedation is the most common side effect noted.


Tramadol is a medication that has morphine-like effects on pain. It serves only as a pain killer and does not affect inflammation or underlying disease.

The most common side effect is sedation, but some cats can exhibit “manic” behavior changes while taking Tramadol. It has a bitter taste and can be difficult for cats to take. It should not be used with certain behavior drugs, so make sure your veterinarian knows about all the medications and supplements your cat is taking.

The Bottom Line:

Pain doesn't have to be a way of life for your cat!

There have been many advances in medicine and non-drug therapy that can help your pet regain some of their youthful comfort and playfulness. Ask how we can help your cat get on the road to wellness today!