Ask A Vet: Could My Cat Be In Pain?

| Published on March 15, 2016


Cats are notoriously difficult to assess for pain because of their specific tendency to hide weakness of any kind. Cat owners and veterinarians alike want to know more about telling if a cat is in pain. A new study recently published in PLoS ONE ¹looked at the signs of pain in cats. The researchers gathered experts from all fields of feline medicine and compiled a list of symptoms that might indicate pain, both chronic lower level pain and acute intense pain.
After much discussion, many of the signs were decided to be sufficient to indicate pain. There was distinction between acute pain and chronic long-term pain and some of the signs were associated with both. Below is a list of some of the signs that they felt indicate feline pain.

–Lameness (limping on a specific limb)

–Difficulty jumping (you might not notice that your cat has changed her favorite resting place to one that does not require jumping or climbing, but it could be meaningful)

–Abnormal gait (This might be an asymmetrical way of walking or running or a lameness on more than one limb)

–Reluctance to move

–Reaction to palpation or touch (This would be if your cat flinches or reacts when you touch her in places that she has historically enjoyed or tolerated)

–Hiding (You might notice that your cat is not around as much as before or has chosen favorite places under beds or in closets)

–Absence of grooming (Cats that are not grooming or are grooming poorly will have mats and their coat will look oily and unkempt instead of glossy)

–Decreased appetite (the ability to monitor a cat’s individual appetite is hard in multi-cat households, but is essential for cat caretakers to know for sure)

–Growling or groaning (vocalization is noticed more often for acute pain, but of course, any cat that cries out or growls may be in pain)

Some of the behaviors seem intuitive, like lameness, activity decrease, hiding and growling. Blepharospasm, (which is squinting or excessive blinking) was considered a reliable indicator for both acute and chronic low-level pain, but is typically associated with eye disease. Some of the behaviors are more subtle, like difficulty jumping reluctance to move, decreased grooming or a change in feeding behavior.
An intimate awareness of your cat’s demeanor when she’s normal is essential in assessing these. A cat owner’s role is extremely critical in these cases. It is also important for veterinarians to be sensitized to the subtle and variety in the manifestations of pain, even without prior knowledge of the feline patient, so this investigation was a vital one.
It is important to note that there is no one sign that reliably indicates pain, acute or chronic, for every cat. It is when multiple signs are noticed that the chances your cat is in pain become greater. If you notice any of these or even more importantly more than one of these signs, be sure to alert your veterinary team. We have protocols to address pain for cats and it is important that no cat suffers in silence.

1. Behavioural Signs of Pain in Cats: An Expert Consensus. PLoS One. 2016 Feb 24;11(2):e0150040. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150040. eCollection 2016.Merola I1, Mills DS1.

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