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9 Ways to Tell Your Cat Is In Pain

Cats are instinctively driven to hide suffering, so be on the lookout for these subtle signs.

 |  Apr 25th 2014  |   17 Contributions


Some of the most profoundly heartbreaking moments of my cat-caretaking life revolve around being unable to tell how much pain my beloved friends were suffering. Even though I know cats are very good at disguising their pain, I can’t help but guilt-trip myself sometimes over this health issue, because as a person who’s lived with cats almost all my life, I “should” be able to notice when something’s out of whack. A sick cat will show "symptoms," although often they're quite subtle. In hopes of helping you recognize signs of pain that eluded me, here are some tips regarding things to look out for.

If a normally sociable cat starts wanting to be left alone, he could be in pain. Photo CC-BY-SA Denise Chan

1. A change in behavior

If a super-active cat starts spending most of her day sleeping, this could be a sign that she’s hurting. Likewise, if a cat becomes grumpy, it’s not because she’s “just getting old.” I learned this the hard way when, after Siouxsie had four painful teeth extracted, her whole disposition changed. Normally sedate cats can become really hyper and agitated as a result of pain, too.

2. Resistance to touch and wanting to be left alone

If your cat begins growling, swatting or snapping when stroked, touched or moved, that’s a sign something is bothering him.

3. Sleeping in only one position

When Siouxsie’s hips are bothering her, she only sleeps on her right side. Her left hip is more arthritic than the right one, and I suspect it’s more comfortable for her to sleep on the right side for this reason.

Growling, hissing or snapping if touched or moved is a sign of pain. Photo CC-BY-SA Adam

4. Hiding

Because cats know that pain makes them vulnerable, a hurting cat will hide so that he can avoid being preyed upon by stronger animals.

5. Excessive licking of an area

Cats who are hurting will try to bring relief by licking the area that’s bothering them. You see this a lot in cats with urinary tract infections or idiopathic cystitis. Siouxsie’s sister, Sinéad, had recurring episodes of cystitis (she was very sensitive to stress) and when her bladder was hurting, she licked her stomach bald.

6. Not grooming

It’s not normal for older cats to get greasy and scruffy. Most older cats look less “put together” than they did in their younger years because arthritis or other conditions have made the stretching required for grooming too painful. Any cat who stops grooming needs to be seen by a veterinarian.

A cat whose pain is causing them to have difficulty keeping themselves clean will sometimes appreciate a little (gentle) help from a trusted person. Photo CC-BY-SA Peter Jones

7. Abnormal body positions

A cat in severe pain will sit hunched up with her feet tucked under her and her nose almost on the floor. But there are other abnormal positions that may not be so obvious. For example, in the first video I shared in my post about medical cannabis, Siouxsie was walking in short strides with a hunched gait.

8. A faraway look in the eyes

This is particularly telling if it’s combined with abnormal body positions. I saw this look in Dahlia’s eyes a lot toward the end of her life.

9. Changes in litter box habits

Cats with painful backs and hips may have trouble using the litter box as well as they used to. Holding the appropriate positions for peeing and pooping can be very difficult for a cat with sore hips or knees. Kissy peed up the side of the box and got urine on the floor and walls, for example, because her bad knee made it too painful for her to maintain the usual “pee squat.”

Hiding is a classic sign of physical pain and/or emotional stress. Photo CC-BY-ND Jodie C.

Are there other subtle cat pain signs that you’ve noticed? Please share them in the comments.

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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