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Meow, that hurts! — Osteoarthritis pain in cats

A sudden slip on the floor. A missed countertop. An angry hiss and swat while getting groomed. Pain in cats can be subtle and hard to detect but, left undiagnosed, can cause considerable discomfort in our feline friends.

Until recently, cats have been mostly neglected when it comes to pain research. However, Dr. Duncan Lascelles, a prominent pain management expert, and his team have been working tirelessly to advance our understanding of pain in cats

Arthritis in Cats —The Challenge

Dr. Lascelles, whose work is funded in part by Morris Animal Foundation, has conducted a broad array of pain studies, with some of his most important work focused on osteoarthritis in cats. Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative  joint disease, is a progressive disease of the joints. Aging, past trauma or other injury to the joint can lead to inflammation and damage in a joint. The end result is a chronic pain state that can have far-ranging, negative health effects beyond an affected joint.

For many years, veterinarians believed that most cats didn’t develop arthritis, which seems strange in hindsight. But there were many reasons why arthritis in cats was tricky to diagnose, including a cat’s tendency to hide illness and difficulty examining cats for pain.

The increase in awareness that cats do develop osteoarthritis and experience pain, led to a desire by veterinarians to alleviate this pain, but generated a whole new set of problems. Lack of understanding about how to assess pain in cats, coupled with limited treatment options, led many veterinarians to use treatments that were largely unproven in feline patients.

Enter Dr. Lascelles and His Team

Dr. Lascelles, a faculty member at North Carolina State University, recognized that veterinarians needed help diagnosing and treating cats in pain. His team developed objective pain assessment tools for use in practice to measure pain and then assess response to therapy in cats with osteoarthritis. These findings have now informed how veterinarians approach cats with pain, and have improved the quality of life for thousands of cats through the evaluation of suggested therapies, which leads to recommendations for the treatment of arthritis pain in cats.

Today, cats with osteoarthritis typically are treated with a combination of weight reduction (when needed), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and dietary adjustment (e.g. adding omega-3 fatty acids). Many other treatments, both currently used and in development, are being evaluated. With standardized methods of evaluating pain, treatment outcomes are easier to assess and veterinarians on the practice floor are better able to modify treatments based on a cat’s pain level.

“What you need is scientifically sound, clinically relevant research to understand what does work, and in order to do that you need to measure the many dimensions impacted by pain,” said Dr. Lascelles.

The team’s latest investigation, spearheaded by Dr. Derek Adrian, a Morris Animal Foundation fellow working with Dr. Lascelles, is focused on finding ways to measure central sensitization (CS) in cats with chronic pain. CS can lead to  self-generation of pain signals and heightened pain sensitivity, but is difficult to measure. Drs. Adrian and Lascelles are looking for ways to measure this important source of pain in cats.

“Morris Animal Foundation has been incredibly important in the changes that we’ve seen in feline pain management over the last 15 to 20 years,” said Dr. Lascelles. “The Foundation has supported not just the sexy work – ‘let’s see if this drug works’ – but it has been willing to support the important groundwork that needs to be done to understand how to measure pain, and the impact of pain, leads to the development of effective treatments.”


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December 6, 2017