Reviewed and updated for accuracy on October 21, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD

 

Recognizing when a cat is in pain is difficult except in the most extreme cases. Thousands of years of natural selection have made cats VERY good at masking pain.

 

After all, it’s generally not a good idea to advertise the fact that you’re not at your best when a predator or potential mate might be nearby.

 

How Do I Know If My Cat Is in Pain?

 

For cats, pain encompasses more than just the “I hurt” sensation, but also the overall distress that it can cause. As the World Small Animal Association’s Global Pain Council puts it:

 

Pain is a complex multi-dimensional experience involving sensory and affective (emotional) components. In other words, ‘pain is not just about how it feels, but how it makes you feel,’ and it is those unpleasant feelings that cause the suffering we associate with pain.

 

As a pet parent, you want an easy way to tell if your cat is in pain. As a veterinarian, I want the same thing.

 

I wish I had tools to help my patients, like the facial expression scale physicians for people. But you can’t just say, “Okay Frisky, just put your paw on the face that best expresses how you feel today.”

 

Instead, we have to rely on a cat’s behavior to evaluate pain.

 

Fortunately, we’ve received a little help in this regard with the publication of a paper entitled, “Behavioural Signs of Pain in Cats: An Expert Consensus.”

 

Let’s take a look at what the experts have to say about the signs of pain in cats.

 

Veterinarian Panel Consensus: 25 Signs of Pain in Cats

 

A panel of 19 international veterinary experts in feline medicine agreed that the best way to assess cat pain without contributing to or exacerbating the pain is by looking for these changes in your cat’s behavior.

 

Keep in mind, any one of the 25 signs of cat pain listed below are sufficient to diagnose pain. Your cat doesn’t need to be displaying all of these signs of pain for it to be a potential problem.

 

  • Lameness (limping)

  • Difficulty jumping

  • Abnormal gait

  • Reluctance to move

  • Reaction to palpation (touching)

  • Withdrawn or hiding

  • Lack of self-grooming

  • Playing less

  • Appetite decrease

  • Overall activity decrease

  • Rubbing themselves on people less

  • General mood change

  • Temperament change

  • Hunched-up posture

  • Shifting weight when standing, lying down or walking

  • Licking a particular body region

  • Lower head posture

  • Squinting

  • Change in feeding behavior

  • Avoiding bright areas

  • Growling

  • Groaning

  • Eyes closed

  • Straining to urinate

  • Tail flicking 

 

Always Discuss Your Cat’s Behavioral Changes With Your Vet

 

While this list of signs of pain in cats is helpful, it only goes so far. Your veterinarian is the best person to help you decide whether these changes in your cat are pain-related.

 

For instance, a cat who has an abnormal gait might certainly be in pain, but other non-painful conditions (e.g., neurologic disorders) could also be involved. Or, a cat who changes her general mood may not be in pain but may have a hormonal change such as a hyperactive thyroid.

 

Any change in behavior can be significant for your cat’s health and should be addressed.

 

As a veterinarian, in cases where I have failed to find another reason for a cat’s change in behavior, I’m left with pain as the most likely cause.

 

Then I often rely on a tried-and-true veterinary test: response to treatment.

 

I’ll put my patient on a few days of buprenorphine—my favorite kitty pain reliever—or gabapentin, and if their behavior returns to normal, we now know that pain is to blame. 

 

If you think your cat is in pain, never give your cat any of your own pain medications. They can kill cats. Instead, call your veterinarian and describe the signs of pain you have noticed so they can help you figure out the best mode of treatment.

 

References

 

Guidelines for recognition, assessment and treatment of pain: WSAVA Global Pain Council members and co-authors of this document: Mathews K, Kronen PW, Lascelles D, Nolan A, Robertson S, Steagall PV, Wright B, Yamashita K. J Small Anim Pract. 2014 Jun;55(6):E10-68.

 

Behavioural Signs of Pain in Cats: An Expert Consensus. Merola I, Mills DS. PLoS One. 2016 Feb 24;11(2):e0150040. 

 

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