As owners, it’s not nice to think about our pets being in pain. As humans, we know how pain feels for us, in all it’s different forms. However, it can be difficult to comprehend how animals can experience it too. The article will discuss what pain actually is, how to recognise it, and how to manage it. 

What is pain? 

In humans, pain is described by the International Association for the Study of Pain as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms as such damage’. 

The pain pathway

In order for pain to be felt, there is a process that needs to happen between the initial stimulus and then the response. 

  1. Transduction 🡪 this means that the stimulus (the initial damage) is converted into an electrical signal that can be carried by the nerves 
  2. Transmission 🡪 the electrical signal is then sent along the nerve
  3. Modulation 🡪 the signal reaches the spinal cord, where the intensity of the signal is altered depending on the severity of the situation causing the initial damage (e.g. if the animal need to keep moving regardless of it’s injury to escape danger)
  4. Perception 🡪 the signal reaches the brain, they become aware of the damage, and respond to it through movement and emotion

How different is it for cats?

It is widely accepted that animals also feel pain in the same way that we do, being both a sensory and emotional experience in response to damage, or potential damage to the body. Essentially, if both you and your cat stepped on a sharp object, it’s likely you’d have very similar experiences in terms of pain!

Why do cats feel pain?

There are different types of pain that may be experienced due to different conditions. 

Acute pain 

This happens when a potentially harmful stimulus (for example, cutting, crushing or burning) is applied to the body. Its severity will be proportional to the stimulus, i.e. the worse the damage, the more painful it will be. The body will then respond to this pain. 

The role of acute pain is mostly protective, as it aims to reduce damage to the body as much as possible, through reactions such as limb withdrawal and limping. An example of acute pain would be standing on a sharp object

Chronic pain 

This means that the experience outlasts the initial injury and expected healing period, or generally lasts longer than 3 months. A good example of this would be arthritis (joint inflammation), which often affects animals for a number of years.

Inflammatory pain

This tends to arise due to chemical changes in the tissues after injury, for example pain from a surgical wound or an infection.

How can I tell if my cat is in pain? 

The following signs may suggest that your cat is experiencing pain: 

  • Reduced appetite 
  • Sleeping more than usual 
  • Over-grooming a particular area 
  • Lower activity levels 
  • Vocalization 

If you notice any of these signs, consider speaking to your vet. 

How can it be managed?

There are many options for pain management, that will be selected depending on what condition an animal is experiencing, and your vet will decide what drugs they feel are appropriate for your pet. Each drug will act on different parts of the pain pathway, therefore many can be used alongside one another.

For chronic cases, your cat’s response to medication will be monitored over time, and different drugs may be added in/taken out. You may also be able to consider adjunctive therapies such as acupuncture, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy. 

Paracetamol is a good painkiller – can I give it to my cat?

Short answer – NO. Paracetamol (or acetaminophen) is extremely toxic to cats and should never be given. Please speak to your vet instead.

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