How to tell if your cat is in pain

The age old saying goes “dogs have owners whilst cats have servants”, and as a cat ‘severant’ you know just how stressful it can be! It can be really difficult to know when your cat is in pain or where the pain is coming from, especially as cats are masters of disguise when it comes to pain.

September is ‘Animal Pain Awareness month’, evidence shows our feline friends feel pain in the same way we do, with many cats often even keeping pain hidden until it is unmanageable.  

We’ve gone through the types of pain cats suffer from and what subtle signs to watch out for to help you become a pain detective for your fur child.

Note: it is really important to never give your cat human pain medication as some of these can be fatal for cats.

Types of pain

There are many different things that can cause pain for our cats. The easiest way to understand these is to categorise these into either ‘acute’ or ‘chronic’ pain. Here’s what they are and how to help.

1. Acute pain (sudden pain)

Acute pain comes on suddenly or is only present for a very short period of time. This could be an injury or trauma, sudden illness or after an operation. This type of pain is created by the brain to let the cat know an area needs to be protected.

A common sign of acute pain is an injury from a cat fight, or limping. Whether it is a subtle limp or an obvious one, any limp is your cat's way of letting you know that a part of their leg is causing them a lot of pain. Think of it like when humans hop on one leg after stubbing our toes!

Signs of acute pain

Acute pain, regardless of the cause, can often spark subtle behaviour changes in a painful cat. Keep your eyes peeled for any of the following symptoms:

  • Going off their food or changes in drinking habits.

  • Lethargy or sleeping more.

  • Withdrawing or becoming aggressive.

  • Over-grooming: licking or pulling fur out of an area.

  • A change in the dynamics of a multi-cat household (unexplained aggression)

  • Reluctance to jump on worktops.

  • Limping.

  • Changes in posture, such as tail down, head low or an arched back.

  • Trembling or shivering: this may not just be because your cat is chilly. Muscle tremors like this can indicate pain, underlying illnesses or toxin exposure.

2. Chronic pain (long-term pain)

Chronic pain is pain that is present for a long period of time, and usually worsens the longer it is ignored. Chronic pain can really start to impact your cat's daily life. Often chronic pain is misinterpreted in older cats as ‘getting older and grumpy’. For example, osteoarthritis is a common cause of chronic pain.

Signs of chronic pain

  • Going off their food or changes in drinking habits.
  • Lethargy or sleeping more.
  • Less time spent outside.
  • Withdrawing or becoming aggressive.
  • Changes in the behaviours of multi-cat house holds including aggression.
  • Over-grooming: licking or pulling the fur out of an area
  • Reluctance to jump on worktops, climb or use stairs.
  • Unexplained limping.

You'll notice some of these symptoms are similar to acute pain. It's best to speak to a vet if you notice any of these, and they'll be able to help determine what type of pain your cat is suffering from.

"Arthritis is one of the most common
causes of chronic pain in cats."

As we head into the colder months, signs of arthritis often flare up and create more pain. Chronic pain often can not be cured but can be successfully managed with regular check ups, monitoring and changes to your cat's lifestyle, diet or medications.

Symptoms of arthritis include:

  • An obvious limp or change to the way your cat walks.
  • Appearing stiff when getting off of their bed.
  • Inappropriate toileting outside of their litter tray.
  • Not wanting to jump up to their usual resting places.
  • Reluctance to climb stairs.
  • Decreased energy levels or a lack of enthusiasm.
  • Spending more time indoors.
  • Grooming less or changes in their coat appearance (like matting).

If your cat suffers from arthritis you can read more about arthritis here.

Need more advice for your cat?

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