Knowing How to Read Your Cat May Help Ease the Hurt

Since ancient times, the cats air of mystery has intrigued people. The ancient Egyptians believed that feline inscrutability confirmed cats inherent divinity. More recently, books such as The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons, have found humor in felines apparent aloofness.

But there is one aspect of life with a cat in which its enigmatic nature is neither divine nor funny: Trying to determine whether a cat is in pain. Instead, a person who suspects that his kitty is uncomfortable may become frustrated when trying to confirm that suspicion. Thats because cats often dont show obvious signs of suffering.

Cats are particularly good at hiding debilitating chronic pain, says Gwendolyn Carroll, DVM, associate professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. As an example, Carroll, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists, cites a North Carolina State University study that found that many arthritic cats show no clinical signs of the chronic pain that condition causes.

Interpreting feline behavior
Similarly, a cat in acute pain also may not show clinical signs of discomfort – mainly because such a cat often literally hides from its housemates. Cats dont want people to know theyre in trouble, says Sheilah Robertson, BVMS, associate professor of anesthesiology at the University of Floridas College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville. Its a survival instinct.

Making matters worse is the fact that in many cases, people look at cats without really knowing what they are looking at. For example, a cat thats hunched up and staying in the back of its carrier might appear simply to be a nice, quiet animal. But when in pain, cats can tend to be very quiet, Robertson says.

Another way people misread feline behavior is that they assume that a purring cat is a happy cat. But often cats in pain will purr, Carroll says. So [the purring] should not necessarily be taken as a sign that all is well.

Still, researchers find that behavior is the most consistent indicator of a cats comfort level. Of all the scales and scoring systems we use to judge pain in cats, behavior tends to be most reliable, says Carroll. But you really have to spend time with the cats.

Treating discomfort
Researchers are also coming up with new ways to treat a cats pain. Robertson says that drugs such as butorphanol, buprenorphine, fentanyl patches, and hydromorphone either have proven effective in alleviating feline pain associated with surgery or are showing great promise. Carroll hopes to investigate the use of pain relievers for degenerative conditions, such as arthritis. And both veterinarians are interested in the use of alternative therapies such as acupuncture to treat feline discomfort.

If your cats behavioral changes indicate that she is in pain, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. In addition to treating the cause of the discomfort, veterinarians have a growing arsenal of remedies to the pain itself. The bottom line for cat caregivers: Get to know your feline friends normal behavior – and if that behavior changes, get her some help. Theres plenty available.