It sounds like such a simple question, but the answer is actually far more complicated than we think and it’s not just cat owners who struggle with this question, those of us who have studied these creatures for years still frequently miss signs of feline pain. Because when it comes to showing signs of pain (or any illness for that matter), cats are masters of disguise. In the feline world, complaining gets you nowhere, and showing signs of weakness can get you killed. Sure, some cats in pain will cry out, but if you see a cat crying out in pain, the problem is likely very severe indeed. Besides, cats cry out for many reasons, so even if you do see this, how can you tell if it is due to pain or some other form of stress? Next time you think your cat may be in pain, try to remember some of the following signs of feline discomfort:
Ok, we’ll start with an easy one. But you’d be surprised how many people come to me with a limping cat who insist that they are not in pain. If your cat is limping, he’s doing it for a reason. And that reason is usually pain. Even if your cat doesn’t have a limp, check for other signs like difficulty jumping up or down from the bed or finding that it’s not worth their effort to climb the stairs anymore. Arthritis is hugely underdiagnosed in cats because many owners either don’t observe or don’t think to mention these changes. If you do notice something unusual with your cat’s behaviour, please speak up as sometimes vets don’t think to ask these kinds of questions.
Yes, as previously mentioned, some cats in pain (particularly severe, sudden pain) will cry out or howl. If you see this, take them to the vet immediately to have them checked out, even if you can’t see anything else wrong with them. But it’s not always a howl that they make; sometimes it’s just a more insistent meow, or even a lack of sounds such as normal greetings or cries for food.
Speaking of food, it’s true that some cats in pain will either stop eating, or not eat as much as normal. But not every cat will respond this way because in the wild, a cat that doesn’t eat will die so if they are able to eat despite even very significant pain, they often will.
A cat in pain will often hide from you. You may notice them spending more and more time under the bed or in the back of the cupboard. Or, you may notice that they are quite restless and have a hard time settling in any one place. To you, it may just seem like odd behaviour but to them, it can be a cry for help. Hiding isn’t the only behaviour that can indicate pain, any change in their normal routine may be a clue no matter how subtle, so try to take notice and figure out why the change occurred.
Eye position and expression
This one is much more subtle, and unless you are very observant you may not pick up on it at all. A painful cat may sometimes have slanted eyes that are squinting or partially closed. They may also have dilated pupils (the blacks of their eyes look very large or ‘wide eyed’), and a generally strange expression on their face. Or they may seem to ‘zone out’ and just stare blankly ahead. Now there are lots of reasons why a cat will show one or more of these things, so don’t be too quick to diagnose your cat as painful if you don’t notice any other signs. But if you do notice a strange look in their eyes, it’s probably best to have them checked out by a vet.
If you picture a happy cat in your mind, you may think of one who is relaxed and playfully rolling around in response to a good petting session. Now consider the opposite – a painful cat will often sit in a hunched, guarded position. Their muscles may be quite tense, and they will flinch or pull away when touched. Some cats just don’t like being touched, but if yours normally does and then suddenly doesn’t, consider pain as a possible cause.
As previously mentioned, a painful cat won’t want to be touched and this often leads to aggression. If you stroke your cat and he turns around to bite or scratch you, or if he hisses at you when touched, or even if he just starts to twitch his tail in an agitated manner when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it, get him checked out by the vet.
Licking, chewing, or fur loss
Cats will sometimes make a fuss over the particular part of their body that is in pain, but this is not always the case. Some cats with cystitis (bladder disease) will lick their tummies and cause fur loss in that area. Likewise, some cats with arthritis in a particular joint may lick or chew at that area more frequently than normal. Rarely, this licking is enough to cause damage to the overlying skin.
Other medical changes
There are some signs of pain that only your vet is likely to pick up on (although you may notice that something just doesn’t seem right), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, temperature or blood pressure. Because these things require the help of a professional to properly measure, it is very important that you take your cat in to the vet whenever you suspect something out of the ordinary.
As you can see, pain in cats is no simple subject. There are some obvious signs of course, but many more that may go unnoticed for some time. Therefore, if you do happen to notice any of the above signs, it’s always best to take your cat to the vet to have them checked out as soon as possible. Even then, it can be very difficult to tell if they are in pain, so sometimes the best test is to treat for any possible pain and then re-evaluate to see if it made any difference. Whatever you do, try not to ignore it because unlike humans, who are very good at expressing discomfort, cats will most often suffer in silence and it’s our job to make sure they don’t have to.
If you are worried that your cat may be showing signs of pain described above, talk to your vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to check any other symptoms you notice.