Cats tend to play things pretty close to the vest. While this air of mystery is intriguing, it can make certain aspects of feline care challenging for pet parents, especially when your cat isn’t feeling their best. In fact, cats make a point to hide when they are in pain.
“Cats are really interesting animals,” says Dr. Emily McCobb, clinical associate professor of anesthesiology at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “While they are predators, they exhibit some prey animal behavior, like masking pain, because they don’t want to get eaten.”
So how can you tell if a cat is in pain and what should you do about it? There are signs to watch for that can help you determine next steps.
Do Cats Feel Pain?
Before we get into the signs that a cat is in pain, let’s clarify what sort of pain a cat feels. “Cats biologically have the same type of pain receptors that humans do in all parts of the body,” explains Emily Swiniarski, DVM, chief medical officer of PAWS Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. “It may not be the exact same experience as what a human has, but we know they feel pain in the same way that any other animal would when they have injury or ongoing medical issues.”
Cats can experience both acute and chronic pain. Acute pain is usually sudden, sharp, and caused by an injury (broken bone, burn), illness, surgery, or medical procedure. It typically goes away when the cause of the pain is resolved. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is ongoing and may not even be related to a past injury. Osteoarthritis (often referred to as arthritis) is an example of a progressive condition that can cause chronic pain in cats. Chronic pain is particularly hard to diagnose, as the signs of pain are very subtle.
Many of the signs of cat pain are similar to signs of other illnesses in cats. The important thing for you to do as a pet parent isn’t diagnosing the cause of the sign but rather noticing it and seeking out help from a veterinarian who is trained in cat health.
8 Signs a Cat is in Pain
Let’s explore some of the common signs and symptoms of pain in cats. A cat in pain may experience one or more of the following signs:
Changes in behavior
“A big sign that cats are in pain is a change in their activities,” explains Nancy Vail-Archer, DVM, medical director of NorthStar Vets Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Specialty Center in Maple Shade, New Jersey. “These changes can be subtle. For example, a cat that used to jump up on the counter all the time won’t anymore. Or the cat has reduced energy levels and less interest in play. What you’re looking for is the cat becoming less engaged in routine behaviors.”
Remember, it’s a CHANGE in behavior. A cat who has never been interested in toys may just be lazy, not painful.
If your cat is typically pretty sociable with people and then starts hiding rather than engaging with your family, this is an indicator of pain and discomfort, Dr. Vail-Archer notes. It’s one of the most common changes pet parents report in their sick or painful cats. If your cat is usually under your feet in the morning as soon as you walk into the kitchen but now needs to be woken up after breakfast has been served, that could be a sign of pain as well. Again, this goes back to the first sign of any change in behavior being a possible sign of pain.
Not using the litter box
Peeing or pooping outside the litter box technically falls under “change in behavior” too, but this is another big indicator that something is off with your cat. They could be suffering from a painful health condition like a urinary tract infection (UTI) or arthritis. Cats with joint pain due to arthritis may have trouble climbing in and out of the litter box, whereas a cat with a UTI may strain to urinate and associate the litter box with pain so they find somewhere else to go.
Some cats are more vocal than others, but if your normally quiet kitty starts meowing, crying, or moaning, especially when you touch a certain spot on their body or while they are using the litter box, there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Limping/holding up a leg
Limping is one of the more obvious signs that a cat is in pain because you can see what body part is causing issues. Limping is ALWAYS a sign of pain. If a cat is favoring one leg over another, or won’t put a certain paw on the floor, that’s a clear signal that something is wrong.
Dr. McCobb notes that a relaxed cat will have a stretched-out body posture. If a cat is more crouched or curled, that is an indication that the cat is ill, uncomfortable, or in pain. For example, a cat with stomach pain may not stretch out fully. Or a cat may only lay down on one side of their body to minimize pressure on a painful limb.
Cats who are in pain are more likely to be irritable and may even lash out at their humans. So if your cat is usually friendly and then becomes aggressive for seemingly no reason, pain could be to blame. Cats may lash out at their housemates—other cats or dogs—instead of their people.
Loss of appetite
Refusing to eat is a general sign of pain in cats that could be associated with a number of conditions, ranging from dental problems to urinary disorders to cancer. The key is paying attention to other behaviors your cat is exhibiting along with loss of appetite. For example, “if you notice food is falling out of their mouth or they want to eat but they can’t seem to eat, those are signs of dental pain,” Dr. McCobb explains. A cat who is painful when walking may visit the food bowl fewer times per day.
Next Steps When Your Cat Is in Pain
While pet parents should always be on the lookout for signs and signals their cat might be in pain, there are some situations that are more urgent than others. “If there’s a very small behavior change, say, for example, a small change in appetite, but your cat is still eating, drinking, and using the litter box, I would suggest monitoring them for a week to see if things turn around and go back to normal,” Dr. Swiniarski says. “If they don’t, you’ve probably noticed something that’s indicative of a chronic issue or something that’s not going to go away on its own, and you should seek out your veterinarian.”
Of course, if your cat gets worse, you should see a veterinarian immediately. “If your cat stops eating, stops using the litter box, isn’t active at all, or is unable to get up, those are signs of an emergency and you should see a veterinarian right away,” Dr. Swiniarski says.
Pain is easier to diagnose—and can be caught earlier—when pet parents are tuned into their cat’s behaviors and keep a thorough medical history, Dr. Vail-Archer says. “History is so important because the owners are the ones who really know their cat’s behavior. They’re an incredibly important part of the health care team when it comes to recognizing pain,” she says. “Getting a good history helps us to hone in on what exactly is wrong.”
How to Manage Pain in Cats
So what do you do once your cat has a pain diagnosis? You treat it. “A lot of cat owners don’t realize that there are many ways that we can treat pain and make our cats feel more comfortable,” Dr. Vail-Archer says. “These treatment options include acupuncture, physical rehabilitation, laser therapy, massage therapy, and even weight loss.”
Dr. McCobb adds that there are pharmaceutical options for pain relief in cats as well. “We didn’t have a ton of great options for pain management in cats, especially when it comes to chronic pain, until very recently,” she says. “There’s a bunch of newer medications and treatment modalities that are safe for cats long term and can help us improve their quality of life as they’re living into their late teens.”
Different sources of pain require different treatments. If you have questions about how to alleviate and manage your cat’s pain, call your veterinarian to talk about what treatments would work best for your individual cat.