Helping Your Dog with Osteoarthritis

A diagnosis of osteoarthritis (OA) in your dog can feel devastating and even overwhelming. After all, we know that OA is a progressive, degenerative disease that will worsen over time. By most estimates, 20% of all dogs (regardless of age) are affected by OA, making it the most common chronic disease they face. Once a dog is diagnosed with OA, it is important to understand that our focus is management rather than cure. Success means maximizing your dog’s comfort and function while minimizing pain.

The good news is that there are many strategies, both big and small, to help dogs live with their OA.

What is the first step I should take to help my dog with OA?

Create a true partnership with your veterinarian. This means scheduling regular evaluations to monitor the progression of OA and modify the treatment plan. Dedicate a journal or notebook to your dog’s ongoing health/medical issues, and write down all your questions as you think of them. Take your notebook to all veterinary visits to record answers to your questions as well as to note the details of any updated veterinary recommendations. We only recall about 10% of what we hear, so it makes sense to write things down.

Can my dog’s weight make a difference in managing OA?

Yes, it can. If your dog is carrying extra weight, work with your veterinarian to plan a weight-loss strategy to get your dog lean and keep him or her that way. Your veterinarian will prescribe a diet that will provide joint support and help your dog lose weight. Ask for specific portion recommendations, and schedule regular weigh-ins to monitor success.

Can exercise help?

With OA joints, we know that dogs need to “use it or lose it.” Regular moderate exercise contributes to better joint health, even in the face of OA. Ask your veterinarian for specific guidance on how far and long to walk, acceptable walking surfaces, and specific exercises that can target and strengthen muscle groups.

Is there anything I should know about the pain medications/nutraceuticals/supplements my veterinarian has prescribed for my dog?

Use all products strictly as instructed/labeled. Do not modify delivery/dosing of prescription medications except under the direction of your veterinarian. Be sure to ask for a written summary of potential side effects, and monitor your dog carefully. If you witness any adverse side effects from medications, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Are there any other veterinary management options I can look into?

You may want to explore physical medicine to complement medication, nutrition, and nutraceuticals to help your dog with OA. Physical medicine options include physical rehabilitation, acupuncture, chiropractic, and medical massage. You want to work with appropriately qualified and credentialed individuals, so seek your veterinarian’s guidance for a referral. Physical medicine may allow for decreased doses of medication over time by helping to restore more normal biomechanics, movement, and strength in the dog’s body.

How can I modify my home environment to maximize my dog’s comfort and function?

There are some simple things you can do to make everyday living much more comfortable and fun for your dog with OA. Something as straightforward as providing raised food and water dishes can relieve low-back pain and make mealtimes more enjoyable. Dishes between your dog’s elbow and shoulder level are generally most convenient.

In addition, keep your dog with OA warm and dry. Outdoor living is, in general, not appropriate for these dogs. To make sleeping surfaces as comfortable as possible, consider providing your dog with an orthopedic or memory foam bed.

A ramp to enter and leave the vehicle makes car rides more enjoyable by eliminating stress on the back and leg joints. Dogs generally learn how to use ramps quickly.

Depending on the extent of your dog’s OA, it may be best to prevent access to stairs when no one is available to “spot” the dog on a trip upstairs or downstairs. A collapsible baby gate works great for this and can either be mounted on hinges or simply put up and removed as needed.

Finally, an often-overlooked yet very important environmental modification is slip-free flooring. In this age of hardwood, laminate, tile, and vinyl flooring, most dogs with OA are simply doomed to struggle just to get around the house. We can help them out in a number of ways:

  • Adding area rugs with non-skid backing.
  • Using baby gates to prevent access to rooms with slick floors.
  • Laying down interlocking squares of lightly padded flooring (such as those used to create play surfaces for children). These squares work well for covering large floor surfaces because they can be custom-fitted to any room and easily removed for cleaning and entertaining company.

What is my takeaway message?

Work with your veterinarian to expand and fine-tune these options for your dog. With a bit of imagination and creative thought, you can help your dog with OA enjoy a long, happy, and comfortable life!

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.



MRSA and Senior Pets

What is Staph aureus & MRSA?

  • Staph aureus (short for Staphylococcus aureus) is a bacterium that is normally carried in the nose of about 30% of the general human population. Typically it causes no problems at all, but it is an opportunistic pathogen – if a person gets injured or sick for another reason, S. aureus can take advantage of the body’s weakened defenses and cause infection. It can infect almost any tissue, but skin and soft tissue infections are most common.
  • Strains of S. aureus can be either methicillin-resistant (MRSA) or methicillinsusceptible (MSSA). But MRSA strains are not just resistant to methicillin, they’re resistant to all the antibiotics in the same drug family as methicillin (the beta lactams), including many common drugs such as penicillins and cephalosporins.
  • Some strains of MRSA, particularly in hospitals, are also resistant to other families of antibiotics, which can make infection extremely difficult to treat.
  • People and animals can carry MRSA without any signs of infection at all. This is known as colonization, which may be short-term or long-term. Infection with MRSA causes signs of inflammation (e.g. heat, pain, swelling, discharge, fever).
  • Pets such as dogs and cats do not commonly carry MRSA. It is suspected that MRSA found in pets usually originates from humans. However, once colonized or infected, dogs and cats can pass the bacterium on to other animals and people.

How Common is MRSA?


  •  MRSA may be carried in the nose by 0.2-3.5% of the general population, depending on geographical location. 
  • MRSA is an important hospital-associated (HA) pathogen, which causes infection in people with risk factors such as recent hospitalization, surgery, antibiotic use, chronic illness, and residence in long-term care facilities. 
  • Infection with MRSA has also become a community-associated (CA) disease, which can affect anyone in the general population, even without traditional HA risk factors. 
  • People who work with horses, cattle or pigs may be at increased risk of acquiring MRSA. 
  • The prevalence of MRSA varies widely in different parts of the world. In some places in the USA, more than half of all S. aureus isolates are MRSA, whereas in some European countries less than 1% are MRSA.


  • Staphylococcus aureus is not usually found in most dogs and cats, although the frequency with which it is found varies widely between studies.
  • Cases of MRSA colonization and infection were first described in dogs and cats in the 1990s, including some reports in which the people who lived with the pet were carrying the same strain.
  • As in people, the percentage of healthy pets that carry MRSA is low (less than 4%). Pets may carry MRSA in the nose, intestinal tract or on the skin.
  •  Risk factors for MRSA in pets are largely unknown. Some are likely similar to those in humans, such as previous surgery, hospitalization, and antibiotic use. Pets used in hospital visitation programs may also be at increased risk.

How Do Animals & People Get MRSA?

Transmission of MRSA to people or animals can lead to colonization alone, infection, or both.

  • In human hospitals, MRSA is most often transmitted on the hands of healthcare workers.
  • Transmission of MRSA in the community occurs through direct contact with high-risk, colonized or infected individuals. Outbreaks have occurred on sports teams, military bases and prisons where many people may have close contact with each other, hygiene may be less than ideal, and breaks in the skin may be common.
  • Pets most often probably get MRSA from people, and they can carry MRSA in their noses and around the anus. Direct contact with these areas or tissues infected with MRSA (e.g. an infected incision) are most likely to result in transmission from pets.

MRSA can survive in the environment for a limited period of time, but the bacteria are susceptible to most commonly used disinfectants, if the surface/equipment is cleaned properly before the disinfectant is applied.

Most healthy people and animals that are exposed to MRSA have no problems at all – they may become colonized for a short time, or even a long time, often without ever knowing it. But in some cases, infection can occur.

• Humans: Infection with MRSA in humans can cause the same kinds of infections as MSSA, including skin and soft tissue infection (SSTI) (in particular infection of surgical sites), pneumonia, and infection of the joints, bone, bloodstream and heart valves. Community-associated MRSA infections are most frequently associated with SSTIs, including simple skin abscesses, but rarely CA-MRSA strains can also cause severe, rapidly fatal pneumonia and “flesh-eating” disease. Soft tissue infections with some CA-MRSA strains can occur without any previous damage to the skin, and initially may appear very similar to a spider bite.

• Animals: In dogs and cats, the most common conditions associated with MRSA tend to be skin infections, post-operative incisional infections and wound infections. The bacteria have also been isolated from the urinary tract, auditory canal, skin, eye and joints.

How is MRSA Diagnosed?

Because MRSA can cause so many different kinds of infections, and it’s impossible to tell for sure what kind of bacteria are involved based on how the infection looks, MRSA is usually diagnosed based on bacterial culture, which can take 1-3 days to complete. Molecular tests are now being used which can detect MRSA more rapidly (hours versus days), but these tests are not used in animals.

The body site most likely to be colonized with MRSA in humans is the nose, so a nasal swab is often cultured to check for MRSA colonization. The ideal body site to culture in colonized animals is unknown, but swabs are usually taken of the nose and the area around the anus in pets.

Molecular typing and classification of MRSA, which determines how closely related different strains are, is not routinely performed for isolates from single cases. This type of testing is used for outbreak investigations. MRSA isolates from pets tend to be the same strains that are common in people in the same geographic region.

How is MRSA Treated?

Infection: All MRSA strains are resistant to beta-lactam antibiotics, but because different strains may be resistant to other antibiotics as well, the bacteria must be tested in order to chose the best antibiotic. Automatically choosing the most powerful antibiotic to treat the infection when a more common drug will do can be very dangerous (and expensive), because the MRSA, or other bacteria in the body, may become resistant to it, and then there may be no drug that can effectively treat the infection. Local treatment of skin and soft tissue MRSA infections (e.g. lancing and flushing an abscess) is often very effective as well, and should not be overlooked, even if the person or animal is also treated with antibiotics.

Colonization: Decolonization therapy, including nasal ointment and/or oral antibiotics, is not needed or recommended for most people. It may be considered for people who are at higher risk for infection or in contact with individuals at higher risk for infection (e.g. HIV/AIDS, cancer, transplant patients). Most if not all pets eliminate MRSA colonization on their own within a few weeks as long as they are not re-exposed to the bacterium – decolonization therapy with antibiotics is not needed or recommended, but household infection control practices (see below) are very important..

Infection Control For MRSA In Pets

Wash Your Hands! Hand hygiene is the simplest and most practical way to prevent transmission of MRSA between humans and animals. In general, MRSA colonization is uncommon in healthy pets, but if they have been exposed to a hospital environment (such as animals used in hospital visitation programs) or a person who was recently hospitalized, they may be more likely to be carrying MRSA. Proper hand hygiene is important after handling any animal, but it is particularly important in these cases. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

What Should I Do If My Pet Is Infected With MRSA?

Don’t panic! The majority of MRSA infections can be treated effectively if they are diagnosed and appropriate treatment is started in a timely manner.

  • Follow the treatment recommendations of your veterinarian very carefully. It is especially important to completely finish any antibiotic prescriptions, as directed, even if your pet seems to be better earlier.
  • Avoid contact with the infected area of your pet. If possible the area should be kept covered or bandaged. Wear gloves if you need to change the bandage and place all used bandage materials directly in the garbage.
  • Wash your hands well after handling your pet, and especially after changing any bandages.
  • Infected pets are often colonized as well, so also follow the recommendations for colonized pets below.

What Should I Do If My Pet Is Colonized With MRSA?

Animals that are positive for MRSA can be “isolated” at home if there are no high-risk individuals (e.g. HIV/AIDS, cancer or transplant patients) in the household.

  • Avoid touching the pet’s nose or bum, as these are the most likely areas to harbour MRSA.
  • The animal should not be allowed to lick a person’s face, or any area of broken or damaged skin. 
  • MRSA-positive dogs should be walked in low-traffic areas, where they are not likely to encounter other animals or people to which they may transmit MRSA through direct contact. MRSA-positive cats should be kept indoors. 
  • MRSA can be found in the stool of colonized animals, so stool should be collected as promptly as possible and disposed of directly into the garbage. Cat litter boxes should be scooped out daily. 
  • Although the importance of the environment in transmission of MRSA is unclear, MRSA can survive in the environment for some time. The toys and bedding of an MRSA-positive pet should regularly be changed/cleaned (daily if possible), to reduce the exposure of both the animal and people to MRSA.  Keep the animal off beds and especially pillows used by people. 
  • Hand hygiene remains the most important means of preventing transmission.

