How To Tell If Your Cat Is In Pain

By: Dr. Sandra MitchellUpdated:

cat pain

How To Tell If Your Cat Is In Pain

How do I know if my cat is in pain? This is a very common question that pet parents ask their veterinarian. In fact, it is probably one that we hear daily. Cats are quite a bit more challenging to interpret, since they tend to be more subtle in their communications, and leave a lot more open to interpretation. However, if you know your kitty well, chances are, you will know if he is in pain.

Here are some common scenarios. See if you can tell whether these kitties are in pain or not. Then, read on to learn about what we know about pain in cats and to find out the answers to this little “quiz.”

Eggplant is a 17-year-old cat who has become hesitant to jump to his feeding spot on the counter. He acts like he wants to jump, but waits for a “ride” to the counter. Is this normal?

Next, there is Tammy, a 6-month-old kitten who was spayed yesterday afternoon. She is eating, using the cat litter box, and doing her normal things—but is sleeping “hunched over” in front of the fireplace, rather than laying on her side on the windowsill. Is she in pain, or is this to be expected?

Then we have Succotash, a 12-year-old kitty who was recently diagnosed with kidney disease. She seems to sleep a little more than usual, and although eager to eat, doesn’t finish her bowl anymore. Is this pain, or part of her disease?

Lastly, we have Crash, a 6-year-old kitty that had a brush with a car several days ago. He doesn’t have any visible wounds, but he hisses whenever someone pets him. He has always been a cranky sort—so is this just stress, or is he in pain?

So what do you think? It isn’t always all that easy, is it? Cats are funny creatures, and are more prone to hide their symptoms rather than show them off. This means that you have to play detective to determine if your cat is in pain—and objectively look at all of the information.

Signs Your Cat Might Be In Pain

What are some of the subtle things to look out for if you are wondering if kitty is hurting? First and foremost, look for changes in behavior. If they have always enjoyed X and now prefers Y, then that may be a subtle sign of pain. Some cats with pain will be reluctant or unable to jump up to favorite spots, or suddenly change litter box habits, sleeping spots or even their food preferences. Here are seven specific changes that might indicate your cat is in pain:

1. They want to be left alone.

If kitty suddenly prefers to be left alone, starts to avoid other cats/pets in the household, or seems grumpy or cranky, then something is probably wrong.

2. They have a strange new grooming routine.

Cats are usually very fastidious groomers. If they are suddenly not keeping themselves clean, this can be a sign of pain. Similarly, if they are overly focusing on one spot (known as overgrooming), this may also indicate an area of pain.

3. They’re moving more or moving less than normal.

Painful cats may be very restless, or they may hunker down—sometimes in an unusual posture—and choose not to move much.

4. They’re sleeping more and/or in odd positions.

Sometimes the signs may be as subtle as sleeping more than usual, sleeping in only one position or changing the normal sleeping position. Think about how we sleep (or don’t!) when we have a painful joint. Cats will “favor” a part of the body or side of the body the same way—sleeping on the right side if the left hip hurts and so on.

5. Their appetite has decreased or is non-existent.

At times, they may have no interest in food or water, although this is not as common as other species such as dogs. Many cats in pain continue to eat, although perhaps in a reduced fashion.

6. They are purring A LOT.

An odd reaction by some cats is a nonstop purr—not the happy purr in response to attention, but almost a purr to themselves saying, “It’s OK. It will be OK.”

7. They’re acting hostile.

Some more obvious signs include growling, hissing, swatting when being touched or handled, or completely avoiding contact by isolating themselves.

Causes Of Pain In Cats

So, what causes pain in cats? We know for a fact that cats experience pain, and in fact, their response is very similar to humans. If it hurts us, it probably hurts them, too. Much like us, causes of pain can be divided into two groups, acute and chronic pain.

Acute Pain

Acute is usually easier to recognize, and fits with our mental “template” of pain. It is a sudden onset pain, such as:

  • An injury (hit by car, fall, broken bone, bite wound);
  • An infection (tooth abscess, urinary tract infection, skin abscess);
  • Some medical conditions (urinary tract obstructions, blood clots from the heart, acute inflammation of the pancreas); and
  • Surgery (even “minor” procedures such as castrations and dental extractions).

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is much more difficult to recognize and diagnose. This pain tends to come on slowly and over time—but can be just as crippling. Because of the slow, steady onset, cats have time to adjust to their discomfort, and the signs slowly progress over time. Often, owners tend to discount the symptoms as “normal” or “just aging.”

Chronic pain includes causes, such as arthritis, some types of cancers, long term inflammatory problems such as pancreatitis or interstitial cystitis (a specific type of bladder disease), or some types of trauma which have long lasting effects.

Chronic pain is more subtle, but just as real, as acute pain.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Cat Is In Pain

Pain is real, and *must* be addressed no matter how subtle the signs are. Cats hiding pain still hurt, and deserve appropriate pain relief. If your arthritic knee needs pain medication, so does theirs.

When in doubt, it is always better to consult your veterinarian and address potential pain rather than ignore it. What is the one thing most of us tell our loved ones? No matter what else happens, please make sure I’m not in pain. Our kitties need to rely on us to make those decisions. Just because your cat doesn’t cry out, or overtly say that they hurt, it does NOT mean that they aren’t in pain—rather, it likely means that they are doing what cats do: suffering in silence.

DO NOT give pain medications designed for humans or dogs to cats. Cats process drugs very differently from other species. ALWAYS consult your veterinarian for an appropriate pain therapy plan.

So let’s get back to our cast of characters at the start of the story. Have you changed your mind about any of the cases since we started?

Eggplant, the older kitty who couldn’t jump to his feeding station, probably is experiencing pain. Most likely, he has developed arthritis during his advanced years. Treating him with a combination of acupuncture and arthritis medication had him jumping on the counter again for every meal—and some naughty times in between!

Tammy, the kitten that seemed to be feeling fine but was laying differently after her spay surgery? She was absolutely feeling pain. Surgery is a major cause of acute pain and every cat should go home with pain medication after surgery. She was sleeping much more comfortably after her first dose of post-operative pain medication.

Succotash, the older kitty diagnosed with kidney disease? Her condition was well controlled with a combination of subcutaneous fluids, special diet, and other medications. Kidney disease is not typically painful when no infection is present, and she was more than likely showing signs associated with her disease—and not pain. Tricky distinction, isn’t it?

Crash, the young cranky cat that had been hit by a car a few days prior? He hurts, and needs some immediate care and pain relief.

Particularly when you are close to your cat, your “gut feeling” often makes you aware of their pain. However, cats can be so very subtle, and it can be easy to miss pain as well. When something changes in the behavior or habits of your cat, bring your veterinarian into the loop to address potential pain.

Just like with us humans, pain medications are much more effective when used early in the course of pain, when they don’t need to play catch up. Remember the first commandment: Don’t let your beloved family member hurt!


By: Dr. Sandra MitchellUpdated: