Why Cats Hide Pain and the Signs to Look For

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  • Cats present a special challenge to owners and veterinarians because it’s often difficult to tell when a kitty is in pain. Also, there are a limited amount of pain killing drugs that are safe and effective for felines.
  • Just because your cat isn’t showing pain doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling pain, and that pain can often be severe. Pain is a serious medical problem, and it’s our job as pet owners to take action when we suspect our cat or dog is hurting.
  • Felines instinctively hide their pain as a survival strategy, so it’s important for cat owners to know and look for the subtle signs a kitty is painful.
  • There are many causes of pain in cats, from injuries to arthritis to dental disease. Some causes are obvious – others are not. That’s why staying alert for behavior changes and other signs of pain is so important to your cat’s well-being.
  • Resolving the root cause of the pain and managing existing pain with a combination of medications and complimentary therapies are the treatment goals for cats who are hurting.

By Dr. Becker

Cats present a special challenge for the humans who love them because most mask the pain when they are injured, ill or debilitated.

Cats also present a challenge to the veterinary community because there are a limited amount of medical options available for feline pain relief.

Many of the medications used to treat pain in dogs aren't safe for kitties.

Your Pet's Pain is Serious Business

It used to be popular to assume pets didn’t feel pain with the same frequency or for the same reasons humans feel pain.

And in fact, certain quite painful procedures were often performed without anesthesia and without follow-up pain management.

Nowadays we’re more enlightened (or most of us are) and realize that while their response is not always similar to ours, companion animals do indeed feel pain, and for the same reasons we do.

A good rule of thumb for pet owners is to assume if something hurts or causes you discomfort, it is doing the same to your cat or dog. 

Pain is a serious medical problem requiring treatment.

Pain can delay or prevent proper healing from injury or surgery.

It can cause loss of appetite, which for cats can be a life-or-death situation.

Chronic pain can cause inactivity and loss of overall quality of life for your pet. It can also threaten the bond you share with your kitty if his personality or behavior changes or he becomes aggressive.

Also, when pain isn’t managed effectively, it can progress from what we call adaptive pain – pain caused by a specific injury or condition – to pain that is maladaptive. Maladaptive pain is its own disease and must be dealt with in addition to routine pain management.

Maladaptive pain can be of much longer duration than normal pain and considerably more challenging to treat, so you can begin to see the importance of getting your cat seen by a vet as soon as you suspect the presence of a painful condition.

Your Cat Instinctively Hides Her Pain

Hiding pain is an instinctive response for felines in the wild. A cat in pain is seen as weak and vulnerable by other cats and predators.

Since your pampered indoor house cat isn’t all that far removed from her wild counterparts, she responds to pain the same way they do – by keeping it to herself.

Fortunately, a tuned-in pet parent who knows what to look for can make a pretty accurate guess when a cat is hurting. Signs can include:

Hiding more than normal; acting unusually quiet or withdrawn

Agitation; refusal to lie down or sleep

Loss of appetite

Aggressive behavior or other personality changes

Rapid breathing or panting

Hissing, biting or running away when certain areas of the body are touched

Increased heart rate

Altered movement or gait

Most cats in pain do not vocalize, however, if your cat almost never howls or cries but suddenly starts, it could be a sign there's something painful going on.

Causes of Pain in Cats

The most common causes of pain in cats include:

Trauma or injury

GI tract disturbances

Ingestion of poisons

Dental/oral infections and diseases

Urinary tract disease

Infections of the eyes, ears, skin


Diseases of the back or spine

Surgery (including dental surgery)

Major diseases like cancer

Some of the causes of pain in cats are more obvious than others.

Most cat parents know when their pet has been injured, is recovering from surgery, has gum disease or a problem with an eye, ear or a patch of skin.

Less obvious reasons for pain are an underlying urinary tract problem, arthritis, a tummy ache – anything going on primarily inside your cat where you can’t see it.

So if you notice one or more subtle signs of pain and you also know your kitty has dental issues … or you can see some sort of rash or eruption on your pet’s skin, it’s time to make an appointment with your vet.

