Editor’s note: Dr. Barchas is out this week, so we’re republishing this post from 2012 about senior cat health, appropriate for the ASPCA’s Adopt a Senior Pet Month.
Here’s a winter-themed question I recently received:
My cat is getting creaky, and the vet says she probably has arthritis. She can still jump up on the couch, though. I’ve noticed that she howls a lot at night.
Someone told me that getting a heated cat bed (or heat pad) would ease her stiff joints and also distract her from the pain. (They also said that she might be so talkative at night because it’s colder and she feels the pain, so she’s complaining.)
Victoria, Great Britain
Arthritis is extremely common in older cats. So is howling at night. The two are not always related. Most senior cats have what veterinarians call “radiographic evidence of coxofemoral degenerative joint disease.” That is a fancy way of saying that most cats would, if X-rays were taken of their hips, show evidence of arthritis.
However, many (if not most) of these cats do not show significant clinical symptoms of arthritis. Arthritis does not seem to impact quality of life for cats as severely as it does large dogs or people. That’s a very good thing, because the treatment options for cats with arthritis are very limited — cats generally do not tolerate nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which are the mainstay of arthritis treatment in dogs and people, very well.
However, not all cats are so lucky. Victoria, if your cat is “creaky,” and especially if her creakiness is worse in cold weather, there’s a very high chance that arthritis is playing a role in her life.
What’s less certain is that arthritis is contributing to her nighttime howling. Although chronic pain can lead to increased vocalization, in my experience the type of pain associated with arthritis usually does not cause howling.
Nighttime howling in older cats is often linked to hyperthyroidism, a glandular condition that is very common in mature cats. For many other cats, the howling is linked to a combination of poor senses (such as vision) with cognitive decline. This combination can lead to disorientation, especially at night, that causes distress. Finally, some vets surmise that brain or eye damage secondary to high blood pressure can cause howling.
I recommend a veterinary checkup to measure blood pressure and to run blood tests including a thyroid screen. If the tests come out normal, then a heating pad may actually help.
Although the heat is not likely to penetrate all the way to the hip joints (so it may not have much impact on arthritis), some cats certainly seem to enjoy and be calmed by a warmed bed, and the warmth may encourage blood circulation through stiff muscles. Take care, however: I have seen some cats suffer from serious burns when they were “slow cooked” on a heating pad that was too warm or improperly insulated.
Another thing that may help is a night light. I have found that when placed near food, water, litter, and bedding, they help some cats who are suffering from nighttime disorientation and vocalizing.
For intractable howling, some cat owners resort to medication. Painkillers such as buprenorphine (which also is a mild sedative) often are tried first. Outright sedatives such as alprazolam are sometimes prescribed, as are antidepressants and a drug called selegiline that some vets believe helps with cognitive disfunction.
However, I am not a fan of medicating howling cats without trying other options first. If your cat has a clean checkup, I think that a heating pad and some nightlights are the way to start.
Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas: