Cats by nature are extremely good at hiding pain and discomfort and do not express pain in the same way people or other animals do. This serves a useful evolutionary purpose, larger hunting animals will seek out the young and the weak, therefore hiding signs of pain is useful in avoiding being singled out as an easy target. As pet owners, however, a cat’s stoic nature can make it difficult for us to determine if our cat is in pain.
There are cues we can take from our cat, and the diligent pet owner should always be watchful for small changes in behaviour which may indicate an underlying problem.
Subtle signs your cat may be in pain include:
- Loss of appetite (anorexia)
- Aggression, especially when touched
- Hissing, spitting and biting
- Decreased responsiveness
- Reluctance to move
- Loss of interest in things your cat usually enjoyed such as playing, being petted, greeting you at the door
- Increased vocalisation (crying and groaning)
- Changes in litter box habits, such as going to the toilet outside the litter tray or crying in the litter tray
- Stiff posture or gait
- Tail flicking
Face and head
- Lip licking
- Dull eyes
- Slanted or pinned down ears, there is an increased distance between the tips of the ears
- Head down
- Whiskers pulled back
- Tense muzzle
- Rough or fluffed up coat
- Excessive grooming of the painful area
- Hunched up position
- Tucked up belly
- Rigid and hunched appearance
- Avoiding bearing weight on a particular limb (this is common in arthritis)
Pain serves a useful purpose, it helps the animal to protect further damage. For example, if a cat is lying by a hot fire, the pain will alert him to the fact that his skin is being burned, and he will move away. If he has a broken leg, he will avoid standing on it, avoiding further damage.
Pain can be split into acute (sudden onset) or chronic (slow and progressive). The Glasgow Feline Composite Measure Pain Scale. Composite measure pain score (CMPS) helps veterinarians determine the extent of pain. More information on this chart can be found here.
Common causes of pain in cats:
- Trauma (from a car accident, falling from a height, cat or dog fight)
- Broken bone
- Dental pain such as tooth abscess
- Anal gland infection
- Urinary blockage
What should you do for a cat in pain?
Seek veterinary assistance immediately. Do NOT medicate a cat at home using human medications. These are extremely toxic to cats.
A cat in pain needs veterinary attention where he will be assessed to determine the cause of the pain, and then the correct painkillers can be administered.
How is the cause of pain diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and obtain a medical history from you including how long symptoms have been apparent.
The location of the pain (if known) can help your veterinarian to determine the cause. If your cat is showing vague and non-specific symptoms, he will need to run some diagnostic tests to help him determine what the problem is.
Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of your cat and look at kidney and liver function, signs of infection (increased white blood cells), anemia etc.
Xrays or ultrasound are useful diagnostics to evaluate the internal organs, bones and look for foreign bodies or tumours.
Additional tests will depend on your veterinarian’s index of suspicion.
Treatment of pain in cats:
Once the cause of pain has been determined, your veterinarian can administer analgesics (painkillers) to relieve discomfort. Cats are considerably more sensitive to drugs than humans and even dogs and any medications must be given as per your veterinarian’s instructions.
It is important to note that just because a cat may not necessarily show outward signs of pain, doesn’t mean he is not feeling it. If you have a cat with a known injury or sickness, even if he appears to be happy, veterinary attention should be sought immediately.