An orange and white cat lying on the floor, looking sick.
An orange and white cat lying on the floor, looking sick. Photography by Nikolay Bassov | Shutterstock.

Have a Sick Cat? 9 Ways to Tell if Your Cat Is In Pain

Cats are instinctively driven to hide suffering, so it can be hard to tell when they're in pain. Be on the lookout for these subtle signs of a sick cat.
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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 that could signal a sick cat or a cat in pain.

Cat covering eyes.
How do you tell if your cat is in pain? Photography by Katerina Maksymenko | Shutterstock.

1. A sick cat may exhibit changes in behavior

If a super-active cat starts spending most of her day sleeping, this could be a sign that you have a sick cat. 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 may signal an issue

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

Suffering from chronic pain yourself? Here’s how to get relief >>

3. A sick cat might stick to one sleeping 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.

4. A cat in pain might hide

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

5. Excessive licking of an area might be a sign that something is wrong

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. A sick cat may stop 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.

7. Abnormal body positions could mean trouble

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 cat in pain may get 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. A sick cat might exhibit 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 sick 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.”

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

Still not sure if your cat is in pain? Even more signs to look out for >>

Thumbnail: Photography by Nikolay Bassov | Shutterstock.

This piece was originally published in 2015. 

Read Next: Cat Acne: Yes, It Exists and Yes, You Can Treat It

59 thoughts on “Have a Sick Cat? 9 Ways to Tell if Your Cat Is In Pain”

  1. I think the faraway/sleepy look in their eyes is very spot on. Also, before I had to put one of my beloved bengals down, I noticed he wouldn’t sleep in the bed anymore and was sleeping on the floor in odd places :(

  2. It was helpful when you mentioned that a cat who stops grooming should be taken to a veterinarian because it could indicate issues such as arthritis. My husband and I want to get a Persian cat we can surprise our daughter with on her 11th birthday this June. Thanks for teaching me about these signs of health issues we can look out for to make sure the cat stays healthy!

  3. took my little boy to the vet as he was not eating as usual…….Vet said he gums were white and could be a sign of disease…..vet took blood and next day I feed my boy what vet prescribed with probiotic. Soon after I fed him he died……My hear is broken. Did not get blood tests back yet so don’t understand why he died so quickly…….

    1. It’s so sad, vets mess up quite often. I know this to be very true I took my Little Prince because he had Kidney problems the stupid vet needed to meet his quota for the day gave a shot of prednisone since there was another test that cost thesame but he was unable to perform it so he prescribed the prednisone shot. I had no idea that this was lethal needless to say my baby died within 3 hours. I checked on the internet prednisone side effects ” never ad mister to cats with kidney problems”

      1. i’m so sorry for your loss. i just wanted to say that sick kitties with kidney disease do receive prednisone all the time. It IS a life saving drug and it saved my own babies life several times. It is not to be administered without veterinary supervision, but it sounds like your vet did the best they could for your baby. I know it’s no comfort at all, but take heart that you both did the best for your little guy.

      2. This reminds me of my experience. I took my indoor cat to his annual checkup, and the vet said he had a gum infection and that he would “knock it out” of him quickly by giving him a double dose of antibiotics. Upon returning home, he had urinated inside the cat carrier ran under the bed and wouldn’t eat or drink for 2 days. I took him to a pet hospital and they said he was in terrible pain and had to put him down.

        1. What? How did the other pet hospital knew he was in terrible pain? Putting a cat down for pain, when the effect of the medication wanes, is just plain awful. I would never take my cat to that hospital.

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  12. Elizabeth Nean

    Hi I got 2 cat’s a male n a female will the male he gets in a very bad mood’s n keeps moewing for no reason at all I give them both clean fresh water every day n for the female all she dose is eat n eat she eats like she don’t get feed she thinks she’s going to miss out on food n another think is she sleeps a lot

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  15. my female is almost 17 yrs always a house cat was arond 20better pound lst 3 monthd down below 10 is speading her litter all over outside her box not moving well any help would be greatly appreciated i begining to think its her time coming close

  16. My cat started pooping on the floor from time to time and I finally figured it out when he kept scratching his ears. His ears had a black substance that I thought to be ear wax. His ears were cleaned daily sometimes more than once a day. I took him to the vet only to find his inner ears were swollen and found he has allergies to dust mites received meds and a couple of shots now he is no longer pooping on the floor. This was his way of asking for help. He was in pain and I had no idea. Any changes in behavior should be taken seriously.

  17. Elizabeth mc dowell

    I have a 4year old black cat he’s small for his age his name is kit kat he won’t stop licking himself and now his back end is bald and he has a lot of sores on it sometimes its raw I don’t no what to do with him

      1. Alondra Diaz Bähren

        My cat had diabetes without us knowing of it. There were signs tho. Look if your cat eats a lot, drinks a lot, pees a lot and also if he walks on his ankles.

        He drank quick and a lot and therefore also peed a lot. The chucks of pee in the litter box were huge (10cm wide) compared to our other cat (5cm wide). He peed ouside of the bathroom every now and then and when someone showered for a long time he couldn’t hold it in.

        He also ate with a good apetite kinda like he was attacking the food.

        But I didn’t think hat these things would mean something but now I can see that they were clear signs.

        The reason too why we visited the vet tho was because in the last month he started to walk funny. I first noticed that he walked with his bottom down a bit. Then I noticed that he walked on his ankles in the back and that’s why his bottom was closer to the ground. The vet told us as soon as she looked at his ankles that he had diabetes. It’s apparently common with cats with diabetes. She also noticed that he walked on his ankles in the front as well which we hadn’t noticed. But it was clear when we looked at it. The vet was shocked cause she said she had never seen or herd about that before.

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  19. I have a cat who’s suddenly very sick or in pain (not sure which). He’s an outdoor cat who was sort of limping a little for a couple weeks but now is walking fine. However he’s moving very slow, is lethargic & only eating tiny bites of soft food. Also hissing at other cats & being standoffish in general. He acted hesitant to jump up in a chair like he couldn’t judge the distance or it would hurt him… Can’t tell what’s going on!

    He’s a 2-year-old neutered male. Never been sickly before. Just wish I knew how to comfort him. I’ve brought him inside for the night to keep him safe from predators & he just seems so different. It could be anything from a toothache to cancer at this point. Ugh. His face has gotten skinnier as has his body. All happened so fast!

    1. Frodo’s Mom

      Interesting that I’m reading this post and am having an almost identical issue with our almost 3 year old male. He’s an indoor/outdoor boy and I’m completely confused by his behavior. He’s been acting strange the last couple of days and today is bad. Not eating, not drinking, barely moving. He’s currently under my bed trying to rest and every time he moves he gives a low growl like he’s in pain. I do hope your boy gets better as well as mine. Take care.

      1. Catster Admin

        Hi there,

        We suggest that both of you may want to schedule a vet visit. These articles might provide some insight too:
        https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/why-is-cat-acting-weird
        https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-growling-why-does-your-cat-growl-how-should-you-react
        https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/why-is-your-cat-hiding
        https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-not-eating-what-to-do-when-cat-wont-eat
        https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/cat-not-drinking-water-get-your-cat-to-drink-more-water
        https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/lethargic-cat-or-cat-who-loves-to-sleep

        1. Sadly, I took Frodo into the vet yesterday for an emergency visit because I was so concerned about his behavior, understanding that he was in some sort of deep pain. We decided to immediately get a urine sample which was brought directly to me- it looked like a vial of blood. He was in complete kidney and renal failure and because he was an indoor outdoor boy, I saw no hint of this until a couple of days ago. Our sweet vet was giving me options – multiple days in the hospital on a cath, staying indoors, X-rays with potential surgery, and none with a solid guarantee that this wouldn’t happen again. At this point, I had to make the hardest decision I’ve ever made and chose to euthanize. This decision sucks. I was and am still broken. With no clue what happened- bad bird, bad mouse, bad food from who knows where, a mean person… it happened so fast and it just breaks my heart that he’s gone, but the alternatives and with no guarantee that he would make it meant I needed to make the hard, crappy decision. As I type this, I miss his annoyingly sweet way of crawling on my lap and getting on top of whatever I was working on so that my focus would be completely on him. ????

