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Janet Riebe column: Cat's behavioral problems may indicate arthritis

11:05 AM, May 3, 2013  |  Comments
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Dear Doctor: We have a 16-year-old cat that has started to urinate and defecate next to the litter box. We took her in for an exam and had her blood, urine and stools checked for problems, but the doctor said everything is normal.

We were told she may have a behavioral problem so we tried Feliway, but the problem persists. We have tried several different litters, and even added another box upstairs, but she does not go near it. She does not seem to have any other problems but she seems more irritable with our other cats. Do you have any suggestions? - Elaine in Plover

Answer: If your veterinarian was not able to identify any obvious medical concerns, it is possible that she may have a behavioral issue or even some degree of senility. While these can be a challenge to diagnose, I would also wonder if perhaps she has some form of pain or discomfort that is preventing her from climbing into the litter box.

Unlike dogs, it is very difficult to assess pain in cats, as they are not always cooperative with examination and rarely give obvious clues at home. In the past, we always assumed that a cat with chronic arthritis would show obvious lameness, limited ability to jump and play, vocalize in pain, etc. However, recent research documented that none of these changes were noted in cats known to have arthritis based on X-rays.

The head researcher, Dr. Duncan Lascelles, was surprised by these findings, but then realized that cats are not unlike humans with chronic arthritis: people will still remain active and do not tend to significantly limit their activities based on chronic pain, and when given pain relievers, they are indeed happier but maintain similar levels of activity. Lascelles started to ask different questions of the pet owners, focusing more on the ease of movement, attitude and level of engagement with the family and other pets. In his research, he found nearly 40 percent of the older cats had symptoms of arthritis.

If we apply this theory to your girl, it may be that the act of climbing the sides of the litter box has become too difficult, or it may be that she is having discomfort with maintaining a squatted position in the box and needs more room to slowly move about. Her change in personality relative to the other cats may also reflect her discomfort and reluctance to have one of the cats pounce on her.

A detailed examination of her joints and back may help to pinpoint a problem area. In addition, X-rays may help to identify arthritic changes. If arthritis is suspected, there are joint supplements and pain relief medications (prescription and/or herbal remedies) that can be given, although it may take some time to find the right combination of therapies. Furthermore, chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture also may prove to be beneficial for many pets.

It may also be helpful to make a ramp that goes to the box, or even lower one of the sides to allow for easier access. Once the therapeutic plan is in place, you will be able to determine over time if she is willing to return to using the litter box, and if she becomes more tolerant of your other cats again. I hope that this information will ultimately help you and your girl.

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