How to Tell if a Cat Is in Pain

Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Written by:
Published: September 28, 2022
Vet Reviewed by Jennifer S. Fryer, DVM

Cats are renowned for their ability to mask pain and discomfort. They do this so well that they could be in excruciating pain without you knowing it, even if you’re the person closest to them.

This is a great advantage when cats are out in the wild around predators that look for signs of weakness. It’s a big problem, however, when your cat is ill or hurt but you have no clues to tell you that there’s a problem.

Cats may not speak, but they do communicate their pain in their own subtle ways. You will need to look for even the slightest behavioral changes that can indicate that your cat is experiencing pain.

Here’s some more insight on cat pain and what signs to watch for.

Cat Pain: What We Know 

Veterinarians have come a long way in understanding pain in pets. We’ve found that we are very likely undertreating pets for the level of pain they experience.

Pain management specialists in veterinary care have a mantra they often repeat: “Assume pain.” If your cat has a diagnosed medical condition, pain management should always be part of the treatment.

Arthritis, dental disease, urinary tract disease, bone disease, and cancer are just a few of the common feline medical conditions that are known to be painful. If your cat has these or another condition, be vigilant in looking for signs that your cat may be in pain.

Signs of Cat Pain 

The International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management has created a checklist for signs of pain in cats that you can check off and give to your veterinarian. This can help you and your veterinarian determine which diagnostics and treatments will best help your cat to feel better:

Cat Pain Checklist

Before using the checklist to evaluate your cat, become familiar with some of the most common behavioral changes that can be signs that a cat is in pain:

Change in Activity Level

A change in activity level can indicate discomfort. Cats might become less active and sleep more hours than they used to. Stiff, arthritic cats may be reluctant to change positions or jump onto high surfaces like they did before.

Conversely, cats may become more active: restless, repetitively getting up and down, and seeming to have difficulty getting comfortable.

Self-Mutilation

While many people associate biting and licking with allergies, pets also often repetitively lick and bite at painful areas. They may do it so often that they cause secondary trauma to their body in the form of wounds, skin infections, and hair loss.

Vocalizing

Most of us know that a hissing or growling cat is an unhappy cat, but did you know that meows and purrs can be signs of a cat in pain? Purring is usually thought of as a sign of contentment, but some cats purr when they are frightened or hurting. This is particularly true for cats with easygoing or gentle personalities.

Change in Daily Routine

A cat whose appetite suddenly drops may be feeling too much pain to eat, or they may be experiencing nausea from a disease.

Cats that suddenly have accidents in the house, whether it’s pee or poop, after years of using the litter box, may be in too much pain to get in and out of a box with high sides, or too sore to get to where the box is located.

A lap cat who suddenly can’t stand being held may be experiencing pain when they are touched or petted. Any of these changes in their usual personality and preferences may be signs of a medical issue.

Posture

Cats do a version of shuffling along when they are stiff; they walk very gingerly and avoid the usual amazing leaps we’re used to seeing. A cat with abdominal pain may have a hunched back, tucking in their abdomen in a protective posture.

You may also notice a cat being protective of a certain area of their body, not wanting to be touched or scratched; they may also limp or hesitate to put weight on a sore limb.

Facial Expressions

Facial expression can be difficult to gauge in cats, but certain giveaways can indicate pain or discomfort. A vacant stare at nothing, or a “glazed” expression, is common for cats in pain.

The Feline Grimace Scale is a validated scale that tells us which expressions cats use when they are in pain. It was created by veterinarians at Université de Montréal. You can even practice your skills with their quiz.

Cats in distress can also have dilated pupils—part of the stress response in the body. Unlike in dogs, cats do not normally pant. If you notice a panting cat, particularly when they are at rest, take them to your vet to be evaluated as soon as possible.

Aggression

Some cats are naturally feisty, while others are not. It can be hard to tell if a cat that’s usually feisty is suddenly acting aggressive. However, a normally friendly cat that is suddenly hissing, swatting, and biting may be a cat in pain.

Out-of-character meanness is a cat’s way of asking to be left alone. A cat that swats or growls when you pet them or try to pet a certain area of their body is trying to tell you that the area hurts.

Poor Coat Condition

Cats are expert groomers, spending up to 5 hours a day on maintaining their silky coats. However, pain from arthritis can make it difficult for a cat to contort themselves into their normal grooming positions.

Pain in general can make a cat too uncomfortable or worn out to maintain their normal routine. A cat that stops grooming and starts to look unkempt may be in pain and needs to be evaluated.

What to Do if You Think Your Cat Is in Pain

Never try to treat your cat with pain medications meant for people. Cats metabolize medication differently and can die from something as benign to humans as acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol).

If you think your cat might be in pain, get them evaluated by your vet. In the past, veterinarians have had very limited options for pain control in cats, but fortunately, this is changing. Some common pain treatment options for cats include prescription pain medications, joint supplements, or natural and alternative therapies such as acupuncture or massage.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Kesnia Valyavina


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