Therapy Animals

Animals that regularly visit healthcare facilities are more likely to be exposed to MRSA, and therefore are more likely to carry it. There are guidelines available to help reduce the risk of pets acquiring infectious diseases in hospitals. These include:

  • Never let your pet lick a patient’s face, hands or any area of broken skin.
  • Do not let patients feed your pet any treats.
  • If your pet needs to be placed on a bed or patient’s lap, place your animal on a clean towel or sheet, never directly on the patient’s hospital gown or bed sheets.

Testing or treating normal animals for MRSA is not necessary, but MRSA should be considered in these animals if they develop infections, particularly of the skin and soft tissues.

If I Have MRSA, What Should I Do About My Pet?

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your pet, to help prevent transfer of MRSA to your pet, and transfer of MRSA from your pet if it becomes colonized. 
  • Do not kiss your pet, and do not let your animal to lick your face or any broken skin. 
  • Testing or treating normal pets for MRSA is not necessary, even if a person in the house is infected or colonized with MRSA. However, if one or more individuals in a household is repeatedly positive for MRSA, then screening of pets for MRSA may be considered as part of a whole-household intervention, which includes screening and decolonization of all people.

Is My Pet The Source Of My MRSA Infection?

Pets can be carriers of MRSA, especially in households where people are repeatedly found to have MRSA infections, but this does not mean they are the source. Pets are often “innocent bystanders” that acquire the MRSA from their owners. If all the people in the household are being tested for MRSA, then testing of pets should also be coordinated by your veterinarian, in consultation with the attending physician.

If household infection control measures fail to control transmission of MRSA between people, and there is evidence that a pet may be a source of MRSA, temporarily removing the pet from the household can be considered (but is rarely necessary). This should allow the pet to naturally eliminate MRSA colonization while the human members of the household undergo decolonization. Permanent removal of pets is not indicated.

It is impossible to completely prevent pets (or people) from being exposed to MRSA, because so many people and animals carry MRSA without any signs. However, proper use of antibiotics according to the prescription, and only using antibiotics when they are really needed are very important.

The zoonotic risk to the general population posed by MRSA in healthy house pets such as dogs and cats is:


LOW RISK    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    HIGH RISK

^RISK = 2

Individuals with compromised immune systems (e.g. HIV/AIDS, transplant and cancer patients) are more susceptible to many kinds of infections, including those which may be transmitted by pets. While these individuals are not advised to get rid of their pets, precautions should be taken to reduce the frequency of contacts that could result in pathogen transmission (e.g. avoiding contact with open wounds, feces), as well as the ability of infectious agents to survive in the household (e.g. prompt and thorough disinfection of potentially contaminated surfaces).

• Immunocompromised individuals should avoid contact with any pet that is colonized or infected with MRSA. This may involve temporarily removing the animal from the home until the condition resolves and the animal is negative for MRSA, but it is not necessary for these individuals to give up their pets altogether.

Infants and young children (less than 5 years old) are more likely than adults to extensively handle animals if given the opportunity, more likely to touch their faces or mouths, and less likely to wash their hands after handling an animal. Children may “snuggle” with pets; this very close contact can increase the risk of disease transmission.

• Young children should be supervised when playing with animals, and an adult should ensure that they wash their hands afterwards, and especially prior to handling food. Older children should be taught to do the same.

For these groups, the zoonotic risk posed by MRSA in healthy house pets such as dogs and cats is likely:


LOW RISK   1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10    HIGH RISK

^RISK = 4

Additional Information

  •  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008. Community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). Available at: Accessed Aug 2008. 
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007. Healthcare-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (HA-MRSA). Available at: Accessed Aug 2008.

