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Recognizing & Managing Pain
In order to treat an animal’s pain, we must first be able to recognize it. Your pets can’t tell you when they hurt, but if you know what to look for the signs of pain can be easy to spot. Pets feel pain for many of the same reasons as humans: infections, dental problems, arthritis, bone disease, and cancer. They also feel discomfort following surgical procedures. A pet owner is in the best position to look for the subtle changes in behavior that may indicate a pet is suffering. It’s important to stay alert to these signs, because the sooner a pet’s pain is diagnosed and treated, the sooner he or she can heal and resume a normal, happy life. These signs will vary between species and sources of pain, and even between individual animals, so it’s important as a pet owner to understand the range of signs your pet could display.
Signs of Pain
- Vocalization - is your pet making more noise than usual?
- Activity Level - has their level of energy or activity noticeably changed?
- Self-Protection - are they acting withdrawn or timid?
- Daily Habits - has their appetite, routine, or level of activity changed?
- Facial Expression - do their eyes, ears, and mood seem normal?
- Aggression - have they become more aggressive or docile?
- Self-Mutilation - is your pet licking, scratching, or biting part of its body?
- Grooming - does their hair lack shine or stand up in places?
- Posture - are they spending more time hunched or lying down?
For more information, consult the American Animal Hospital Association’s resources that further discuss the most common signs of pain in cats and dogs. If you recognize any combination of these signs in your pets, be sure to contact your veterinarian and request an examination.
How To Tell If A Cat is in Pain
Assessing pain in pets can be a complicated challenge, especially in cats. Pain has two primary components: the sensory aspect (intensity, location and duration) and the affective aspect (emotional toll). Chronic pain can be very stressful on the body.
Because pain assessment is somewhat subjective, you and your veterinary team will need to work together to discuss symptoms and the best treatment plan for your pet’s specific situation.
Your cat can’t tell you when they hurt, but if you know what to look for the signs of pain are there. Cats can feel pain for many of the same reasons as humans: infections, dental problems, arthritis, bone disease, and cancer. They also feel discomfort following surgical procedures. A cat owner is in the best position to look for the subtle changes in behavior that may indicate a cat is suffering. It’s important to stay alert to these signs, because the sooner a cat’s pain is diagnosed and treated, the sooner he or she can heal and resume a normal, happy life. These signs will vary between species and sources of pain, and even between individual animals, so it’s important as a pet owner to understand the range of signs your cat could display.
Signs That A Cat is in PainA British study1 was recently conducted in order to reach a consensus about criteria when evaluating pain in cats. A total of 91 signs, chosen from the existing literature, were assessed during four rounds of evaluation, by 19 feline medicine experts. Some worked in private practice, others in veterinary schools. Ultimately, 25 signs were considered to be reliable and sensitive for indicating pain in cats, across a range of different clinical conditions:
Signs That A Cat is in Severe Pain:
- Decreased appetite
- Avoiding bright areas, hiding in dark areas
- Eyes closed
More Subtle Physical Signs of Pain:
- Difﬁculty in jumping
- Abnormal gait
- Reluctant to move
- Unusual reactions to touch
- Absence of grooming
- Playing less
- overall activity decrease
- Less rubbing toward people
- General mood changes
- Temperament changes
- Hunched up posture
- Shifting of weight
- Licking a particular body region
- Lower head posture
- Eyelids tightly shut
- Change in form of feeding behavior
- Straining to urinate
- Tail flinching
Ever wonder how your vet screens for pain? A new tool, known as a “Grimace Scale” has been developed to aid in the identification of pain, and the level of pain in a number of animals where identification may prove challenging. A key area of research in grimace scales is in cats, where assessing the pain is especially difficult. The University of Montreal has performed research on this topic, visit their site to learn more. Grimace scales for other species, such as sheep, have also been researched.
What should you do if you see signs of pain in your cat?
Cat owners should be aware of signs of pain in cats or even changes in behavior. Some mistakenly attribute behavioral changes, such as absence of grooming or playing less, as signs of aging; they can actually be signs of pain.
If you see any signs of pain or shift in behavior in your cat, see your veterinarian right away. Also remember that the absence of a sign does not mean your cat is not in pain.
These signs may help both vets and cat guardians better assess the pain status of cats in their care.
While it can be fairly easy to recognize severe pain, it is much more difficult to detect low grade pain. The criteria above are a great start. Hopefully, this research will spark more studies to help us assess mild pain in cats as well to ensure their well-being.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinary team -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
Merola et al. “Behavioural Signs of Pain in Cats: An Expert Consensus.” PlosOne 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150040