How To Recognize
Pain In Cats
by Gary Le Mon

Cats are masters at hiding pain and discomfort. They won't complain or draw attention to the problem like a human will.

As a result, cats can suffer from an ailment for a long time before we notice something is wrong.

Luckily, there are other signals that can tell us our cat is in pain. As cat owners, it is important that we learn how to read our cat's body language and behavior so we can quickly recognize pain and get appropriate help.

Why Do Cats Hide Pain?

Hiding pain and discomfort caused by injury or disease is natural cat behavior. This instinctive reaction is part of feline survival strategy. In a wild cat colony a weak cat loses status and power. This means the weak cat will have to survive on less food, have to give up the best hunting grounds and drinking places. The cat will be chased away from the safest sleeping spots. Stronger cats in the colony pose a threat to its survival. This is one reason cats hide weakness.

Another reason cats hide pain has to do with their feeding pattern. Cats have to eat every day. Wild cats have to hunt every day. Even when they are sick or in pain they still have to hunt to ensure their survival. Since our house cats are descendants of wild cats, they show the same behavior.

Know your Cat's Normal Behavior

When cats fall ill or when they experience pain they will show subtle or sometimes drastic changes in behavior. They can even adopt completely new behavior.

Often cat owners don't notice something is wrong until the cat's behavior changes so drastically that it becomes disruptive. For example, the cat suddenly acts aggressively or starts doing its business outside the litter box. Even then, some owners think their cat is just acting out - behaving badly. More often than not, however, they don't associate the cat's behavior with discomfort.

Behavioral changes associated with different types of disease or pain can differ in cats individually. Likewise, not all cats suffering from a certain condition will show the same behavioral changes. We need to distinguish between changes in normal behavior and completely new or abnormal behavior.

Changes in Behavior

Changes from normal behavior can include being

  • less playful
  • more withdrawn
  • less clean (changes in normal grooming behavior of fur, which can lead to matting and felting of the fur)
  • less active
  • more withdrawn
  • eating and/or drinking less
  • sleeping less (or other changes in your cat's sleeping pattern)

Examples of new or abnormal behavior can include

  • constant attention seeking
  • spraying indoors
  • doing its business outside the litter box
  • growling or hissing
  • anxious behavior
  • constant grooming (especially if the grooming is concentrated in one place, which might be where it hurts, or near where it hurts if the cat can't reach)
  • showing more aggression toward people or other pets
  • avoiding physical contact
  • restlessness
  • attacking the food bowl, which could indicate dental problems
  • heightened sensitivity to noise
  • frequent purring for no reason (when a cat purrs with its whiskers drawn backwards, it is not showing contentment but fear or pain)

Remember, this list is not definitive. Any change in behavior can potentially signal illness or pain.

Pain In Cats Due to Changes in Body Language and Posture

Changes in body language and posture are another way for cat owners to recognize potential problems. Just like humans show discomfort by facial expression, cats can appear worried or depressed. Sometimes a cat might huddle in a corner or under a table or bed. This can be a sign of pain or illness, or of general distress.

A change in your cat's posture can give you a clue as to where the cause of discomfort is. A cat that holds its head or ears turned sideways is probably suffering from ear ache. Likewise, a cat that keeps its back curved could be suffering from either back ache, arthritis, or abdominal pain.

Even the fur can tell you about your cat's health. A healthy cat has smooth fur. Fur that is standing on end or appears matted could point to physical pain as well as emotional problems like stress and anxiety.

Treating Pain and Caring for a Sick Cat

As soon as you notice pain or discomfort, you should take your cat to your holistic veterinarian - the sooner the better. Long-term pain can have serious consequences for your cat's wellbeing. Prolonged pain causes stress which can severely weaken your cat's immune system. Prolonged pain can also result in neurological changes with far-reaching consequences like insensitivity to painkillers, enduring pain even when the cause is no longer there, and intense pain with physical contact.

When caring for a sick cat it is important to have a warm, secure resting place. It is human to want to comfort your cat, but it is much better for your cat's well-being to have some peace and quiet. Let your cat take the initiative for physical contact.

If your cat has a problem walking, make sure to put down extra litter boxes with low edges. Also, supply plenty of drinking water. If your cat is almost immobile, place a feeding bowl close to the resting place, but don't limit your cat's activity unnecessarily. Cats also like high hiding places even when they are ill. Make sure favorite places can be reached by using a stool or narrow wooden planks. You might have to get creative here.

We cat lovers know how difficult it can be to recognize pain or illness in our feline friends. Only when we know what is "normal behavior" for our cat will we also notice when any change occurs. And that's worth knowing.

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