Environmental Considerations When Treating Feline Osteoarthritis
Our friendly feline companions are starting to live longer lives, and with longevity comes inevitable aging woes, such as feline osteoarthritis (OA, or shortened to ‘arthritis’). Animal care professionals (ACPs) such as veterinarians, behaviorists, behavior consultants, trainers, or even pet sitters may be positioned to be approached by clients who have specific questions about feline osteoarthritis, or they may be asked to offer advice when the diagnosis comes up. Providing environmental accommodations can tackle an aging cat’s mental and emotional needs while medical options are explored.
Consider financial and resource constraints
Treating clients with kindness should be expected of ACPs. However, there are a few special considerations when speaking with owners of senior or geriatric felines diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Owners may have significant fiscal constraints – generic household bills in addition to seeking veterinary care and palliative treatment for feline OA. While medical and behavioral complications are part of our daily lives, for many owners the reality and gravity of the diagnosis may be shocking and upsetting. While doing their own research about the condition, they may come across treatments they would like to pursue but are not available in their geographic location or within their budget. These stressors can lead to a storm of emotions, but a kind word with a modification plan can make a world of difference for felines and their owners.
The Five Domains
The Five Domains are the modern-day Five Freedoms, this concept was introduced to the animal welfare community in 1994, with subsequent researched updates in 2001, 2004, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2017, and 2020.² It is recognized that domains one through four all feed into the fifth domain, and only by assessing all five and how they rely on each other can caretakers adequately assess a given animal’s welfare state. Feline arthritis can impact each domain in varying ways, and environmental adaptation can help cope with the infringement on all.
Domain One: Nutrition: Ensuring that the cat in question can comfortably reach their bowls is important, yet often overlooked. It is easy for cat caretakers to miss changes when they see their cat on a daily basis, but those same changes are often easier for a pet sitter or veterinarian to spot between their visits with the animal. Ensuring pain-free access to food and water can go a long way in regards to keeping the cat comfortable and at a healthy weight.
Domain Two: Environment:
Environment has an impact on a cat’s behavior, and taking steps to alter the environment can ensure the comfort and continued normal behaviors of a cat diagnosed with feline osteoarthritis
Domain Three: Health: Ensuring that your client has taken their feline friend to the veterinarian should cover this domain. Current American Association of Feline Practitioner (AAFP) guidelines encourage veterinarians to see their senior and geriatric patients every four to six months to ensure that age-related changes are noted and managed appropriately.³ The next section will cover varying treatment options.
Domain Four: Behavior: This domain includes engaging in normal cat behaviors such as climbing, scratching, hunting behaviors, etc. This is yet another thing that clients may not notice when changes occur gradually over time – less play or reduced utilization of cat towers or scratching posts may more easily be noticed by the visiting pet sitter or behaviorist than other members of the household.
Domain Five: Mental State: Distress or behavioral outbursts as a result of feline osteoarthritis can be avoided with an accurate assessment of the first four domains, a good treatment plan, and environmental changes to keep natural behaviors, formed habits, and day-to-day activities accessible to felines afflicted by arthritis.
Feline osteoarthritis, once detected and diagnosed, has a small list of treatment options. ACPs should be aware that an owner’s geographic location as well as socioeconomic status can narrow down the list of feasible and accessible treatment options available for the feline in question.
Care should be taken to work with a board-certified veterinarian with a demonstrated interest in companion animal behavior, a veterinary behaviorist, or a credentialed and insured companion animal behavior consultant to ensure that the medical treatment plan complements the environmental changes that are being made in the home to combat the effects of feline osteoarthritis. The veterinary professional can make case-specific recommendations and speak to the anticipated efficacy of the treatment on specific felines. The field of veterinary medicine is always evolving; some options listed in this section may have changed five years from now, or new options may become available.
Current treatment options include: pain management medication, and medications specifically targeting degrading bone and tissue health, such as the newer frunevetmab injection. Owners may elect to try other complementary therapies if they believe there is merit to having them on the treatment plan. Most companion animal behavior consultants will have a strong interest in coordinating efforts with the treating veterinarian – this teamwork is crucial for the client and patient.
Home environment accommodations
In addition to medical care adjustments, care can be taken to create environmental changes aimed at preserving the cat’s welfare and keeping their mental and emotional wellbeing intact.
Their bedding is one such small step. The pet products market has a variety of bedding options to choose from: Warmer blankets made of fleece will warm quickly and hold heat longer, whereas orthopedic foam provides a soft yet firm place to rest weary bones. An alternative option is to purchase a self-warming pad. Electric and nonelectric options are available, sometimes marketed as just crate warming pads. Nonelectric options can offer fiscal relief, as well as easing anxiety about cord and voltage safety.
If the cat is an avid scratch post champion whose bouts have started to subside, a change in scratching post material or shape should be considered. Scratch materials now come in traditional sisal rope, cardboard, carpet, natural wood, and more! Shapes include (but are not limited to) ramps and flat mats. If these options are hindered by supply chain issues or location constraints, owners who have the resources and time can make a scratcher by hand, tailored to their cat’s abilities.
In cases where feline arthritis significantly hinders mobility, ACPs need to employ creative thinking skills. Cats see spaces in a vertical manner, and inability due to pain or stiffness to reach those vertices can induce stress. Mobility accommodations do not have to be one size fits all. What works for one family may not work for another, but they could inspire more accommodation ideas. Pet ramps or pet steps are one such accommodation, but having multiple ramps or staircases can be cumbersome fiscally and literally. Pet steps can be DIYed by reinforcing cardboard boxes, or furniture can be rearranged to create a more gradual route from floor to highest perch point in any room.
For owners who have more than one cat tower, moving them closer to other furniture, or placing multiple cat towers next to each other can provide a cat diagnosed with arthritis a more gradual incline for climbing, as well as freedom of choice in movement. Providing those choices allows for the cat to climb at a comfortable pace and intensity, preserving at minimum two domains ( three and four).
When evaluating mobility constraints, litter box access is an important topic to be broached with the client. Clambering up into a large, high-sided box may not be consistently feasible while medical treatment plans are drawn up. As with cat scratchers, the pet product market has plenty of low-sided litter boxes to choose from, or owners with the resources to do so can create their own options suited specifically for their cat and their home’s aesthetic. If simple movement such as walking is severely impaired, potty pads (reusable or disposable) or additional litter boxes are alternative options to prevent inappropriate elimination issues.
Adding extra water dishes in the home can be helpful in preventing dehydration in cats with mobility constraints. Water and food dishes can be raised 2 to 3 inches, allowing for a more natural sitting posture while the cat eats. This can be done many ways, from using the bottom of a bookshelf, to smaller cardboard boxes, to carefully purchased raised bowls.
Animal care professionals encounter a variety of felines at different stages of life. What is normal to our everyday profession can be shocking, stressful, and generally upsetting to our clients and their beloved felines. Fortunately, the field of feline medicine is advancing rapidly, and new treatments are available or undergoing testing for our four-legged companions. These treatment options can make a notable difference in the quality of life and overall welfare our geriatric felines experience. All animal care professionals should strive to meet their clients where they are at, with a few kind words and a plan for supporting the needs of the cats that struggle with feline osteoarthritis.
Morgan Redell is a former shelter worker turned Fear Free pet sitter who is working towards becoming credentialed in feline behavior. She is currently attending Western Governors University to finish out her bachelors in information technology, and hopes to attend graduate school for animal husbandry and welfare with a focus on felines. When she isn’t juggling jobs or classes, Morgan enjoys spending time with her own cats, Sara and Gravel.