Spot the Signs of OA in Dogs and Cats

Spot the signs of OA


Signs to look out for that may suggest your pet is developing arthritis

As our pets get older they can experience many changes, both to how their bodies function and their demeanour. It can be easy to mistakenly attribute these changes solely to the ageing process. ‘They’re just old’, is a comment heard many a time by vets when a stiff dog struggles to raise themselves from lying in the waiting room and limps their way into the consultation.

While some aspects of ageing are unavoidable, others can be managed to ensure our pets experience the best quality of life possible into their later years.

In order to manage certain conditions appropriately, we must first learn to recognise the signs that demonstrate our pets are struggling. While there are some obvious symptoms of osteoarthritis (OA), lameness and stiffness, for example, others are much more subtle and may go under the radar unless we are consciously looking out for them.

Below is a list of signs that may indicate your dog or cat is struggling with their joints. They are not exclusive to osteoarthritis, and may sometimes occur for other reasons. However, if upon reading the following list you recognise several of the following signs in your dog or cat, it may be time to take a trip to the vets to get their joints checked over and talk about options for arthritis management.



While lameness and limping can follow an acute injury, they can also be seen in patients with OA. Lameness due to OA may be gradual in onset, worsening as the arthritis progresses, or it may occur suddenly following an acute flare-up e.g. in cold weather or after a following a fall. Generally lameness is seen when the animal reduces its weight bearing through the affected leg, and preferentially uses the ‘good’ leg.  It is worth noting that if a dog or cat is suffering from bilateral OA (the legs on both sides are affected), there may not be an obvious lameness to see, as there is no ‘good’ leg to preferentially use! Cats will often hide their pain, and may not show overt lameness despite severe OA.



Your pet may be stiff when they are walking around at home, or you may notice your dog struggling whilst out on a walk. They may also be stiff on rising from sitting or lying down, taking their time and being more cautious when standing.


Slowing down

Your cat may be less active around the house, or less willing to venture outside. Your dog may still want to go for their walks, but you may have noticed that their speed has declined. They may not run around as much as they used to, or they now walk slowly, dragging behind, rather than trotting along next to you.


Change in demeanour/ behaviour

Sometimes the only sign that your pet is struggling with their joints may be a change in behaviour; they may be quieter or less interactive. While there may be other reasons for your dog or cat to be quiet, these symptoms are often a sign that they are uncomfortable and it’s worth getting them checked over by the vet.


Struggling to get comfortable

Similar to arthritic people who may struggle to get comfortable, or lower themselves to sit, dogs and cats with stiff joints may suffer from the same problems. The act of sitting or lying down often relies on full flexion of certain joints. In a young healthy animal they can gently and smoothly lower themselves to the ground. However, if their joints are stiff or painful, or their muscles have wasted, our pets may lose this fine control. We may see our dogs or cats walking round in circles many times, or pacing back and forth before finally ‘plonking’ themselves down.


Spot the signs of OA in dogs


Sleeping more

Once they’ve finally got themselves comfortable you may notice that your pet is resting or sleeping more than normal. This can be particularly common in arthritic cats – they reduce their mobility to minimise the use of sore joints.

Reluctance for walks

This is more applicable for dogs, as we don’t tend to take our cats for walks! Your canine companion may be reluctant to leave the house for their walk, when previously they would have bounded out of the front door. Or they may set off on their walk, but slow down or turn back early.

A good question to ask yourself, is who decides when their walk ends? Is it you reaching the end of the walk and taking them home, or is it them turning back or slowing down? If it’s the latter it may be time to see the vet and get their joints checked.


Struggling with stairs

Arthritic dogs and cats may struggle to go up or downstairs depending on which limbs are affected. Coming downstairs puts a large about of pressure through the joints in the front legs, so may be particularly difficult if they have arthritis in their elbows, shoulders or carpi (wrists). Some animals will stop using the stairs, where they previously used to; others will battle on but just more slowly/ stiffly. If your dog or cat seems more hesitant with the stairs, it may time to get them checked by your vet.


Licking at joints

Just as we may soothe an ache by gently massaging the area, dogs and cats will often lick at sore joints. You may notice them constantly licking a specific area, or you may just see hair loss or discolouration over the joint, where the saliva has stained pale fur a brownish colour. There can be other reasons for excessive grooming, though one of the most common reasons for localised licking over a joint is discomfort.


Reluctance to jump or climb

Cats may no longer jump the heights they used to manage easily.  They may sit there thinking about it for some time before doing so, or have to use their forelimbs to pull them themselves up to their landing place when previously they would have reached that height with grace. They may stop climbing trees or fences, as this requires flexibility and rapid movement, which may no longer be possible in arthritic joints. As a result, you may notice that your cat stops using their favourite elevated resting spots. Dogs may struggle jumping into or out of the car, or may be reluctant to jump on the sofa or bed at home.



Your previously affectionate puss (or pooch!) may have become irritable when you go to pet them or pick them up. Often this can be due to discomfort. While the pain may be coming from elsewhere, it is certainly sensible to get them checked by the vet.


Spot the signs of OA in cats


Abnormal grooming

Arthritic animals may not be able to groom themselves properly as they may find certain positions uncomfortable. In long haired animals this may result in large matts of hair forming. While the matts do need removing, it is also important to address the underlying issue – that they are forming because the animal is no longer able to groom themselves normally.

If you are taking your cat, or dog, into the vets to have the matts clipped off, why not get the vet to check their joints while you’re there? 


Abnormal growth of claws

Reduced activity in arthritic cats may result in overgrown claws. If these are left unmanaged they may even grow right around into the pad, which can be very painful and may result in infections. No cat should suffer from this, so be sure to keep an eye on their claws as their activity levels slow with age. Some old cats may lose their ability to retract their claws, which can result on them getting caught – regular claw clipping at home, or trips to the vets are important to keep them under control. Dog’s which are walking with an abnormal gait may scuff claws at unusual angles – this can be a tell-tale sign that they are struggling with their joints.


Toileting outside litter tray

Arthritic cats may struggle to get into the litter tray, or out of the cat flap, so may start toileting in unusual places around the house. Other causes for this may include senile changes or other metabolic diseases which alter the frequency of urination or defaecation. However, your vet should be able to help you work out why this is happening and give guidance to support your cat (and hopefully get their toilet regime back to normal!)



While there are many causes for your pet to have a reduced appetite, one of them, especially in cats, is joint pain. Chronic pain can get them down and put them off their food. Sometimes climbing up or reaching down to food bowls can be painful. If you notice that your pet (of any age) has not been so keen on their food for a few days it’s always sensible to get them checked over by the vet.


If you recognise several of the following signs in your dog or cat, it may be time to take a trip to the vets to get their joints checked over and talk about options for arthritis management.