How to Know Whether Your Cat is in Pain


Cats are masters at masking pain. This ability to hide pain goes back to their wild origins; in the wild, a sick animal becomes prey. While acute pain may be fairly obvious to cat guardians, it may be more difficult to discern whether your cat is in pain when it comes to chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis. Sadly, even some veterinarians still overlook signs of feline pain, or are not aggressive enough in treating it.

Pain management for pets has undergone significant changes in the past decade. In 2007, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, in conjunction with the American Animal Hospital Association, issued pain management guidelines for cats and dogs. The guidelines focus on anticipation and prevention as well as treatment of pain.

A more recent study, conducted at the University of Lincoln, UK by 19 veterinary pain experts, looked at whether a consensus could be reached regarding feline behaviors associated with pain. Participants included a veterinary internist, anesthesiologist, oncologist, dentist, behaviorist, dermatologist, ophthalmologist and neurologist from private practices or academia.

The study was performed over a period of 5 months, using a question and answer methodology. Behavioral signs of pain were classified as either “sufficient” (sufficient to indicate pain when they occur, but not necessarily present in all painful conditions) and “necessary” (necessary in the presence of pain, but not always indicative of pain). A particular behavior was considered an established pain marker if at least 80% consensus was obtained. A total of 91 behavior signs were assessed in this study.

The behavioral signs measured were considered indicative of both low and high level pain:

  • Lameness
  • difficulty jumping
  • Abnormal gait
  • Reluctant to move
  • Withdraw/hiding
  • Absence of grooming
  • Playing less
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Overall decrease in activity
  • Less rubbing toward people
  • General mood change
  • Temperament change
  • Hunched up posture
  • Shifting of weight
  • Licking a particular body region
  • Lower head posture
  • Change feeding behavior
  • Avoiding bright areas
  • Growling

The list of behavioral signs could help veterinarians and cat guardians to identify pain in cats, hopefully leading to faster diagnosis and treatment.

For more information and the complete chart of pain behaviors, please visit the Winn Feline Foundation Blog.

The Winn Feline Foundation enhances the relationship between cats and humans by fostering improvements in feline health through research and education.

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