Searching for Signs of Pain in Your Cat

Cats are notoriously adept at hiding discomfort. But alert owners can help veterinarians pinpoint problems. Heres how.

Is there a clear way that we can tell that a cat is in pain? According to Andrea Looney, DVM, a senior lecturer in anesthesiology at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, “We look at two categories of clinical signs – physiologic and behavioral. The physiologic signs include such indicators as heart


rate, temperature, respiratory rate, blood pressure and the levels of certain stress hormones in the blood.

“But these indicators are not as reliable as the behavioral signs,” she continues. “Each cat is an individual, and we try to look at how they normally behave and how that behavior is different when they come in with complaints. If the behavior has changed substantially, were likely to assume that the animal is in pain. Observing these signs can sometimes present a challenge, since cats, unlike dogs, tend to be very good at concealing the fact that they are in pain. This is part of their natural survival instinct.”

To assess a cats behavioral changes, says Dr. Looney, “We ask details from the owner about very subtle characteristics – its typical eating and grooming habits, its normal sleep patterns, its use of the litter box, the way it typically interacts with people and with other cats.” Possible behavioral signs of feline pain include:

  • Abnormal posture (tense, hunched-up position, atypical lying-down position, long periods of lying quietly);

  • Abnormal gait or movement (stiff gait, apparent difficulty in rising or sitting, circling, guarding of body parts);

  • Vocalization (screaming, whining, hissing, moaning);

  • General behavior (persistent rubbing or licking on a specific area of the body, agitation, altered sleep pattern, inattention to grooming, unusual litter box activity, aggression or apparent fearfulness, avoidance of interaction with humans and other animals, decreased appetite or picky eating).

Although pain may cause any of these behavioral changes, the signs must be taken in context of what is normal for the individual cat.

Types of Pain. Feline pain can be acute (or maladaptive) – the kind of intense but comparatively short-term discomfort that may be caused by a bone fracture or burned skin. Or it can be chronic (or adaptive), persisting constantly or intermittently for an extended period, even a lifetime, as a gradually intensifying byproduct of an injury or long-standing physical disorder.

Common causes of acute pain include surgical procedures, broken bones, abscesses and a variety of traumatic injuries that cats typically suffer in car accidents and fights with other animals. As for the most frequently diagnosed sources of nagging chronic feline pain, Dr. Looney cites joint disease (especially osteoarthritis), heart and lung disease, pancreatitis, urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease, and abscesses.

Easing Discomfort. Currently, feline pain is treated primarily with two types of analgesics: opioids, which function as numbing agents that dull pain, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which reduce inflammation. A veterinarian will select a painkiller that is appropriate depending largely on the source of the pain, the intensity of discomfort and the length of time that is prudent and desirable for an animal to be given the drug. Some pain-relieving medications that have been formulated for humans (such as Tylenol) can be fatal to a cat and must never be used to treat feline pain.

If your cat seems to be in pain, advises Dr. Looney, “Dont give it any pain relievers without consulting your veterinarian. Palliating pain is never the cure – we have to find the source and treat it.”