How do I know my cat's in pain?
Cats are notoriously good at hiding pain or distress if something’s wrong.
In general, they’d much rather curl up somewhere quiet and wait until they get better than come to us for help - which is a real shame, because with modern veterinary medicine we really can help them!
Remember, just because cats don’t show pain like we do, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.
There are 10 signs of pain in cats that, although sometimes subtle, are really important to know - if your cat is uncomfortable or suffering, you need to be able to recognise it so that you can bring them in and we can try to make them better.
Yes, you might think this is pretty obvious - if your cat’s limping, they’re sore. However, not all cats are as blatant about this as you might think - and many owners, sadly, miss what to vets are obvious signs of lameness because they’ve only very gradually developed. For example “stiffness”, “difficulty jumping” or “having less energy” are probably the most common signs people report when, in actual fact, the cat has severe arthritis, deep infections, or even broken bones.
A cat in severe pain may cry out or howl - but it’s not common, and usually indicates a very severe injury. And to be honest, many cats cry out for other reasons too! More often, when in pain they make a meoww that’s slightly different in pitch to their normal voice.
3. Decreased appetite:
Loss of appetite is a common sign of pain and distress in cats, but it’s not always reliable - some cats will eat well even when they’re uncomfortable (comfort eating, perhaps?). If your cat stops eating, however, this is always a danger sign that something’s seriously wrong.
This is very common - cats that disappear, and are found under the sofa or in a cupboard, hiding away somewhere warm and safe. This is a cat’s usual response to illness or pain - get away somewhere safe where they can recover - if they can. Sadly, it also means that they’re hidden away just when they need our help.
An extension of hiding is withdrawal - cats who are sore or unwell often seem to withdraw into themselves, they stop socialising, playing or seeking fuss, and just do the essentials - eating, drinking, using the litter tray and sleeping (often sleeping much more than usual).
It takes experience to read a cat’s expressions - but fortunately, you live with your cat all the time and are in the best position to notice any changes! There is a particular expression that many painful cats adopt - slanted eyes that are squinting or partially closed, unusually large pupils, and a fixed stare into the middle distance. Just because a cat doesn’t show these signs doesn’t of course mean that they’re not in pain - but it is a useful indicator.
A painful or uncomfortable cat will often have a very rigid, tense posture; and often seems hunched up, or tightly curled up with the tail clamped down. They may also frequently change position, or seem fidgety, as they’re unable to get comfortable.
Cats are hunters - and as such, they often react on instinct. If they hurt, their instinct is to attack the thing that’s hurting them - and if you poke or prod them, get too close, or even make a fuss of them, that may be you (even if they don’t mean it). A sore cat is usually a bad-tempered or grumpy cat!
9. Licking or chewing:
Sometimes, a cat will lick or even chew at a sore or painful body part - this is called self-trauma, and is a major feature of many feline diseases.
10. Medical changes:
Although you may not realise it, a cat who is in pain will usually have an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, higher breathing rate, and often an altered body temperature.
Of course, the most common thing you’ll see is that your cat “doesn’t look right” - and that can be the most accurate sign of all. You know your cat, and you know when they’re not right.
Don’t let them suffer in silence - if your think your cat may be in pain, bring them in so our vets can check them over. Remember, most diseases and injuries are much more easily treated if diagnosed early!