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Do You Hear Your Cat’s Silent But Painful Cries for Help?

July 10, 2013

Story at-a-glance

  • As most of us who are owned by a cat are well aware, kitties are very skilled at hiding illness and pain. And since there is no specific tool to assess discomfort in cats, we must look to their behavior for signs of a health problem or painful condition.
  • To accurately evaluate your cat’s condition, you need to know the difference between stress- or fear-related behavior and behavior that could signal your pet is in pain. Signs of acute pain in cats include changes in posture, activity level, attitude, vocalization, appetite, facial expression and reaction to being touched or handled.
  • Chronic pain is also difficult to diagnose in kitties, but is common in conditions like degenerative joint disease and cancer. Again, it’s important to carefully observe all aspects of your pet’s behavior to make an educated guess about whether she’s suffering pain or discomfort.
  • Because your cat can’t tell you how he feels, ultimately, his level of pain and quality of life are what you and your vet interpret them to be. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to learn to carefully observe your kitty’s behaviors for signs of trouble.
  • Environmental enrichment is a very important tool in improving the quality of life of cats enduring chronic pain. Plenty of feline-friendly stimuli, along with play and petting sessions are helpful in distracting your pet so she doesn’t focus continuously on her pain.

By Dr. Becker

As I often discuss here at Mercola Healthy Pets, cats are very good at masking discomfort and illness. As a result, it can be incredibly difficult for both a pet owner and his or her veterinarian to determine if a kitty is in pain.

At the present time there’s no prescribed tool for measuring discomfort in felines. That’s why it’s so important for pet owners and vets to learn to carefully evaluate a kitty’s behavior for signs that he may be hurting.

Use Your Cat’s Behavior as a Guide to How She’s Feeling

To make an accurate assessment of your cat’s condition, it’s necessary to know the difference between stress- or fear-related behavior, and behavior that could signal a painful condition.

According to Dr. Sheilah Robertson, former professor of anesthesia and pain management at the University of Florida and current assistant director of the AVMA’s animal welfare division, part of the observation process involves not only looking for signs of abnormal behavior, but normal behavior as well. If your kitty spends a lot of time in a crouched posture or can’t seem to get comfortable in any position, it could mean she’s uncomfortable.

If she’s stretching out or rolling over on her back for a tummy rub, it’s not likely she’s in pain. A cat that is retreating or hiding obviously needs a second look.

Signals of acute pain in cats include changes in posture, activity level, attitude, vocalization, appetite, facial expression and reaction to being touched or handled. There may also be noticeable changes in the eyes, ears and whiskers of a cat in pain. Dr. Robertson advises veterinarians that observing a cat’s appearance and behavior before a painful procedure may provide information after the procedure about whether the cat is comfortable or needs additional help to control pain.

Kitties Are Masters at Hiding Chronic Pain

Managing chronic pain in cats – from conditions like degenerative joint disease (DJD) or cancer – can be a greater challenge than managing an occasional episode of acute pain.

DJD is a very common source of chronic pain in cats – and one of the most difficult conditions to accurately evaluate. Typically, a kitty will show subtle symptoms of discomfort that can easily be mistaken for normal signs of aging – a slower, less fluid gait, for example. And during a veterinary exam, it is much more difficult to elicit pain in cats than in dogs. Even kitties in pain are naturally agile, and it can be nearly impossible to physically examine a cat that isn’t in the mood.

This is why it’s important for you as a cat owner to learn your pet’s behavior well enough to help your vet determine whether he is in pain, and if so, how much pain. For example, is he walking, running, jumping and playing normally? Or has he developed new habits, like avoiding jumping up on things?

You’ll also want to pay attention to your kitty’s litter box behavior. A cat in chronic pain may stop covering her poop or pee with litter. She may stop climbing into the box at all. In fact, many cat owners incorrectly assume inappropriate elimination is a behavior problem rather than a sign that their pet is dealing with a painful condition.

Quality of Life for Cats with Chronic Pain

When you feel pain, you can talk about it with your family, your doctor or another health care provider. But in the case of your cat, the pain he’s feeling is whatever you or your vet interpret it to be. And the same is true of your pet’s quality of life – it is what you determine it to be.

The quality of life of pets is primarily assessed in terms of the level of pain an animal is perceived (by humans) to be enduring. Mobility should be part of the assessment as well, and according to a study conducted at North Carolina State University, a majority of cat owners place even greater importance on whether their pet is still engaging in play or continues to enjoy being petted.

Based on this and other study results, Dr. Robertson stresses the importance of environmental enrichment to improve quality of life. “A stimulus-rich environment that includes playing and petting can prove to be a powerful distraction to chronic pain,” says Robertson. "Cats sitting in a barren environment will focus on the pain," she says. "But in a highly enriched environment, they will focus on things other than the pain."

For more information on how to enrich your kitty’s environment, read Your Cat's Life in Captivity -- How to Simulate Conditions in the Wild.

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