If you notice subtle signs of pain but are unaware of any health problems with your pet, it’s still time to get your cat seen by a veterinarian. The sooner you find out the underlying cause of your kitty’s pain, the sooner you can get her on the road to feeling better.

Also be aware older cats often develop osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease, and spondylosis (joint degeneration), and all these conditions cause pain. So if you have a senior kitty you suspect might be having some pain, once again, I recommend you make an appointment for a wellness checkup.

Medical Management of Cats with Pain

Resolving the cause of your cat’s pain – if at all possible -- is the first priority.

Often we must treat the pain separately while the underlying condition causing the pain is also being treated.

If your cat requires surgery there will be pain involved, no matter how minor or routine the procedure is. Ask your vet how he or she manages pain before, during and after surgery. For example, premedication before anesthesia not only helps decrease the animals’ pain response, it can also increase the effectiveness of the anesthesia so your kitty requires less of it during surgery.

Ideally, you’re dealing with a doctor who understands the importance of pain management and is well-versed in the most appropriate drugs for felines to prevent and alleviate the pain that accompanies surgery.

The vast majority of cats experience a great deal of stress when taken for vet visits. Fear and anxiety can make pain worse, as does being restrained for any reason.

So if your already painful kitty gets really stressed during vet visits and an office procedure must be performed while you’re there, your vet should offer -- or you can ask for -- an anti-anxiety drug for your pet.

For extremely stressed cats, the kindest option is often a few puffs of gas anesthesia (think nitrous gas for the anxious dental patient), rather than unnecessarily harsh restraint for an already over-stressed patient.

You can also inquire whether the veterinary clinic uses synthetic feline facial pheromones to help calm cat patients. These pheromones, known to help many cats cope with stressful situations, come in diffusers that can be plugged into exam rooms. They can also be sprayed on tables, towels and hands.

My clinic also uses a variety of flower essences (Green Hope Farm Flower Essences, OptiBalancePet) to help reduce the stressed feline patient with good success.

Pain medication for cats requires special knowledge and careful attention. For example, certain opioids (narcotic pain killers) cause fewer side effects than others, and most NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) must be avoided in cats.

Again, your veterinarian should be well-versed in the latest trends and most appropriate medications for feline pain management.

As my regular readers know, I constantly caution against allowing your pet to be over-medicated, whether it’s with vaccines, antibiotics, Prednisone therapy, flea and tick preventives, or any other pharmaceutical or pesticide agent that carries the potential for side effects.

However, alleviation and management of an animal’s pain is a different ballgame, and I’m not shy about using appropriate pain relief drugs as needed. I use them to make the pet as comfortable as possible while I find and (hopefully) resolve the cause of the pain. At the same time, I typically employ a variety of non-drug complimentary therapies to see which ones are most effective for the individual.

Alternative Therapies for Pain Relief

Depending on the cause of your cat’s pain, there are a number of healing modalities that used alone or in conjunction with pain relieving drugs, can make a tremendous difference in how your pet feels and his overall quality of life.

A few of these therapies include:

Veterinary chiropractic care. Chiropractic treatments are affordable and can be very effective in alleviating pain and reducing joint degeneration.

Pet massage can reduce inflammation and pain in damaged tissues.

Acupuncture and prolotherapy can be tremendously beneficial for kitties with degenerative joint disease.

Adequan injections can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis.

Adding certain supplements to your pet’s diet can provide the raw materials for cartilage repair and maintenance, among them:

Glucosamine sulfate and Egg Shell Membrane

Homeopathic Rhus Tox and Arnica

Omega-3 fats, such as krill oil

Ubiquinol and turmeric

Supergreen foods, such as Spirulina and Astaxanthin

Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes, such as Wobenzym® and nutraceuticals)

EFAC complex

Often, once we discover the most effective alternative treatments for kitties with chronic pain conditions, we are able to gradually reduce or even eliminate the need for pain killing drugs.

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