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23 Reliable Signs of Cat Pain Selected by Experts

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?

Take care when handling a cat that is in pain. They may be more aggressive towards you and bite or scratch. Keep in mind that your cat is likely to prefer less attention than usual when 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


References:

  1. Merola I, Mills DS (2016) Behavioural Signs of Pain in Cats: An Expert Consensus. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0150040. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150040

About James Watts

BSc Bioveterinary Science. Editor of PetSci. When I'm not writing, learning, discussing, or reading about animals, you know it's the weekend! Currently developing PetSci HealthTrak, the fast and easy way to monitor your pet's weight and calorie intake. HealthTrak offers a simple way to track your pet's progress, helping them achieve a healthy weight and a long, happy life.

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