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signs of pain in cats

Signs of Pain in Cats

You know what pain feels like, but do you know how that feeling is transmitted within your body? Did you know that besides being unpleasant, pain causes negative physical and mental effects on the body? This is true for both humans and cats. Cats feel pain just as we do, but they express it differently.

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What is pain?

Prolonged, untreated pain can cause metabolic and endocrine changes that negatively affect the body’s systems and organs. Pain can slow down healing and recovery from a traumatic injury or event, and it can cause even further stress to a cat beyond the traumatic event itself.

This occurs whether the pain has been caused by a surgical procedure, a traumatic event like being hit by a car, a sudden (acute) or long-standing (chronic) inflammatory condition, neurologic pain, and more.

Pain is typically categorized as either:

  1. Acute (sudden onset)
  2. Chronic (long-standing, ongoing, can even be lifelong)

Here is a more scientific, detailed explanation of what pain is.

Causes of Pain in Cats

  • Broken bone, dislocated joint
  • Soft tissue tear (ligament, tendon, muscle)
  • Soft tissue strain/sprain (ligament, tendon, muscle)
  • Back issues
  • Ear infection, skin infection, urinary tract infection
  • Stomach and/or intestinal upset (gastritis, gastroenteritis, foreign body, toxin)
  • Some cancers or benign masses in uncomfortable places
  • Post-surgical pain

How do I know if my cat is in pain?

Since cats can’t tell us about their pain, where it is, how long it’s been going on, how severe it is, and other descriptive information to further characterize it, several scoring systems and pain management guidelines have been created to help determine how a cat is feeling. Here are just a few of them:

  1. The American Animal Hospital Association’s “How To Tell If Your Cat is in Pain” (This is a PDF you can download and print out, the same or similar to those used in many veterinary practices):
  2. Two pain-scoring instruments, the Glasgow Composite Measure Pain Scale: Feline (Glasgow CMPS-F) and UNESP-Botucatu Multidimensional Composite Pain Scale (UNESP-Botucatu MCPS), are validated for use in cats.
  3. Some veterinary schools, such as Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, have produced their own pain score system, used by many vets across the country, especially when monitoring cats after surgery.

Clinical Signs of Pain in Cats

Attitude/Mentation

  • Withdrawn, hiding
  • May become aggressive
  • Absence of normal behaviors such as grooming

Body Movement

  • Trembling if extreme pain
  • Flinch when painful area touched (even lightly)

Guarding

  • Hissing, swatting, and/or biting to guard painful area

Posture

  • Remain still for long periods of time
  • Sitting sternally (with chest on the floor) in a stiff position and head tucked under or lying flat
  • Curled up but with a flattened/”hunkered down” stiff appearance

Respiratory Pattern

  • May have a faster than normal breathing rate

Vocalization

  • Meowing in an audibly mournful or sad way
  • Purring (this comforts them, so cats can purr when happy or distressed/painful/even when dying)

During a veterinary exam, painful cats may also have a faster than normal heart rate, a higher than normal body temperature, a faster than normal breathing rate, and an increased effort to breathe.

Diagnostics Used to Identify Pain in Cats

Your vet may want to check bloodwork, x-rays, or even advise advanced imaging such as abdominal or heart ultrasound, or CT or MRI depending on the condition. If your cat is in a lot of pain, this may require an injectable sedative and pain control medications to be administered by your vet. This is to reduce pain and stress in your cat (imagine having your leg x-rayed when it’s broken and any small movement makes you want to scream!)

Options for Treating Pain in Cats

Treatment depends on the condition. It may consist of:

  • Medications
    • Anti-inflammatory (steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication)
    • Anti-itch (antihistamines, steroids)
    • Antibiotics or antifungal medications
    • Neuropathic or opioid pain medications for more severe conditions
    • Anti-nausea/anti-vomiting medications
  • Surgery
  • Physical therapy/rehabilitation
  • Laser therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Regenerative medicine (stem cell)
  • Massage
  • Supplements
    • Glucosamine/chondroitin for joint health
    • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Ice/heat packs, warm compresses

I think my cat is in pain. What do I do?

  1. Don’t panic!
  2. Make an appointment with us using your FirstVet app or call your veterinarian.
  3. Let your cat rest, do not exercise them, do not try to touch their painful area, or place them in uncomfortable positions.

Read more:

How to Examine Your Pet at Home: A Step-By-Step Guide

Causes of Limping in Cats

Arthritis in Cats

Have more questions about your cat’s pain?

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FirstVet is the #1 online video veterinary service.

FirstVet offers video calls with experienced veterinarians for just $35. You can get a consultation within minutes by downloading the FirstVet app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Over 500,000 users trust FirstVet to care for their animals.

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