It can be difficult to tell when your cat is in pain – after all, cats can’t tell us what’s wrong. But there are certain signs that you should look out for that could indicate your cat is uncomfortable or in distress. With practice, you can become your cat’s preliminary diagnostic pain test and catch potential health problems before they become serious.
In the wild, small cats are in the middle of the food chain—they prey on smaller animals and they are preyed upon by larger predators. Hiding pain is a necessary survival tactic against predators that target visibly weakened animals. Unfortunately for cat parents, that successful evolutionary tactic makes our lives harder when we’re trying to decode the signs of our cat’s discomfort.
Here at tuft + paw, we are cat experts. To write this article, we consulted veterinarian Dr. Megan Teiber and gathered information from vet-reviewed resources and respected health authorities like the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association).
Signs of Cat Pain
The main principle to follow when you suspect your cat is in pain is to look for any noticeable changes in your cat. We’re talking behavior, vocalizations, eating habits, activity levels, grooming, socializing, almost anything. If they suddenly start doing something new, or they stop doing something that they usually do, that’s your cue to keep an eye on them. See our definitive guide to cat behavior for more tips on interpreting vocalizations and body language.
The second principle to keep in mind is that cats are more likely to show signs of acute pain than chronic pain. Acute pain from injuries or illness will often be accompanied by obvious physical signs like limping or excessive meowing. Chronic pain manifests in gradual behavioral changes over time. For example, an aging cat with arthritis may become less active or grumpier.
If you want to see an example of clinical tool that vets use to assess cat pain, you can check out the Glasgow Composite Measure Pain Scale (CMPS) — Feline. Pain relief medication is recommended for any cat who scores 5/20 or higher. Below are the main signs to look for from a cat in pain.
A cat in pain may start making abnormal noises. Common vocalizations include excessive meowing, crying or yowling, and growling or hissing when approached. Another common sign for cats with gentle temperaments is purring in odd situations.
Changed body language is a fairly reliable sign of discomfort in cats. They often assume a tight ball-like shape with a hunched/arched back, head low (at or below shoulder level), and their front legs tucked under their chest. It looks different and more tense than the usual “loaf” position. This is a common way to distribute their weight forward and alleviate pressure from sore rear legs or hips. If cats have painful joints, they may also stop stretching out when lying down, instead keeping their legs underneath them.