How to Spot When Cat is in Pain

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Cats experience pain like all other animals, but the signs that they are hurting are much harder to detect. It can be frustrating and disheartening as a cat owner, to suddenly find out that your furry friend not wanting to climb the stairs anymore was actually due to painful arthritis. But by learning some of the more subtle signs of pain in felines, you’ll be able to notice the symptoms sooner and help your cat even more.

There’s actually an evolutionary answer to why cats hide their pain so well. As solitary animals, cats try to conceal their injuries. In the wild, cats that show obvious signs of pain are more likely to become another predator’s prey, so the species has developed a stoic approach in the face of pain as an evolutionary advantage.

To ensure we don’t miss these subtle signs of pain, it is crucial to notice even minor changes in your cat’s routine or behavior. For example, a cat might suddenly refuse to jump onto favorite spots like the windowsill or similarly, some cats will suddenly stay on the ground floor and not climb stairs. It might be due to pain or discomfort. Additionally, the American Animal Hospital Association recommends pain assessments at every physical exam, whether it’s for annual wellness or a sick visit, to make sure your furry family member isn’t in any discomfort.

The following is a list of potential indicators that your cat may be in pain. Please note that this list is not exhaustive and that these symptoms may indicate other issues! Each cat is a little different, and yours may have his or her own way of letting you know that something is off. Always contact your veterinarian if you feel your cat is in pain.

  • Changes in demeanor. If your cat is generally noisy, it may suddenly become quiet. Likewise, if your cat is not generally talkative, it might become vocal. Normally docile and friendly cats may become more aggressive, hissing or scratching when approached or handled.
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Soiling outside the litter box. This could be an indication that your cat is having pain when stepping in and out of the litter box.
  • Lack of appetite. Cats that are hurting will often stop eating.
  • Hiding. If your cat is suddenly missing for long stretches of time or you find them hiding in places they don’t normally spend much time, it could be an indication that something is wrong.
  • Decreased grooming OR increased grooming. Keep an eye out for new bald spots that develop, especially on the stomach.
  • Sitting hunched with back arched, paws gathered under the body, nose resting on the floor, and eyes closed. This is known as the “meatloaf” position.
  • Purring when not receiving any positive stimulus. Cats don’t just purr when they are happy. They also do so when they are scared, and some purr to comfort themselves when they hurt.
  • Distant or faraway look in the cat’s eyes
  • Resisting handling or being picked up
  • Stiffness or limping
  • Any unusual or strange changes in behavior

Remember, you know your cat best, so if you think something is wrong or seems off, contact your veterinarian for an appointment. Prior to the appointment, make sure to observe your cat’s behavior carefully so that you can describe the symptoms accurately. A log or journal tracking the frequency of worrisome behaviors is very useful so that your vet can help identify the problem faster and pinpoint when it started.

For more information, please visit our Feline Health Library or the American Animal Hospital Association’s website.

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