Research into pain-related behavior after spays and neuters... more senseless studies in vet medicine

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: June 02, 2016
Published: July 20, 2007
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Here’s another post chock-full of fun factoids for all you feline readers. I recently read yet another paper from this past issue’s JAVMA that deals with pain management in cats—at home and after surgery, no less. If you plan on spaying or neutering your cat (and you always will, at some point or another in your kitty career) this study might interest you.

The basic point this study makes is that owners can expect behavioral changes in their cats which we can presumably attribute to pain--if research on dogs and children (curiously) are any indication.

The most commonly associated post surgical behaviors after a neuter or spay include a decrease in activity level, an increase in the amount of time spent sleeping, a decrease in playfulness and less interest in jumping. Hiding and decreased appetite were also evident in some kitties.

Using a 100-point scale, owners were asked to tally up points associated with these behavior changes. Females scored an average of 25 after spay while males ranked an average of 15 after neutering. In case you’re wondering, these girls were about a year old and the boys about 10 months.

The results of the study demonstrate that kitties do indeed act differently after a day at the hospital. They act an average of 20 points differently than they did before. The study, however, fails to tease out whether these differences are actually due to pain, stress or anesthesia. (Sometimes I wonder who makes up these studies and how they manage to get printed).

It’s not that I don’t believe that cats suffer pain after surgery (of course they do!) but cats are so notoriously adept at hiding pain and more likely to demonstrate their stress that I find it difficult to imagine that an owner’s home-style ranking system would manage to separate stress from pain. Then factor into it the five(!) drugs that were administered to each of these 150 cats and you’ve got one very messy study.

What’s the upshot? I think owners perceive pain in their cats through behavior changes. I believe hospital stays and anesthetics are stressful (not to mention the damned E-collar, which would make me not to want to eat or jump, either). I think this study pretty much stinks.

Nonetheless, I will accept the point that owners observe, care and worry about their cats. They watch vigilantly and want to be sure that their kitty doesn’t suffer unduly. Does that mean we need to use more pain medications in our protocol? Maybe. But who’s to say more pain meds might not lead to more changes in behavior?

Ultimately, I think we need a larger-scale study to demonstrate whether cats anesthetized for identical lengths of time under varying surgical conditions, using the same surgeon and the same equipment in the same hospital every time respond differently—and we need to know how that behavior manifests.

Sure, every cat’s going to act weird after being at the hospital. But what’s real pain look like in a cat?—that’s the question.