There was definitely something seriously wrong with Ella.
It was the middle of last year and the normally agile, fast-moving house cat was struggling to motor around her family's two-level condo in Osborne Village.
The 14-year-old tabby had always been a bit on the hefty side -- hovering around 17 pounds -- but had never had a problem zipping around and keeping tabs on her three feline roommates.
"It occurred to me she was in pain," Ella's owner, Angela Failler, an associate professor and chair of women's and gender studies at the University of Winnipeg, recalled. "I didn't know if she had an injury or what was the cause of her slowness."
Like most cats, Failler noted, Ella isn't one to complain, so it's not easy to tell when she's in pain.
"She wasn't limping or anything," she said. "She was having trouble climbing the stairs. She was hesitant. She wouldn't run up the stairs in one go; she'd pause and be reluctant when normally she'd be game.
"I noticed instead of cleanly jumping up on furniture she was starting to claw her way up the sides. I thought she was losing strength in her hind legs. I wasn't sure."
And so, last June, the prominent academic took her tubby tabby to Tuxedo Animal Hospital on Corydon Avenue and, after an X-ray, Dr. Pat Dorval was able to put her finger on the problem -- Ella was one of a growing number of cats suffering from arthritis.
"A lot of people don't realize that cats get arthritis, even slim cats," Dorval, a partner at the Tuxedo clinic, said. "It's not just a disease of the overweight."
Arthritis is diagnosed more frequently because, thanks to modern veterinary care, pets are living longer, and vets are more aware of pain control and maximizing the quality of life for older animals.
On the upside, the painful inflammation and joint stiffness can be effectively managed, giving older animals a new leash on life, so to speak.
"It's not curable, but it's manageable and we can help them a lot," Dorval said.
In Ella's case, the vet prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug along with a joint supplement. The combination worked wonders.
"Since she's been on those there's a really noticeable difference," Failler said. "I expect as she gets older maybe it will worsen, but for now she's doing really well and we're happy because she's happy. She purrs all the time and wants to be where we are.
"We feel she's back to where she was a couple of years ago. It's fantastic."
Dorval and colleague Dr. Jonas Watson, an associate vet at the clinic, deal with arthritic animals on a daily basis.
They say the painful condition is far more common than most pet owners realize. The symptoms can come on so gradually many owners mistake them for the natural signs of old age.
"In cats, the symptoms are often reduced ability to jump up on the bed or the couch. People will often attribute that to old age, but it can be arthritis," Dorval said.
While arthritis affects dogs and cats equally, the vets agreed it is more easily recognized in dogs because dog owners are far more likely to take their canine friends outdoors for vigorous exercise.
"People perceive things like hind-end weakness easily in dogs. It's a common complaint in dogs," Watson said.
Dorval said cats typically conceal their pain, making a diagnosis of arthritis that much tougher. "Cats tend to hide their pain and discomfort more than dogs do. They don't complain so it won't be as noticeable to owners. They'll often suffer in silence. They don't tend to cry if they have arthritic pain," she said.
It's essential to keep a pet's weight under control as they age, because heavier animals are at greater risk of developing arthritis. Once the condition takes hold it can be a vicious circle -- arthritis makes them more sedentary, thereby raising the likelihood they will pack on even more unwanted pounds.
If an older, overweight animal spends the bulk of the day just lying around, it may be a result of undetected arthritis, not just a sign of the pet's advancing age or obesity.
"The fatter he is, the more his joints are going to be grinding inappropriately and the worse the arthritis will get. It's a more common condition than pet owners realize," Watson said.
The disease can be controlled, though. Standard treatments include weight loss, nutraceutical supplements such as glucosamine and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
"The medications provide the most effective pain relief, and they're safe," Dorval said.
Added Watson: "The other thing about dogs is moderate exercise is good for them, too. It's hard to do that with cats. Swimming can be good for arthritic dogs, too, if that's practical. And physiotherapy and acupuncture can help with some animals."
The final diagnosis -- get your pet examined for arthritis, especially if they are over 12 and carrying excess weight, because there's no reason for them to suffer in silence.
"Treatment can improve the quality of their life during the golden years," Watson said. "Treatment can turn your old dog into a puppy again and the same with your cat."