Recognizing the early signs of pain in your cat is an essential step in ensuring their long-term health and happiness. Unfortunately, felines are experts when it comes to hiding their discomfort. While they typically show outward signs when experiencing acute, intense pain, it’s not nearly as easy to detect when a cat suffers from long-term pain or discomfort. As veterinarians, we have become adept at recognizing some of the more subtle signs of pain in cats, but we also make sure to remind cat owners that they know their pets best. Thankfully, we have access to advanced diagnostic equipment that provides us with a clear picture of precisely what is going on with your pet.
The good news is that you, too, can learn to recognize signs of pain in cats. And in doing so, you can better understand your cat’s needs. We’ve rounded up some of the most common symptoms of pain in cats and shared them below but, remember, any sudden changes in your cat’s habits and routines warrant a trip to see your veterinarian.
1. Changes in Behavior
Though often overlooked, a change in your cat’s behavior is often an early indicator of pain or illness. If your usually cuddly companion suddenly starts spending all their time hiding under the bed, it’s a clear sign that something is wrong. Cats form strong bonds with their owners, and many enjoy being present and engaged in their day-to-day lives. If your cat stops sleeping with you at night, following you to the kitchen, or coming out to greet you when you get home from work, they could be in pain.
Cats who are in pain often exhibit uncharacteristic aggression, too. They may hiss or growl when you or other members of your household come near. Pain can make even the friendliest cats scratch or bite, especially when touched in a painful area or moved in a way that hurts. Unexplained aggression is a serious behavioral change that indicates a need for a vet appointment.
2. Grooming Changes
If your fastidious feline stops grooming or you notice that they are grooming less of their body than usual, this could also be a sign of discomfort or pain. Cats have meticulous cleaning habits, and they generally only change if something is wrong. If you don’t see your cat grooming regularly, keep an eye on their coat. If it appears unusually unkempt or greasy, trouble could be brewing.
Increased grooming could be a sign of pain, too. If your cat is spending more time grooming a specific part of their body – especially if they are doing so to the point of causing baldness or wounds – they may be trying to soothe a painful area.
3. Decreased Energy and Activity
It is natural for your pet’s energy level to gradually decrease as they get into the senior cat stages. If these changes happen drastically, though, or are seriously impacting your cat’s life, it could be more than advanced age slowing your feline friend down. When your cat is reluctant to run, jump, traverse stairs, participate in playtime, or stand up from a lying position, they are likely in pain. Just like people, cats can suffer from degenerative conditions like arthritis as they get older. They can also experience a wide range of other health problems that cause pain or discomfort during any stage of their life.
4. Changes in Sleep Habits
Pain may also cause changes in your cat’s sleep patterns. They might struggle to find a comfortable position in which to rest, or you may find them sleeping in strange places. Cats who are in pain may sleep more or less than usual, too. Cats in pain may also seek out warmer places to rest, such as a sunny spot or heating pad. Cats will hardly ever sleep on the floor; they prefer elevated resting spots. If you notice your cat laying in lower places, this can be a warning sign too.
5. Eliminating Outside of the Litter Box
Cats do not stop using their litter boxes for no apparent reason. While there are several reasons a cat may start eliminating outside of the litter box, pain is one of the most common. If your cat is experiencing pain in their knees, hips, elbows, or spine, entering and exiting the box can be painful. Likewise, this type of pain can make getting into and maintaining a squatting position nearly impossible. These cats often become constipated since having a bowel movement is uncomfortable for them. They may hold it for several days and then really have trouble going. Watching for changes in stool consistency is essential too.
Other painful medical issues can affect litter box usage, too. If your cat is experiencing pain during urination, for example, they may associate the discomfort with the litter box and stop using it. Whatever the case may be, a cat who starts eliminating outside of the litter box is trying to tell you that something is wrong.
6. Decreased Appetite and Thirst
Pain can be a powerful appetite and thirst suppressant – both in humans and in animals! If your cat seems to have lost interest in eating or drinking, it could be a sign that they are experiencing pain. Changes in eating and drinking habits could be symptoms of many other serious medical problems, too, so it is always best to alert your veterinarian.
7. Changes in Posture and Facial Expressions
All cats are different but there are certain things you can watch for in your cat's posture and facial expressions.
A cat in pain may express themselves in the following ways:
- The cat may sit hunched over with their head lowered and back curved higher than normal
- The cat may appear as if they are trying to curl up in a tight ball
- The cat may remain compressed with their legs tucked underneath themselves while lying down instead of stretching out
- The cat may make facial expressions that are out of the ordinary, such as closing their eyes, squinting, or flattening their ears, and their cheeks, nose, and mouth may appear more tense than usual
Cats are the consummate pros when it comes to hiding their pain and discomfort but, as a loving pet parent, you can become a master of detecting even the most subtle signs. Part of being a responsible cat owner is paying close attention to your pet’s behavior, habits, and physical condition and recognizing when something is amiss. Your feline family member cannot tell you that they are in pain or feeling unwell. Instead, it is up to you to recognize the signs listed above – or anything else unusual – and seek a prompt evaluation from their veterinarian. The AAHA also offers a comprehensive list of ways your cat may exhibit pain.