Behavior Counseling – Senior Pet Behavior Problems

It is not unusual for behavior problems to develop in older pets, and often there may be multiple concurrent problems. Some of the changes associated with aging may not seem significant, but even a minor change in behavior might be indicative of underlying medical problems or a decline in cognitive function. Because early diagnosis and treatment can control or slow the progress of many disease conditions, be certain to advise your veterinarian if there is any change in your pet’s behavior.

Blood tests and a urinalysis may be needed to rule out organ disease and endocrine imbalances, especially in the older pet.

Because early diagnosis and treatment can control or slow the progress of many disease conditions, be certain to advise your veterinarian if there is any change in your pet’s behavior.

What are some of the causes of behavior changes in senior pets?

Behavior problems in senior pets can be caused by:

  • Changes in routine or home environment
  • Physical problems such as illness or degenerative disease
  • Senility or cognitive dysfunction

Changes in the household, changes in the environment, and new stressors can lead to problems regardless of age. For instance, moving, a change in work schedule, a family member leaving the home, or new additions to the family such as a new spouse or baby can have a dramatic impact on the pet’s behavior. However, older pets are often more resistant or less able to adapt to change.

As pets age, they are susceptible to an increasing number of medical and degenerative problems. Problems with one or more organ systems may play a role in the development of a wide variety of behavior problems. For example, diabetes or diseases of the bladder, kidneys, liver, or intestines can lead to house soiling. Diseases of the endocrine organs such as the thyroid gland and pituitary gland can lead to a variety of behavioral and personality changes.

A decline in the senses (hearing and sight), painful conditions, and those that affect mobility may cause the pet to be more irritable or more fearful of approach and handling (see Diagnosing a Behavior Problem – Is It Medical or Behavioral?).

Many pet owners feel that perhaps nothing can be done for their dog or cat.

As with other organs, the brain is susceptible to age-related degenerative processes that can affect the pet’s behavior, personality, memory, and learning ability. When these changes occur, the pet may show varying degrees of cognition or cognitive dysfunction and in pets that are more severely affected, this might be referred to as cognitive dysfunction or senility decline (see Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction). Many of these changes are similar to what occurs in aging humans. In fact, the amyloid deposits that are found in the brain of dogs with cognitive dysfunction are similar to what is seen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in people.

How can I find out why my pet’s behavior has changed?

Regardless of age, every behavior case should begin with a complete veterinary physical examination and a clinical and behavioral history. In addition, blood tests and a urinalysis may be needed to rule out organ disease and endocrine imbalances, especially in the older pet. Sometimes a more in-depth examination of a particular organ system may be indicated. Additional laboratory tests, radiographs, ultrasound, spinal tests, brain scans, or perhaps a referral to a specialist may all be appropriate. A decision on which tests are needed would be based on the pet’s age, previous health problems, any ongoing drug or dietary therapy, and an evaluation of all of its medical and behavioral signs and the findings of the physical exam.

My pet is quite old. Is there any point in doing these tests?

Many of these signs are subtle in their early stages and may only be noticed in the home environment.

Unfortunately, many pet owners do not even discuss behavior changes with their veterinarians because they feel that the changes are a normal part of aging and perhaps nothing can be done for their dog or cat. This is far from the truth. Many problems have an underlying medical cause that can be treated or controlled with drugs, diet, or perhaps surgery. Hormonal changes associated with an underactive or overactive thyroid gland, diabetes, diseases of the pituitary gland, and testicular tumors can all lead to dramatic changes in the pet’s behavior, and many of these problems can be treated or controlled. Degenerative organ systems can often be aided with nutritional supplementation or dietary changes. High blood pressure, cardiac disease, and respiratory disease may be treatable with medication that can dramatically improve the quality and even length of the pet’s life. Drugs and dietary therapy that are useful in the treatment of age-related cognitive dysfunction are also available. For a more extensive list of health problems affecting behavior, see Diagnosing a Behavior Problem – Is It Medical or Behavioral?

What are some things to look out for?

