How to Identify Pain in Cats

Identifying pain in cats is a complex task, as these animals are evolutionarily prepared to never show themselves to be vulnerable.
How to Identify Pain in Cats

Last update: 11 June, 2021

Knowing how to recognize pain in cats is essential, not only to avoid suffering, but also to strengthen the guardian-feline bond. However, learning to recognize the signs isn’t entirely intuitive: it takes time and knowledge.

In this article, you can learn all the basics related to pain in these mammals. From the definition itself to the different behavioral patterns that indicate pain, you’ll have the necessary tools to permanently avoid pain in your cat.

What is pain in cats?

Let’s start by defining the process at hand. Pain is defined as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. It is a protective mechanism that involves physiological and behavioral changes.

Types of pain

Pain can be classified into two categories according to its duration, regardless of whether it is in cats or any other animal. These are as follows:

  • Acute pain: This is one that appears after an injury or illness and disappears with recovery. This pain is considered adaptive, as it regulates behavior to prevent damage from getting worse during recovery.
  • Chronic pain: This, unlike the previous one, remains when the damage is repaired. It occurs as a result of changes in the nervous system and isn’t reversible. Therefore, it isn’t considered to be adaptive, as it doesn’t fulfill any function for survival and recovery.
A cat at the vet follows some blood tests.

Signs of pain in cats

Cats, at first glance, appear resistant, as they tend to hide the symptoms of their illness and pain, to avoid appearing weak to competitors. Some of the clinical signs of this discomfort will be easy to identify, but others not so, and you need to know where to look. Here are the most common ones.

Postural and movement signs

When the cat has an injury to joints, muscles, and other structures that allow movement, the pain will be identifiable mainly through posture. Even the absence of activity and movement can be a sign of physical pain. Some of these movements and postures that you can find in felines are the following:

  • A bent-over pose, with an arched back most of the time.
  • Lameness and/or legs that don’t rest on the ground.
  • Stretching the front legs, as if the cat was continuously stretching.
  • General inactivity.

On the other hand, when it comes to visceral pain, you may notice that your feline curls up – just like humans shrink when we have cramps in the abdomen – or that it stretches to support its belly on a surface. This behavioral sign is usually accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea.

Changes in bowel movements

Pain in cats can also manifest itself in the way they urinate and defecate. In general, you’ll see that the cat doesn’t use its litter box (it may not be able to access it due to pain) or that it marks places that it normally wouldn’t with urine.

When it comes to digestive or kidney disorders, the cat may associate the pain with defecating or urinating on the tray, so it will stop using it.

Alterations in character

Like any other animal, pain puts cats in a worse mood. This results in behavior such as the following:

  • Aggressiveness, scratching or biting when they normally wouldn’t.
  • An absence of interaction with other animals or with the owner.
  • A lack of grooming, as the coat will look disheveled and dirty.
  • An absence of facial marking.
  • Anorexia or decreased food intake.
  • Excessive salivation.
  • Frequent vocalizations.

Tools to identify pain in cats

Properly identifying all these signs isn’t an easy task, and even knowing they exist. Body language is key to detecting pain in cats, but it requires spending time with each individual and learning how they manifest it.

Once you go to the vet, they’ll have other tools to assess the cat’s discomfort. The measurement scales used by professionals, however, assess pain severity through analyzing the feline’s behavior. The three most representative scales are these:

  • UNESP – Botucatu scale: this has 10 different variables that must be analyzed: posture, comfort, activity, attitude, reaction to the palpation of the wound and abdomen, blood pressure, appetite, vocalization, and others.
  • Glasgow pain scale for cats: This has 7 variables in which spontaneous and evoked behaviors, interactions with the animal and clinical observations are observed.
  • Feline Grimace Scale: This assesses pain in cats through the position of the ears, the orientation of the eyes, tension in the muzzle and whiskers, and head position.

Although these scales have been created and evaluated in a scientific way, the results depend to a great extent on taking a correct anamnesis. This, in turn, increases the responsibility of the guardian when analyzing the behavior of their feline, as they must respond in the most appropriate way to the questions of the veterinarian.

How to identify pain in cats?

Seeing a loved one suffer isn’t pleasant for anyone. Knowing these signs and recognizing them easily will be of great help in order to minimize the discomfort of your pet and, of course, for an early detection of situations that may become serious.

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