          1. Catster Admin

            We are so sorry to hear this! Thinking of you and sending hugs your way. These articles might help you in this difficult time:
            https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/grief-7-things-help-me-cope-with-losing-a-cat
            https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/loss-of-a-pet-cat-sudden-unexpected-death-grief-coping

          2. Possible the best and kindest thing you could have done for him. I mean this. One vet tortured both me and the cat by holding out hope with one hand and billing hundreds with the other – the other vet recommended a quick exit procedure, and while it broke my heart, it stopped all the pain the cat was going through. He was the loveliest cat and I cried for days.

    2. Have you had him checked for a urine blockage? Mine had one. Also, if he had been declawed at one time, his nails could have grown back in an unusual place. My cat had been declawed by someone and years later were coming out on the top of his front two paws. It was very painful for him. He always tiptoed and was very careful how he walked. After he got fixed, he runs across the yard. I beieve I would take him to the vet. They can run bloodwork and figure out what is going on.

  20. Thanks for helping me understand that we must notice how they pee or poop in their litter box since it might tell something about their hip. I will do that to get my cat checked if there is an issue. This is because my cat fell from the tree this afternoon since he was running after a squirrel. He might’ve hurt his hip or any part of his body.

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  22. Having lost a 17 year old Daisy in 2017 to cancer, and lost her sister Lily just a few weeks ago at age 18 (had hyperthyroidism and kidney disease for a few years), I noticed their signs of pain showing as a change in their voices and wanting to sit on my chest at every opportunity. While I might not have noticed the chest-sitting as unusual for Lily, as I was the only human she trusted, Daisy had always preferred my husband until she got cancer. Then she wanted to cuddle with me – and always on my chest. Now my 13 year old is going through some pain with same symptoms. Treated her for infection (high white blood cell count when Lily was in her last days), which seemed to resolve it. 4 weeks later, she was acting the same way again. White cells again elevated, X-ray shows stomach bloated with white fluid, and she will have an ultrasound tomorrow. Her meow is changed, and she wants to only lay on my chest now. I am scared – but definitely recognize these two signs as definite indications of pain.

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  24. I found it really helpful when you said that since peeing and pooping requires the pet to hold in positions, one of the ways to determine if they are sick is to watch their litter box habits. My little Aria usually sits all the way down when she pees and now she is having difficulty doing it. It is so sudden that I am now panicking. I sure hope there is a nearby vet that is still operating at this time.

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for reaching out and sorry to hear that your cat isn’t feeling well. You can see more info on how to find an emergency vet here:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/when-should-you-call-an-emergency-vet-and-how-do-you-find-one-for-your-cat

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  26. I truly appreciate it when you confirmed that there is something bothering the cat if she reacts negatively to being touched and swats my hand away. My little Souxie is usually a lively thing that loves the attention and being touched. It is weird that she does not like me stroking her fur now. I thought there is probably something wrong or that she is in pain, and now I know that my hunch is correct. Thanks!

  27. I opened up one of my indica weed oil capsules and poured it on his wet food last night and he ate about 1/4 of the food. I took the syringe (no needle – we used to give him some stuff to help relieve constipation a few months ago) and filled it with water and kind of squeezed/squirted it into his mouth. know if it did anything, but some of it had to have been ingested! Right? Well, this morning he’s been stumbling more and won’t touch food or water. He got his two paws into the litter box and just peed down the side of the box. Which is odd because after, he has had no problem jumping up on my bed, etc… I know it’s time and dude has had a good life, but I just want to make sure I’m not making the decision too early. AND MOST IMPORTANT – I don’t want him to suffer. I’m obviously struggling with my ego wanting to keep him here because there are SOOO MANY positive lovely things he does so often…. my first cat Sam was 19 when we had to put him down. I actually got to hold him in my arms as they did it. I was also only 12 years old (Sam was Siamese – Jerry is a black tabby tiger kitty). Any help / insight / wisdom would be GREATLY appreciated…

