Cats are stoic creatures, and they try not to let on when they are in pain. While crying out is an obvious sign of pain, it’s important to know the quieter symptoms that your cat may not be feeling well.
Hiding. This is a common sign of pain in cats. If your cat is usually friendly and interactive, a sudden shift to hiding and avoiding contact with you or other pets in the household may be a result of stress or pain (or both!). Even if your cat is normally shy, take note if he starts hiding more. Depending on the underlying injury or condition, normal interactive activities, such as playing or snuggling, may hurt so the cat hides to avoid potential discomfort. The cat may also just want to be alone because he is uncomfortable.
Tight posture. Cats are expert loungers—when happy and comfortable, your cat’s body should look loose and relaxed. A painful cat may hunch up his body or look very still. This tense posture is normal for a cat who is stalking something, but it is abnormal if it persists when the cat is just resting. Note your cat’s normal resting positions and be mindful of postural changes.
Short temper. No one likes to be bothered when they’re hurt. If your cat becomes less tolerant of day-to-day interactions with you or other people and animals in your household, there could be something going on. Chronically cranky cats should also have a physical exam with a veterinarian—feline personalities vary as much as human ones, but there may be a reason for that bad attitude.
Eating less. Decreased appetite can be due to a problem in the mouth or elsewhere in the body. Oral conditions make eating painful, but pain originating elsewhere in the body can also cause your cat to lose his appetite.
Avoiding favorite perches. Most cats enjoy high places where they can survey their domain. If your cat stops hanging out on his favorite windowsill, it may be that it hurts him to jump that high. Cats do get arthritis, and it often goes undiagnosed because of cats’ reputation for being somewhat fickle about their preferences. Your cat may have legitimately decided that he prefers the couch over the windowsill, but avoidance of jumping is worthy of a veterinary exam.
Purring. Have you seen someone laugh when they are really stressed out? Cats can purr for the same reason. Purring is usually an activity for good times when the cat is happy and content, but a stressed or injured cat may purr to comfort himself. Before declaring that your cat is happy because he is purring, evaluate the rest of his body language—is he loose and relaxed, or is he tense and wide-eyed? If the latter, he is probably purring as a coping mechanism.
Squinting. Squinting can indicate a problem with your cat’s eyes, such as foreign debris or an injury, or it can be a sign of overall discomfort. Squinting will often be paired with a hunched posture and/or hiding behavior.
Rapid shallow breaths. High respiratory rate (fast breathing) is a sign of pain. Don’t worry about your cat breathing hard if he has been running and playing hard, but be concerned if his breaths are fast and shallow while he is hanging out.
Poor grooming habits. Happy, healthy cats keep themselves well-groomed, with smooth, shiny coats. If your cat stops grooming himself, it could be due to an inability to reach certain areas (a common problem for obese cats), because it hurts to do so (arthritis or an injury), or because something else is going on and he doesn’t feel well.
Inappropriate urination and defecation. “Accidents” outside the litter box can be due to behavioral problems (including stress) or health problems. Sick or injured cats may find it painful to climb into a high litter box or be unwilling to move much to get to one.
If your cat is showing any signs of pain or discomfort, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. You know your cat best, so it is up to you to notice when he doesn’t seem quite right and might need help. Explain what you’re seeing to your veterinarian.