How To Know If A Cat Is In Pain

Updated September 13, 2022

Update: this was one of my first blogs, and still one of the most important. Now you can also visit our pages on treating arthritis or pain in cats or dogs.

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’.

I 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

My beloved cat, ‘The Puss’ back in 2010 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. There she was 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 (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

2 Replies to “How To Know If A Cat Is In Pain”

  1. My cat is 12 and has always jumped on the kitchen counter to look out of the window. One day I noticed she was instead sitting on the floor asking to be lifted up. Next thing I notice she can’t jump on a chair anymore either. Thinking about it I then realised that when I went to stroke her back as she walked past she would duck under my hand. She’s never been a great lover of strokes but not usually this bad.
    As a phsyio who spends most of my working day treating bad backs I gave her a check (without letting her run away as she normally would) and found she had very tight back muscles. Long story short, after giving her a few massages she can now jump on chairs no problem, races up and down stairs playing again and is generally a lot happier. She isn’t jumping on the kitchen counter yet, but we’re working on it.
    Everyone gets tight, painful muscles, including cats, they’re just better at hiding it

    1. Hi David. That’s interesting as I know very little about physio. Do you think the problem is entirely muscular or can these problems occur secondary to arthritis (which would be my bet).

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