  28. My cat Jerry is 21 and it’s time for me to make a decision. I’m sitting with him right now debating on making the big decision. Jerry has been the most consistent friend in my life. We’ve had him since he was a few months old (rescued from a shelter where he was given up by a good family). He’s been totally def for a few years now and it doesn’t seem to bother him. He jumps up on my desk chair that spins and then manages to leap to my bed! Which is a good 5 feet away! Yesterday was really the first day I saw him try to drink water and his tongue wasn’t coming out… he’s definitely not licking himself as much anymore nor is he licking me anymore. I’m currently halfway through my chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma and this little dude just has known exactly what I need when I need it. I don’t understand it but his skills for understanding is SO AMAZING! I’m SUPER torn.

  29. My cat Jerry is 21 and it’s time for me to make a decision. I’m sitting with him right now debating on making the big decision. Jerry has been the most consistent friend in my life. We’ve had him since he was a few months old (rescued from a shelter where he was given up by a good family). He’s been totally def for a few years now and it doesn’t seem to bother him. He jumps up on my desk chair that spins and then manages to leap to my bed! Which is a good 5 feet away! Yesterday was really the first day I saw him try to drink water and his tongue wasn’t coming out… he’s definitely not licking himself as much anymore nor is he licking me anymore. I’m currently halfway through my chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma and this little dude just has known exactly what I need when I need it. I don’t understand it but his skills for understanding is SO AMAZING! I’m SUPER torn. I opened up one of my indica weed oil capsules and poured it on his wet food last night and he ate about 1/4 of the food. I took the syringe (no needle – we used to give him some stuff to help relieve constipation a few months ago) and filled it with water and kind of squeezed/squirted it into his mouth. know if it did anything, but some of it had to have been ingested! Right? Well, this morning he’s been stumbling more and won’t touch food or water. He got his two paws into the litter box and just peed down the side of the box. Which is odd because after, he has had no problem jumping up on my bed, etc… I know it’s time and dude has had a good life, but I just want to make sure I’m not making the decision too early. AND MOST IMPORTANT – I don’t want him to suffer. I’m obviously struggling with my ego wanting to keep him here because there are SOOO MANY positive lovely things he does so often…. my first cat Sam was 19 when we had to put him down. I actually got to hold him in my arms as they did it. I was also only 12 years old (Sam was Siamese – Jerry is a black tabby tiger kitty). Any help / insight / wisdom would be GREATLY appreciated…

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Sorry to hear you’re struggling with this. Reading this article might help connect you with cat parents in a similar situation: https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/how-do-you-know-when-its-time-euthanize-your-cat

  30. Also, I use the meaty oatmeal along with a/d cat food by Hills for my sick cats that need to be syringed. I just use a small food processor to grind down a portion so it can be administered with a syringe. Then I serve it up alternately with the a/d cat food to give the sick cat a little bit of variety.

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  32. My 13 yr. old Ragdoll has begun drinking copious amounts of water, leaving pools of urine in the coeners of her litter box.
    She’s spending less time with me, turning away fro her food,
    YOWELLNG at me predawn daily
    She’s been checked head to toe by her Vet. after in hvspital care for a week
    she was treated as it I week, she was given one injection of antibiotics, in case she might have a UTI.
    Laural does have back pain and has since we got her as a kit, we’ve never been able to hold her nor pick her up without her getting Hissy. Her back problems were confirmed by a Specialty Vet at The University of IL. We were informed 8 yrs. ago Laural would more than likely need Pain Control. Our problem is; we can’t pick her up without her becoming Hissy, Violent, and placing her in more pain.
    Laurals Vet has given her multiple Steroid Injections which I feel make her more irritable and restless.
    We’ve never had success giving Laural oral Medication, witout her foaming at the mouth, gagging, and vomiting.

