How To Tell If Your Cat Is In Pain

Mar 3, 2020

By Cristen Carlson with Dr. Jim Carlson, Holistic Veterinarian

Seeing Pain In A Cat Is Not As Simple As It Looks Thanks to Evolution

When it comes to cats, one thing is certain: you might never know what they are feeling or thinking based on how they look on the outside. Cats are notoriously hard to read. This is a protective measure that has a strong genetic component. As desert dwelling felines evolved, they were careful not to show pain or distress to other cats to protect themselves and their young. It’s why a mother can cat have a litter of kittens without uttering a single meow of pain. And why a painful cat might hide instead of showing you what’s wrong with them. In this article, we offer some tips on how to read pain in your cat through subtle signs you might otherwise miss.

Cute tuxedo cat, Choo Choo, lives happily without pain, even at his advanced senior age. Bright eyes, erect ears and whisker position show he isn't hiding pain from his owners.
This tuxedo cat named Choo Choo shows a perfectly happy ear, whisker and eye position in spite of his senior age of 16. He also enjoys an occasional popsicle.

How can you tell if your cat is in pain?

New scale provides direct evidence of pain in felines

There is a new Feline Grimace Scale that helps pet owners find ways to indicate their pets are in pain. This pain scale is simple for anyone to use! Researchers at the University of Montreal found a few facial expressions that indicate pain levels that ranged from zero pain to pain levels that needed emergency analgesia. Here’s a look at the Feline Grimace Scale in action:

The cat on the left shows zero pain. The cat featured in the center photo shows moderate or uncertain levels of pain. The cat on the right is in dire need of pain management.

The Feline Grimace scale is super easy to use and something you might consider keeping on your fridge to gauge whether or not you’re worried about your kitty.

Watch for early changes in behavior such as a cat who routinely greets you at the door but suddenly doesn’t show up anymore. Or, a cat with a previously beautiful coat that’s neglected. Both are signs your cat isn’t feeling well and needs to see a vet.

Colorado State University‘s Feline Acute Pain Scale has long been the gold standard of discomfort indication in veterinary medicine. Some hints of pain included on this scale are: cat crying, hissing, growling, playing less, unsettled pet, hiding, hunching, lameness, inability or lack of desire for grooming themselves resulting in an unkempt coat. These are all indications that something isn’t right and your cat should see a veterinarian. “If you notice any of those symptoms, it’s possible your cat has been ill for a longer time than you think. Cats have a way of hiding their pain from their owners and cues they give you in the start are subtle, not always outright or loud,” said Jim D. Carlson, DVM CVA CVTP, holistic veterinarian and owner of Riverside Animal Clinic & Holistic Center in McHenry, Illinois.

COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY FELINE PAIN SCALE

Do Cats Meow if They Are in Pain?

Depending on the level of pain your cat feels, you might start to hear increased vocalization. While cats do hide pain, if you hear yelping, crying or more meowing than usual, you should schedule the next appointment with your vet that you can or consider an emergency clinic. As indicated on the chart from Colorado State University, above, we see that constant meowing, growling or other vocalization means a severe pain level of 3.

Photo by Jae Park/Unsplash
“When a cat’s in pain the frequency of meowing goes up about three times of normal with a more distressed pitch,” said Dr Jim Carlson.
PC: Jae Park/Unsplash

Do Cats Purr if They’re in Pain?

Purring really indicates a happy cat. But if you notice a loss of appetite or another troubling symptom, then purring is a possible indication of pain. You’re the best judge of this. If something seems off, it likely is.

How Do You Know If Your Cat Isn’t Feeling Well? Subtle Signs

Sometimes with cats, it’s the subtle changes that you need to keep an eye on. When you first notice your cat on his own away from others, you should take note. Cats at this stage might also hunch a bit. You might also see your cats hair become sectioned and unclean. If you see the lack of grooming, it’s a sign your typically clean kitty needs to see a doctor. Grooming is of the utmost importance to cats so flaky skin or greasy patches mean your cat doesn’t feel well enough to handle his most basic task.

The opposite of undergrooming is OVERgrooming. If a pet is consistently licking or grooming a certain area, take a look at it or better yet, have your vet do so.

This is also a great place to use the Feline Grimace Scale. Note the whisker, ear and eye position and keep track daily with a list on your phone or fridge to see if any of these pain indications last over time.

What Can I Give My Cat for Pain Relief?

It’s always best to have pain relief prescribed by your veterinarian. Never give your cat aspirin or Tylenol. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage and death. Aspirin given too frequently can cause bleeding problems and ulcers.

The range of standard veterinary grade pain relievers for pets goes from simple NSAIDS to opiates. All pain relievers do have side effects and even the simplest prescription can be damaging to your cat’s organs over time. Prescription NSAIDS from your veterinarian are not what you’d use for a human. They aren’t something you can get over the counter. Your veterinarian carries names like Vetprofen, Carprofen or Meloxicam. These NSAIDS are approved for short term use, not long term so that’s something to watch if your pet is still in pain after a course of NSAIDS. The FDA provides a list of the issues your cat might face with NSAID use.

Beyond NSAIDS, the grades of pain relievers used depend on what your cat is facing. For end of life or short term events, opioids like hydromorphone or codeine might be used. The opiate partial agnoist Buprenorphine is tolerated by cats and frequently used either by injection or orally.

Gabapentin helps relieve nerve, muscle and back pain. “I think this is a good medication to use when a cat has difficulty urinating, defecating. are geriatric or have back problems,” said Dr. Carlson. Amitriptyline can help with similar issues as well.

Finally, steroids can help in certain situations but those also come with major side effects. You should speak to you doctor and weight the pluses and minuses of a prescribed steroid with the need to use it. Many veterinarians use steroids sparingly and for the cases that really need the drug.

Does Catnip Help Cats with Pain?

Catnip is from the balm family and it tends to cause some cats to be more relaxed. The relaxation provided by catnip can perhaps help a cat become less stressed about their level of pain and ease anxiety a bit. It isn’t a permanent solution and most cats won’t turn it down.

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

“If you can learn to recognize the symptoms of pain early on, you may find a way to work with your veterinarian to help pinpoint a problem before it gets out of control,” said Dr. Carlson. “Many cases can be like that and we all want to prevent our beloved pets from feeling pain.”

The best way to prevent pain is to have your pet examined by a veterinarian every year. Most cats don’t get this crucial step, even when older, and it makes them hard to treat once their owners notice something’s amiss.

This kitten has already had his second veterinary visit.

If you’re worried about your pet or just concerned about a behavior change, lack of energy or vitality, you should have your pet examined. We have some simple booking methods on live chat now at www.riversideanimalclinic.net. Thanks for looking and let’s keep your pet pain free! Dr. Jim & Cristen Carlson

Need help? Text us at 815-406-6089.