Whilst working as a vet I constantly treated animals in pain. My MSc dissertation was then on detecting pain in rabbits alongside me looking at the evidence for methods of identifying pain in other rodents. So detecting pain is an interest of mine. Some people think it’s a bit of a weird interest and think I have a morbid fascination with pain; the reality, animals can’t speak for themselves and making sure they are as pain-free as possible should be the top of any owner or vets priorities.
Cats Don’t Yelp
Usually, cats in pain don’t make a sound. If they do the pain is excruciating and very few conditions lead to cats screaming out.
In fact cats hide pain and illness as much as they can because in the wild if they show a weakness they will not get the food they need or even be attacked.
So, when looking for pain in cats you have to look for very subtle signs. This is the mistake owners make, they presume because their cat isn’t limping, is eating and not crying then they’re fine and don’t need treatment.
So what are these signs?
- Hiding more
- Cats may hide behind sofas or under the bed. They may take themselves to a different room or hide in some bushes
- Like people cats want to be alone and not to be messed with when in pain so retreat to somewhere quiet that’s usually covered
- They may hide more near to a radiator, heater or fire as heat can often help those achy joints.
- Stop Jumping or won’t jump as high
- This is a big sign.
- Jumping often increases pain so they just don’t jump as high or as often and sometimes they stop jumping altogether
- If you notice your cat is staying in your garden all the time when usually they would’ve jumped over the fence at their first chance then the may be in pain
- They may walk more stiffly and slower. Their movement tends to improve the more they move.
Walking with their back more bent
- Their back may be arched and remains like that as they are walking
- This can be due to pain in their back legs, hip or spine.
They may sleep more
- Being in pain is tiring and walking with it is more tiring
- Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
- This means they may be in their bed more.
They may become more aggressive
- Moving and playing hurts, even stroking may hurt
- Just like people, your cat won’t want people doing anything which may cause pain so they do all they can to stop this.
- This may mean your cat becomes more aggressive and will even scratch/ bite you or other animals especially if they are touching an area which may hurt.
They may not want to eat
- Sometimes pain can reduce appetite
- Pain can also cause your cat to feel nauseous.
- Tooth problems may cause pain when eating.
- All these lead to many cats not eating as much though this is not seen in all cases; some cats will continue to eat normally when they have excruciating dental pain.
Their eyes are sometimes partly closed or look squinted
- This can also be a sign of other illnesses such as cat flu or conjunctivitis so don’t rely on this definitely being due to pain.
- If your cat is on strong painkillers or has had an anaesthetic this may cause them to have squinty eyes.
- However, if on squinty eyes can be a sign of pain.
- Pain can also cause the pupils to be dilated (making them larger).
- As they can be a sign of several things, squinty eyes are no longer used to assess pain in cats.
They may struggle to go to the toilet or toilet outside of their litter tray.
- Cats in pain, depending where the pain is, may find it difficult to get into certain positions
- Climbing into a litter tray can be harder when in pain, especially if it’s affecting the hips or spine so they may no longer use the litter tray
- Squatting may cause intense pain which may prevent your cat from going
- Sometimes because of being in pain whenever they go in the litter tray they associate the tray itself with pain and start to toilet elsewhere in the house
- They may become constipated or their bladder becomes overfull due to refusing or being unable to toilet.
Changes in Purring
- Cats purr for many reasons, not only when they are happy.
- Cats also purr when stressed or in pain so if you notice your cat is suddenly purring more then this may be why.
Changes to Breathing or Heart Rate
- Now most owners don’t go checking their cat’s heart rate constantly but when cats are in pain you may notice their chest going up and down more as they breathe quicker
- With severe pain some cats also mouth-breathe, similar to dogs panting. If you see this get your cat checked at the vets straight away; it may be a sign of a severe illness.
- If you are very observant, and depending how much hair your cat has, you may also begin to see their heart beating faster just behind where their elbow is when they’re laid on their sides.
- A vet is likely to pick up on this change during an examination of your cat so may then look more specifically for something causing pain.
Changes to their Facial Expression
- Cats facial expression can change similar to when we smile or frown.
- When we are in pain our facial expression changes in a certain pattern that suggests we are experiencing pain.
- Your cat’s facial expression may also alter when they are in pain however it is quite subtle.
- Their ears go down and to the sides rather than being alert and on the top of their head like they normally are
- More subtly, the space between their nose and mouth gets smaller but protrudes further and spreads wider with pain.
- Facial expression may be unchanged if your cat has chronic pain (pain that lasts for days or even weeks) such as with arthritis so don’t rely on this method alone.
The first step is recognising pain. The next step is helping your cat deal with it. This may mean just making changes around the house such ramps onto things so they don’t have to jump. However, it may also mean taking your pet to see a vet.
Vet checks may be scary for both you and your pet but they are the only way for you to find out exactly what is wrong and to find the best ways to treat it, not only for your furry friend but also for you.
Don’t worry, some of these treatments may not involve forcing tablets into their mouths as some are liquids but work with your vet to find out what is wrong and the best way to treat it.
If their back is sore and they are struggling with toileting sometimes buying a shallower litter tray or cutting a section out in the front so they don’t have to lift their feet as much really helps.
It can be hard to tell when your cat is in pain. They have evolved to shadow few signs of it. Hints that your cat is in pain is them withdrawing themselves, acting differently (being quiet or even more aggressive), not eating, changes in their facial expression, purring more, not toileting normally or changes with how they move.
If you’re not sure take them to the vet and they can help find the problem and advise what else to do.
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Photos by Amanda Sheehan Instagram; xa_j_sx