    1. My 13-year old Maine Coon showed many of the signs you mentioned – yowling, water, food, etc, and he ended up being diabetic. He gets two shots daily now. It seemed very daunting & stressful at first, but now it’s no big deal. He doesn’t even flinch. If you vet hasn’t tested your fur-baby for that yet, you might have it checked out :-) Hope this helps!

    2. My 12 year old was doing the copious drinking and was diagnosed with hyperthoidroism. He got radiation treatment and is good as new. My vet also mentioned that caterwauling was another symptom. Best of luck in finding the solution!

  33. Hi there, It’s true that a cat in pain tends to hide and move around less, so their mobility might decrease as well. If you see that your cat is struggling to go up and down the stairs but previously he was very active then perhaps it’s the sign that they are in pain.

  34. Madonna Marya Bailey

    I have two cats. Phoebe is a white domestic short hair age 9 and Sedgewick is a 10year old
    mail Siamese chocolate . I love them both dearly. Sedgewick hasn’t been to well but is too insane to take to the vet…I give him max cat and her also. great nutrition this is their first time at time at the vet. Phoebe had a slight respiratory infection not serious and he we couldn’t diagnose because he is so terrified of the vet office .They have a caged 5 ft. round
    playhouse on the patio, it also stands 5 ft. high with kiddie furniture nd food and water.
    They run around $289.00 but what an investment…galvanized steel with a canopy. We have had it 4 years all year long, they go out in good weather for a period of 3-4 hours.
    This keeps them from eating grass that may have fertilizer or plants with miracle grow which cause cancer in pets. my other cats lived to be 18,17,19 and over 45 years my vet bills are low. probably less than $1500 for all. Keep your pets healthy and happy. Brush often so they don’t get hair balls. My daughters have several each and they let them roa the yard and front yard and have probably over $30,000. in bills. More people will take in pets with omission of high vet bills and meds .Good Luck these creatures are family and bring lots of love to a home. If you don’t have one …get one

  35. Sometimes a sick cat third eyelids will show half way across the eyes even when a wake also this can be a sign of bad dehydration. Which means either get her to a vet quick or get fluids in her.

  36. Hi
    Just wanted to thank you for this page . We have our companion for the last 14 years, his name is Toby and he is a gorgeous cat. Unfortunately he has lost so much weight. He was just diagnosed with pancreatic disease affecting his liver and has ibs.
    I know is a matter of time :( but we think that feeding him more low fat food he will still have a better outcome at least while he is on his meds for nausea , diarrhea , prednisone fir inflmation and we are giving him fluids by Injection once a day.
    I just don’t know where to go to find out about how to make his food . Do u have recipes ? I don’t mind cooking at all for him . My daughter has chrons and now she has an ileostomy so I kind of know a little about foods. But I’m not sure what can make for my Toby
    Thank you
    Mari
    Marifeitshans@gmail.com

    1. My cat has been diagnosed wit pancreatitis, IBD and she has small kidneys. I am weaning her off her steroids because the natural meds I give her has helped her improve alot. If you want to try it go to website Only Natural Pet and order pet essences Pancreas Balance as well as the GI Health drops for her Ibd. I put the drops in her Fancy Feast with gravy and it has helped her a great deal. Good luck in helping your cat#

    2. I cook for my cat crew all the time (I own a farm & have 100+ friendly and feral fur balls). I cook two meals a day – I serve up a breakfast burrito (eggs whipped and cooked to a Holladaise sauce consistency & then mixed with dry cat food & cut up turkey hot dogs) and a meaty oatmeal (chicken thighs cooked overnight in a crockpot with a little water, then the meat separated off, the broth thinned down with water & used to make oatmeal, then add back the chicken meat & serve up warm so its nice & sloppy with a lot of juice. Makes my kitties very happy. I have feral cats that come out of the timber & wait in the afternoon for their plate of meaty oatmeal!

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