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Signs of Pain in Cats

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Detecting and Managing Pain in Cats _ golden cat on a couch with a pillow

Our cats can't say, “Hey, I'm in pain!” But, they can let us know something is bothering them in other ways. It's important to know the signs of pain in cats so you can help your feline friend when they're suffering.

Causes of Pain in Cats

Just like us, cats can feel pain for all sorts of reasons. For instance, they may experience pain from an injury, such as a bruise, burn, laceration, or fracture. They may have pain due to a health condition, like arthritis, an upper respiratory infection (URI), dental disease, or an ear infection. Sometimes veterinary treatments like surgery can also result in temporary pain.

Fortunately for our cats, there are ways to help alleviate and manage pain. More often than not, the trick is knowing when our notoriously independent and stoic cats are in pain so we can get them the help they need. Cats tend to hide more than usual and mask their symptoms when something is bothering them, which can make it hard to tell when they're in pain.

veterinarian examining a scottish fold cat

Signs of Pain in Cats

It's a clear sign that something is wrong if your cat cries out, pulls away, or tries to escape when you touch a certain area. You should seek medical attention for your cat when this happens. However, other signs of pain in cats can be more subtle. Here are some signs that can indicate that something is wrong with your cat:

  • Bodily changes: Cats who are in pain may have an increased heart rate, larger pupil size, and heavier breathing than usual. Elevated blood pressure can also indicate pain—but, obviously, that's not something you'll typically be able to monitor at home.
  • Posture: A cat's usual posture may change when they're in pain. For instance, they may have a lowered head, partially or completely closed eyes, and a hunched back and shoulders.
  • Behavioral shifts: Your cat may withdraw and hide or sleep more than usual, stop grooming themselves properly, become restless or more easily agitated, or lose interest in food, which can lead to weight loss. Some cats meow or yowl incessantly due to the pain.
  • Mobility issues: You may notice that your cat is limping or has difficulty going up and down the stairs, getting up into high places, like the couch, bed, or a favorite perch. Difficulty moving can be a sign of pain.

Assessing a Cat's Level of Pain

Cats can't tell us how much pain they're experiencing, but there are pain scales that can help. For instance, the Feline Acute Pain Scale developed by veterinarians at the Colorado State University uses psychological and behavioral cues to assess a cat's level of pain:

  • Minimal: Cat is content and quiet when attended; resting comfortably; interested in their surroundings; not bothered when the affected area is palpated.
  • Mild: Withdrawal from surroundings or change in normal routine; in the hospital, may be content or slightly unsettled; less interest in what's going on around them; may or may not react to palpation of the affected area. (These signs are often subtle and more likely to be detected at home than in a veterinary clinic setting.)
  • Mild to moderate: Decreased responsiveness; quiet with loss of brightness in the eyes; lays curled up or sits with feet under the body; shoulders hunched and tail curled around the body; eyes mostly or partially closed; fur appears rough or fluffed up; loss of interest in food; may intensively groom the area that is painful; may respond aggressively or try to escape when the painful area is approached or palpated; tolerates attention and may even perk up when petted in areas that aren't painful.
  • Moderate: Excessive yowling, growling, or hissing; may bite or chew at the painful area but unlikely to move if left alone; growls or hisses at non-painful palpation (may be afraid pain will be made worse); reacts aggressively to palpation and pulls away to avoid contact
  • Moderate to severe pain: Lying prostrate; unresponsive or unaware of their surroundings; difficult to distract from the pain; receptive to care; may not respond to palpation; may be rigid to avoid painful movement

The Feline Grimace Scale created by veterinarians at the University of Montreal is another tool that can help determine how much pain a cat may be experiencing. This scale evaluates ear position, muzzle tension, position of the head and whiskers, and tightening around the eyes. For instance, a cat with flat ears rotated towards the side and squinted eyes may be experiencing a moderate to severe amount of pain.

what medications to give a cat in pain _ persian cat wearing a protective collar

What Can You Give a Cat for Pain?

This can't be stressed enough—never give your cat medication without talking to your veterinarian first. Only give your cat pain medications that have been prescribed for them. You should also be careful to follow the dosage amounts and timing carefully.

Cats are extremely sensitive to the side effects of pain medications, and they may be at increased risk for ulcers, blood clotting, and kidney or liver damage. TYLENOL® (acetaminophen), in particular, is very dangerous for cats and should not be given to them under any circumstances. As little as one pill can be deadly for a cat.

Avoid leaving your medications on low nightstands or countertops where they could get knocked over and swallowed by curious cats. Get more pet poison safety tips.

If your cat has arthritis, your veterinarian may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce the pain. Although NSAIDs can cause kidney and liver issues with long-term use, these side-effects may be outweighed by the benefits. They can also be controlled somewhat with careful dosing and regular blood tests to assess kidney and liver values. Your veterinarian may also recommend a supplement called glucosamine, which can be beneficial to cats with arthritis.

Tips to Care for Cats with Chronic Pain

If your cat has chronic pain from arthritis or another health condition, you can help improve their quality of life by making adjustments to their environment.

  • Put all of their essentials, including their litterbox, food and water bowls, bedding, and toys all on the same floor so they can avoid the stairs.
  • Block off areas that may be hazardous to your cat. For instance, if your cat is tripping on the stairs, install a baby or pet gate to keep your cat off them.
  • Use ramps or small sets of steps to help your cat get up to high places, like the couch, bed, or a favorite napping spot.
  • Place area rugs, carpet runners, or yoga mats on areas that are highly trafficked by your cat to help prevent them from tripping or slipping.
  • Help your cat maintain a healthy weight with proper nutrition and an appropriate amount of exercise. If your cat needs to lose weight, talk to your veterinarian about a safe way to get started.
  • If your cat has pain in their neck, raise their food and water bowls, so they don't have to bend down to eat or drink.
  • Provide your cat with a soft pet bed to help them settle down more comfortably.

orange cat with a gold tag and black collar

Massage for Cats

Another way to help a cat in pain is through massage, which is something you can do at home. Talk to your veterinarian to learn how to massage your cat safely, so you don't aggravate their pain.

Massage has both physical and mental benefits for your cat. It distracts them from their discomfort and helps alleviates boredom, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Additionally, massage is a great bonding experience for you and your cat.

Alternative Therapies for Pain

If your cat has chronic pain, ask your veterinarian about alternative therapies. There are many different options available for cats these days, including acupuncture, therapeutic ultrasound, water therapy, cold laser therapy, physical therapy, and even emerging stem cell therapies.

For example, cats experiencing pain from arthritis may benefit from passive range of motion (PROM) exercises. PROM is a form of physical therapy that helps increase the motion of a joint by carefully stretching the muscles and tendons. You should have a trained veterinary physical therapist show you how to do these exercises so you can make sure you're doing them safely and won't harm your cat.

You may be surprised to know that you can get pet insurance coverage for alternative therapies. Get a free quote to learn more about the options available for your cat.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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