THIS month, we continue our pain series with the fascinating and confusing world of cat pain. In this section we will learn about how to recognize pain symptoms in your cat.

We have a saying in veterinary school, “cats are not small dogs.” What does it mean? Well, it simply means that cats have unique physiology, metabolism and behaviors that set them apart in the animal world. All these factors impact how we think about pain in cats.

Anyone who has an outdoor cat knows that cats are pure predators. Their behaviors and habits are all designed to increase their likelihood of catching prey. Here are some of the behaviors you may recognize:

  • Cats are solitary and prefer not to live in groups
  • Cats do much of their hunting and activity at night, and tend to sleep during the day.
  • Cats are quiet, so as to not draw attention to themselves.

The cats we live with are domesticated and like our company, but many of these behaviors and predator instincts remain intact. This is especially true when it comes to pain.

Do cats feel pain? Of course they do! Cats feel pain just like any other animal. Last time we learned that pain serves a purpose. It alerts the brain that there is a problem with the body that needs attention. We also learned that dogs will try to conceal their pain as much as possible.

Cats are the same way, but they are MUCH better at it! Because they are solitary and secretive, their instincts tell them to pretend everything is normal when they are in pain. In this way they do not appear vulnerable to other predators. They, like dogs, will also seek out a safe hiding place and then worry about the pain later.

Symptoms of cat pain, however, can be very different than in dogs. Here are some of the signs that your cat may be in pain:

  • Eating less, which can be hard to recognize as most cats have a full bowl of food out all the time
  • Weight Loss
  • Hiding or making themselves scarce
  • In mild cases of pain, the cat is simply less visible around the house
  • In severe cases of pain, cats will find a very secret place and stay there, immobile, sometimes for days
  • Less social interaction with their owner
  • Lameness or difficulty waking around on one or more limbs.
  • Changes in normal behavior such as eating at different times, or staying inside more often.
  • Crabbiness, nipping or biting.
  • Changes in urination or defecation habits.
  • Urinating or defecating right outside the litter box.
  • Urinating or defecating in odd places around the house such as:
  • on laundry or in sinks or tubs.
  • Frequent trips to the litter box
  • Dilated pupils
  • Hunched up or “tucked in” body carriage when at rest
  • Changes in grooming such as a scruffier looking coat
  • Changes in how the cat moves such as:
  • decreased jumping up on things
  • missing jumps that used to be easy
  • slow or “creaky” walking
  • Purring, yes purring! Purring is not only a sign of affection in a cat, it can also be a sign of stress or pain
  • And when the pain becomes unbearably severe to the point that the cat can no longer conceal the symptoms, they MAY vocalize or meow in distress. Usually at this point it is obvious that there is a problem.

The take home message here is that:

  1. Cats are secretive about pain
  2. Pain symptoms are subtle and hard to recognize, even for trained professionals
  3. Cats will almost never vocalize in pain, unless the pain is unbearable

The truly frustrating thing about cat pain from a veterinarians perspective is that because the signs are so hard to recognize, cats often reach a late stage of their illness before it is even noticed at home.

Since pain can be so hard to recognize in cats, we have to be constantly on the look out for it both at home and here in the hospital.

The key to treating pain in cats and dogs is first recognizing the symptoms of pain. Now that we have explored both dog and cat pain, our next article will be on how pain is transmitted in the body. Stay tuned!