How To Know If A Cat Is In Pain

Update in 2017: this was one of my first blogs, and still one of the more relevant. For the first one, I started with possibly the most important myth of all.

My dog will cry if he is in pain or,

My cat will tell me if she has painful joints; and so on….

That is, a pet owner can tell when a pet is in pain.

We think we know our animals as well as we know our other family members but this is one area where we can never know them properly. It’s upsetting to realise you can live with and care for a dog, cat or rabbit for years without realising they have been coping with chronic pain. This even happened to me.

Why should this be so? Animals have no reason to complain. They don’t know that the pain is not normal or part of life; they have no way of knowing that other animals do not feel the same as them, and have no way of knowing we can take the pain away.

But Don’t Pets Cry In Pain?

But you say, when I step on their foot, they cry! Yes, this is acute pain and they do know this is not normal. After all, a second earlier, there was no pain. We are referring to chronic pain that has built up slowly over the years. Conditions causing this can be anything from arthritis, pancreatitis, spinal problems, cancer, and especially dental disease.

The Signs Of Chronic Pain

The only sign these animals are in pain is not what they do, it’s what they don’t do. They are less playful, spend more time in bed, and often owners think they are showing signs of ‘old age’.

The Puss 17 year old Devon rexI know this all seems hopeless but there is a positive message here. The realisation that we should not wait for our pets to tell us about their pain is liberating. Now we can go on the offensive, and start being suspicious and proactive.

How To Know If A Cat Is In Pain

The Puss up a treeHere is my beloved cat, ‘The Puss’ back in 2010 when she was 12. She had gradually spent more time sleeping and less time active as years had passed, and no longer jumped on the benches. It took me too long to realise she was in significant pain. So I did for her what I do whenever I suspect pain- I gave her pain relief and waited to see what happened. Here she is up a tree a few days later.

Giving them a short trial on an effective pain reliever is a way of asking a question when a patient has no voice. When it works, as in my case, the difference is obvious. You only need to be careful to avoid the caregiver placebo effect, as I’ve discussed before. The best way is this: if you aren’t 100% sure your cat is better, stop the medication. There’s no ‘reverse caregiver placebo effect’ so if you see a worsening again, it’s probably real.

Related: What cat facial expressions can teach us

Have something to add? Comments are welcome and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Like or follow our page or subscribe via email to read the latest.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

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