Some of the common things that should be reported if they develop in your pet include changes in behavior (see checklist below), an increase or decrease in appetite or drinking, an increased frequency or amount of urination, loss of urine control (dribbling urine, bed wetting), changes in stool consistency or frequency, skin and haircoat changes, lumps and bumps, mouth odor or bleeding gums, stiffness or soreness, excessive panting, coughing, changes in weight (increase or decrease), and tremors or shaking. The checklist on the next page can be used to determine if your pet has any changes that might need to be reported to your veterinarian. If any of these signs arise, they could indicate an underlying medical condition, a sign of stiffness or pain, a sign that your pet’s senses are beginning to decline, or a sign of cognitive dysfunction (see Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction).

As mentioned, sometimes a change in behavior is the first sign of pain, illness or degenerative disease. However, the cause and significance of these signs cannot be determined unless they are reported to the veterinarian, since many of these signs are subtle in their early stages and may only be noticed in the home environment.

Can problems be treated?

Many of the problems of senior pets can be controlled or even resolved. Early detection and intervention with drugs, diets, or supplements can control or greatly slow the progress of many disease conditions, improving the pet’s quality of life and perhaps even longevity (see Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction).

Checklist for Behavior Changes in Senior Pets

Clinical signs

Indicate when problem first began

Severity Mild = 1 Moderate =2 Severe =3

  1. Weight: Increased ____ Decreased ____
  2. Appetite: Increased ____ Decreased ____
  3. Vomiting ___ Diarrhea ___ Constipation/straining ___
  4. Drinking: Increased ____ Decreased ____
  5. Urination: Increase ___ Decrease ___ Straining ___
  6. Coughing___ Weakness after exercise___ Panting ____ If yes describe:
  7. Lumps / tumors ___ If yes describe:
  8. Skin problems ____ If yes describe:
  9. Mouth problems: Bad breath ___ Decreased chewing ___
  10. Weakness ___ Incoordination ___ Muscle tremors/ shaking ___ If yes, describe:
  11. Pain/stiff ___ Slow rising ___ Problems climbing/jumping ____ If yes describe:
  12. Vision changes: At night ___ During the day ___ If yes describe: Hearing changes: Less sensitive to noise: ___ More sensitive to noise___ If yes describe:
  13. Disorientation (confusion) Gets confused or lost___ Goes to wrong side of door ___ Gets stuck and cannot navigate around or over obstacles ___ Less responsive to stimuli (sights, sounds) ___ Does not recognize familiar people, pets, places ___
  14. Interactions (Relationships) Petting or contact: Increased ____ Decreased ____ Greeting behavior: More enthusiastic ___ Decreased ___ More irritable or aggressive with family people ____ pets ____
  15. Sleep-wake cycles Sleeps more during day ___ Restless sleep ___ Wakes at night ___ If yes, describe:
  16. Housesoiling – Indoor elimination Stools ___ Urine ___ Spraying/marking (vertical) ___ Signals more but no elimination ___ Does not signal anymore ___
  17. Activity: Decreased ___ Increased ___ Pacing/wandering ___ More playful/exploratory ___ Less playful/exploratory ___ Repetitive/unusual activities e.g. licking, staring ____ If yes, describe:
  18. Anxiety (fears/phobias) Newly emerging fears or anxiety ____ Increased agitation/restlessness ____ Increased vocalization ____ Separation anxiety ____ If yes describe:
  19. Learning and memory Forgets name ____ forgets previously learned commands ____ Decreased ability to learn new tasks ____ Decreased ability to do working tasks ___ Agility ____ If yes, describe:

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Behavior Changes and Pain in Aging Cats

As cats age, we generally see changes in their behavior. The wild and crazy playful activities we associate with kittens gives way to adult cats sleeping in the sun and prowling around the house. We commonly presume senior cats will take even longer naps in the sun or on our beds. It is important, however, to differentiate normal feline behaviors from abnormal ones, as some behavior changes in aging cats arise from pain and are definitely not normal.

Some behavior changes in aging cats arise from pain and are definitely not normal.

