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How to spot: Is your cat hurting?

Author: Dr Michelle Gray 

Identifying pain in your cat can be tricky. Acute pain (like that caused by an accident)) is apparent to most owners, but signs of chronic pain (seen with problems like dental disease or arthritis) can easily go unnoticed. This is because cats have evolved to mask or hide their pain as a survival technique. This trait works well for wild cats, but can unfortunately cause our companion cats to suffer in silence.

Learning to recognise subtle signs of pain in cats is important. It will allow you to detect disease or illness earlier. It means you can seek treatment sooner. And it will ensure your feline family member has the happiest and healthiest life possible.

So, what are the signs that your cat is hurting? Obvious signs of pain in cats include increased or unusual vocalisation. They might start limping. Or they might object to painful areas being touched- either by withdrawing or trying to defend themselves.

More subtle signs of pain can include changes in behaviour such as:

  • Lethargy- a reluctance to play or socialise or move around
  • Reduced appetite
  • Hiding away
  • Increased irritability or bad temper
  • Decreased grooming, or perhaps overgrooming of a particular area

Pain can also manifest with changes in body posture and facial expression. Studies have shown that painful cats tend to:

  • Hold their ears to the side or flattened (vs facing forwards)
  • Narrow or mostly close their eyes (vs nice open eyes)
  • Tense their muzzle and whiskers so they stick out straight (vs being relaxed and droopy)
  • Hold their head below their shoulders or angled down (vs head positioned up and forward)
  • Crouch or hunch their bodies (vs being loose and relaxed)

Researchers have actually created (and validated) a number of simple tools that can be used to detect and monitor pain in cats. These can be used by owners as well as veterinarians and may be worth checking out if you have any suspicion that your cat might be uncomfortable (see the links below). Or better yet, book an appointment with your regular veterinarian to discuss your concerns. Sometimes the best way to know if your cat is hurting is to trial them on some pain relief. A positive response to treatment will give you the answer you needed.

Suspect your cat might have arthritic pain? Check out the feline musculoskeletal pain index at: https://painfreecats.org/for-owners/

Suspect your cat might have undiagnosed pain? Check out the feline grimace scale at: https://www.felinegrimacescale.com/

Disclaimer: The information and advice in this post is general in nature. It is not intended as a substitute for tailored health care advice from your regular veterinarian.