Cat pain can be difficult to spot. As a species, cats are extremely good at hiding their pain. It is usually not until their pain becomes excessive that we are able to notice. Spotting the signs of pain in cats usually relies on being able to notice slight changes in their behaviour.
Opinions are mostly mixed about what behavioural changes indicate pain. A recent study (2016) collaborated with 19 veterinary experts to identify the most critical indicators of cat pain. The study resulted in a list of 23 signs of cat pain that was subjected to multiple rounds of criticism.
The 23 Signs of Cat Pain Selected by Experts
The behaviours considered by participants of the study as a reliable indicator of pain are listed below. These results were achieved through 4 rounds of assessment using a ‘Delphi method’. 1
|Sign of Pain||Explanation|
|Lameness||Struggle or inability to walk|
|Difficulty to jump||Noticeable struggle when jumping|
|Abnormal gait||Unusual walking movement|
|Reluctant to move||Hesitant to move, appears lazy|
|Reaction to palpation||The cat may flinch or vocalise when feeling certain body regions|
|Withdraw/hiding||Hesitant around people, spends increased amount of time hidden out of sight|
|Absence of grooming||Grooming is a regular behaviour for cats. Its absence could indicate pain|
|Playing less||Play is an important behaviour. Its absence could indicate pain|
|Appetite decrease||Reluctant to eat typical daily amount of food given|
|Overall activity decrease||Combination of the above (reluctant to move, play groom, etc.)|
|Less rubbing towards people||Hesitant around people and displays less than usual amounts of rubbing behaviour|
|General mood||Changes in usual mood (e.g. irritable, hesitant, aggressive)|
|Temperament||Changes in temperament (e.g. jumpy, irritable, laziness)|
|Hunched up posture||Arched back, bent forward posture|
|Shifting of weight||Noticeable relocation of weight (e.g. more weight put on one side)|
|Licking a particular body region||Over grooming a particular area that could be associated with the cause of pain|
|Lower head posture||Head is lowered, cat looks less alert|
|Blepharospasm||An involuntary, tight closure of the eyelids|
|Change in feeding behaviour||Noticeable changes in how and when the cat eats|
|Avoiding bright light||Shows photosensitivity that could be an indicator of a number of eye diseases|
|Growling||A new behaviour or increased amount of growling can be an indicator of pain|
|Groaning||Increased amount of groaning (not the most reliable of signs listed)|
|Eyes closed||Eyes closed for long periods (could have causes other than pain)|
Assessing Cat Pain
Unfortunately, assessing cat pain is still a tricky issue. Various methods of pain identification have been proposed, but none have yet been validated. The researchers of this study propose further studies to evaluate the reliability of the above behavioural signs. The signs listed above are useful for making a first assessment. Cat owners wondering if their cat needs medical attention can use these signs to determine if a trip to the vets is required.
See our article for more information about spotting chronic pain in cats.
What to do if Your Cat is in Pain?
The first point of call for a cat that appears to be in pain would be to contact your vet. Don’t be tempted to use human pain relief medication as this can do more harm than good! If you’ve noticed a few of the signs listed above, that would be a good indicator to get in touch with your veterinarian.
Give them as much detail as possible as this will help reach a diagnosis. Whilst waiting for veterinary attention, try to make your cat as comfortable as possible, but be aware that a cat in pain may be more aggressive and irritable towards humans.
Image credit: Aaron Merrifield