What kind of behavior changes might I see in my cat that could signal pain?

One of the most common pain-associated behavior changes we see in aging cats is a decrease in grooming and self-care. Cats are, by nature, extremely fastidious about keeping themselves clean. Watch any conscious cat for longer than a few minutes, and you are likely to see

it cleaning some part of its body. Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common chronically painful ailments in cats, affecting more than 90% of cats 10 years of age and older. Spinal arthritis makes it uncomfortable to twist and turn, so grooming the torso becomes difficult. OA in the lower spine and hips can make the area over the pelvis and upper rear legs tender. When grooming the lower back, pelvis, and rear legs becomes painful, the cat simply stops taking care of its coat. Areas of the cat’s body that are not groomed then become matted, and the cat develops an overall “unkempt” appearance. When we try to help them out by using a comb or brush, they tend to object.

If you notice your cat developing matted hair or flaky skin, make an appointment with your veterinarian, as this can be an important signal of pain. Because cats like to be clean, a dirty kitty is not normal! If your cat has trouble grooming even after its pain is well managed, consider having a groomer give it a “lion cut” to make the torso hair short and easy to keep clean.

One of the most common pain-associated behavior changes in aging cats is a decrease in grooming and self-care.

Are there any changes in litter pan behavior that might mean my cat is in pain?

As we’ve already stated, cats are famously clean and tidy, and that generally means careful with their potty habits as well. They like having a discrete place to eliminate, and most cat litter makes the litter pan an attractive destination. If a cat that has previously been consistent in using the litter pan appropriately suddenly begins missing the pan or eliminating in other areas of the house, think of pain as one potential explanation.

When cats have lower back or hip pain, climbing into and out of a litter pan can be miserable. Even worse are covered litter pans, where the top of the opening can come into contact with the cat’s back. In this situation, a cat will often go to the litter pan, but simply refuse to try to get into it. The cat may choose instead to eliminate near the litter pan, letting us know that it understands this is the “potty place,” but also letting us know that it is uncomfortable getting into the pan. Other cats may simply choose to eliminate in the same room as the litter pan, but not necessarily next to it. And still other cats may choose a completely different part of the house for elimination. Once pain is managed, lower-sided uncovered litter pans are in order.

A variation on this theme may occur if the litter pan is on a different level in the home from where the cat usually hangs out. Traveling up or down a flight of stairs to get to the litter pan may be too daunting a task for a cat with back or hip pain.

One last altered litter pan behavior linked to pain is the cat that begins to stand while urinating instead of assuming the usual squat position. These cats can no longer squat comfortably. By standing to urinate, they may actually miss the litter pan, allowing urine to hit the nearest vertical surface or to collect on the nearby floor.

I’m worried I could miss pain in my cat. Is there anything else I should watch for?

Cats that once “went vertical” by jumping up onto furniture, counters, and windowsills but now either do not jump or “ask” to be lifted may be in pain and need closer evaluation. One of the measures of a successful pain management protocol in senior cats is the return of jumping behavior.

Occasionally, we see a senior cat in practice that resents being handled in the examination room. Common comments we hear from the owners are:

  • “She doesn’t like to be picked up.”
  • “He doesn’t like to be petted on his back (below the waist, over his hips, etc.).”
  • “She doesn’t like me to touch her there” (wherever that may be).
  • “My cat used to be really friendly, but now he hides under the bed when we have company and becomes aggressive when people try to pet him.”

Although cats may simply be shy about the veterinary examination room, they should be willing to allow their owners to touch them everywhere on their bodies. When they object to being touched, petted, or otherwise handled (particularly if they were once OK about it), this is a serious “red flag” that pain may be present.

Cats tend to hide their pain, so don’t ignore behavioral clues into your aging cat’s condition.

What is my takeaway message?

In any of the above scenarios, pain should be on the list of considerations. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, and voice your concerns. Cats tend to hide their pain, so don’t ignore these behavioral clues into your aging cat’s condition. The sooner we identify and treat pain, the better it is for everyone. Your kitty will thank you!

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.